What Is the Most Dangerous Impact of Climate Change?

Written by Joe Romm

What is the most dangerous climate change impact? That is a question Tom Friedman begins to get at in his must-read NY Times column, “WikiLeaks, Drought and Syria.” The piece is about a “WikiLeaks cable that brilliantly foreshadowed how environmental stresses would fuel the uprising” in Syria.

One of Friedman’s key arguments is that “Syria’s government couldn’t respond to a prolonged drought when there was a Syrian government. So imagine what could happen if Syria is faced by another drought after much of its infrastructure has been ravaged by civil war.” Thanks to human-caused climate change, that is all but inevitable.

The 2008 cable from the U.S. Embassy in Damascus to the State Department details the prescient warnings from Syria’s U.N. food and agriculture representative, Abdullah bin Yehia:

“Yehia told us that the Syrian minister of agriculture … stated publicly that economic and social fallout from the drought was ‘beyond our capacity as a country to deal with.’ What the U.N. is trying to combat through this appeal, Yehia says, is the potential for ‘social destruction’ that would accompany erosion of the agricultural industry in rural Syria. This social destruction would lead to political instability.”

The cable emerged as part of the research for Showtime’s landmark climate change TV series on the experiences and personal stories of people whose lives have been touched by climate change, Years Of Living Dangerously. Friedman is one of the correspondents, and he travels to Syria to witness first-hand the devastation wrought by warming-driven drought.

Friedman explains:

Yehia was prophetic. By 2010, roughly one million Syrian farmers, herders and their families were forced off the land into already overpopulated and underserved cities. These climate refugees were crowded together with one million Iraqi war refugees. The Assad regime failed to effectively help any of them, so when the Arab awakenings erupted in Tunisia and Egypt, Syrian democrats followed suit and quickly found many willing recruits from all those dislocated by the drought.

What is the most dangerous climate change impact? The worst direct impacts to humans from climate change will probably be Dust-Bowlification and extreme weather and the resulting food insecurity.

But the most physically dangerous impact to humans may well turn out to be how Dust-Bowlification combines with the other impacts to create conditions favorable for political instability and conflict (see “Syria Today Is A Preview Of Veterans Day, 2030“).

And remember, in the future, these impacts will not be occurring only intermittently in distant lands. On that point, Friedman quotes me near the end:

And, finally, consider this: “In the future, who will help a country like Syria when it gets devastated by its next drought if we are in a world where everyone is dealing with something like a Superstorm Sandy,” which alone cost the U.S. $60 billion to clean up? asks Joe Romm, founder of ClimateProgress.org.

What I meant is that if we don’t act to reverse carbon pollution emissions trends quickly, then, by mid-century, every country in the world will be dealing with epic catastrophes simultaneously on a regular basis — drought, sea level rise, heat waves, invasive species, acidification, and super storms (see “An Illustrated Guide to the Science of Global Warming Impacts“).

This means the rich countries probably will not be offering much assistance to the poorer ones — or willing to intervene in foreign conflicts — since we’ll be suffering at the same time. When the West and Southwest are Dust-Bowlifying, the Southeast is heating up and suffering alternatively from brutal droughts and brutal floods, and the east coast is seeing a Sandy-level storm surge (or worse) every year, we’ll be devoting all our resources to our own troubles. Compassion fatigue will be replaced by compassion exhaustion.

What is the most dangerous climate change impact — drought, flooding, heat wave, or superstorm? All of them are — when they are occurring everywhere simultaneously year after year, decade after decade. The time to act was decades ago, but now is still infinitely better than later.

This post was originally published in ThinkProgress

Photo Credit: Hovic


Brett Byers
Brett Byers3 years ago

Stop 1000 tons of CO2 emissions by saving acres of rainforest for the cost of a cup of coffee: https://www.rainforesttrust.org/acres-for-50cents/

Brett Byers
Brett Byers3 years ago

Stop 1000 tons of CO2 emissions by saving acres of threatened rainforest for the cost of a coffee: https://www.rainforesttrust.org/acres-for-50cents/

Olivia D.
Olivia Dawson4 years ago

This is a great article, much better written and researched than most of care2, and far more important.

I've started a petition asking care2 for ore development stories. I hope they are all as good as this and start equally interesting and well informed discussions.


Thank you.

Elizabeth F.
Elizabeth F4 years ago

good article

Gloria Maria Ortega Zuina

Como dice Joe Romm. "Si no se actúa pra revertir las tendencias de emisiones de contaminación de carbono. Lo probable es que a mediados de siglo, TODOS LOS PAISES DEL MUNDO tendran que lidiar con catastrofes simultaneas: Sequia, aumento del nivel del mar, el calor intenso"

Dan Blossfeld
Dan Blossfeld4 years ago

David N.,
Both desertification and deforestation were a direct results of mankind's activities. Much was related to farming, but others for urbanization, mining, etc. Deforestation has been asserted to be responsible for 25-50% of the increased atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration. Deforestation is also the largest cause of extinction and endangerment. Increased atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations, along with warmer temperatures and increased rainfall can lead to reforestation and dedessertification, if only we allow (encourage) it to happen. Your solutions will work, as long as no one works to oppose them.

David Nuttle
David Nuttle4 years ago

One-third of all land is already desert, and increasing amounts of desertification & deforestation are further reducing viable crop producing areas. Climatic change, for whatever reason, is causing more weather extremes that endanger crops/ crop production. Prolonged drought in Darfur (in Sudan) and Syria were the reported primary cause of horrific conflicts in those nations. Droughts in the arid regions of Somalia and Yemen have long sustained conflicts in those nations.

One possible solution to the above situation is counterdesertification as first proven in the Thar Desert of NW India. It is possible to develop available water resources and grow food, feed, fiber, niche and green energy crops on desert lands. My charity, NPI, is developing advanced counterdesertification technologies as outlined in an article on NPI's website (see http://www. needfulprovision.org/articles/counterdesertification.php. In addition, NPI is helping to advance new green energy technologies to help slow global warming/ climate change (see http://www. needfulprovision.org/articles/the-greening-of-energy.php. In brief, we just need to work the viable solutions to the problems identified.

Wendy J.
Wendy J4 years ago

Sadly noted. Thank you.

Dan Blossfeld
Dan Blossfeld4 years ago

Let's try some simple math: 23% is just shy of 1/4. A 50% reduction of 1/4 is 1/8. U.N. goal of 50% reduction almost met, with 2 years remaining. Not bad, considering most governments struggle to come close to their goals. Imagine if we can achieve another 50% reduction over the next 25 years, that would equate yo 1/16. Isn't math fun?

Michael T.
Michael T4 years ago

(2013) Approximately 870 million people in the world do not eat enough to be healthy. That means that one in every eight people on Earth goes to bed hungry each night. (Source: FAO, 2012) Most of the progress against hunger was achieved before 2007/08. Since then, global progress in reducing hunger has slowed and levelled off. (Source: FAO, 2012) World Food Programs http://www.wfp.org/stories/10-things-you-need-know-about-hunger-2013

(2013) The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that nearly 870 million people of the 7.1 billion people in the world, or one in eight, were suffering from chronic undernourishment in 2010-2012. Almost all the hungry people, 852 million, live in developing countries, representing 15 percent of the population of developing counties. There are 16 million people undernourished in developed countries (FAO 2012). World Hunger http://www.worldhunger.org/articles/Learn/world hunger facts 2002.htm

(2013) A total of 842 million people, or around 1 in 8 people in the world, are estimated to be suffering from chronic hunger, which means they’re not getting enough food to conduct an active life. This is an improvement, but obviously 1 in 8 people in the world is not a satisfactory situation. United Nations Foundation http://www.unfoundation.org/blog/reducing-hunger.html

I hardly call this manipulating data.