Climate Change Presents an Emerging, Dynamic Set of Hazards

by Jeffrey N. Rubin

Despite ongoing political controversy about climate change, one leading organization released a position statement that supports scientific research on weather extremes, which are some of the visible indicators of a changing climate. Changes in weather and habitats need to be addressed to mitigate the potential negative consequences to health and critical resources.

Most of the nonpolitical discussion of climate change has been carried on by those doing research on its causes, including scientists across numerous disciplines, or those investigating one or more potential impacts, such as practitioners in public health, ecology and environmental science, land-use planning, and economics. In general, emergency managers have joined the discussion fairly recently. The political controversy surrounding the topic can itself be an obstacle for allocating resources toward hazard assessment and related tasks, particularly for government emergency managers. For much of the public and many policymakers, hazards related to climate change begin and end with weather – not just because the two are commonly equated with each other, but because extreme weather produces discrete, readily observable events.

Changes in Weather & Sea Level – Position Statements & Policies In order to consider this broad range of climate-change-related hazards, highlight the role of emergency management in planning for and addressing those hazards, and steer past the political controversy, the USA Council of the International Association of Emergency Managers (IAEM-USA) released a position statement in July 2015, The Critical Role of Emergency Management in Climate Change Planning. The position recognizes that “ongoing climate change affects all regions, generating not only direct public-safety hazards, but also long-term economic, sociological, and public-health impacts,” and recommends that “all emergency managers incorporate the short- and long-term effects of climate change in hazard vulnerability analyses, mitigation plans, and comprehensive planning.”

This approach follows that of several U.S. departments and agencies – including Defense, Energy, Health and Human Services, Homeland Security, and the Environmental Protection Agency – as well as individual states, local governments, and private entities. A 2015 Federal Emergency Management Agency policy (effective in March 2016) requires states to “include new hazard data, such as… changing environmental or climate conditions that may affect and influence the long-term vulnerability” in their mitigation planning. This policy indicates that a new approach to climate-change planning extends beyond the federal level and that emergency managers on all levels are likely to see growing expectations in this area.

Although it is difficult to link specific incidents to climate change, near-term effects likely are occurring already, including not only changes in storm incidence and intensity, but also in average temperatures and “seasonal” weather. Longer-term projections have greater uncertainty as well as different impacts depending on where they occur. Warmer temperatures and altered precipitation patterns may mean drought and longer and more intense wildfire seasons in some areas, and longer growing seasons or better crop habitats in others. New, more, and/or longer occurrences of extreme heat may be a greater weather hazard than storms: heat waves kill more people in the United States than any other weather-related hazard, and require awareness and management practices that may not exist in newly affected areas.

Changes in total precipitation, its distribution throughout a year, or the amount of rainfall versus snowfall affect electric power generation from hydropower dams (lower or more seasonally variable water levels) and thermal power plants (reduced cooling capacity of local surface water due to lower/warmer water), less water for irrigation, and changes in fish and other aquatic populations. The range of projected sea-level changes – via a combination of glacial melt and expansion of warmer water – over the next 20 to 100 years varies by orders of magnitude, but even small changes can have disproportionate effects. Higher mean sea levels can accelerate beach erosion and lead to: increased infiltration of drinking-water sources and inundation of nonmarine habitats; greater impact of storm surges, flood tides, and tsunamis; and damage to port facilities and other coastal development.

Changes in Habitats – Health & Other Effects Climate largely defines habitat. Higher average and extreme temperatures can render environments untenable for some species, stress others, and open the door for those that could not establish more than a toehold in the past. Related hydrological changes can have at least as much effect via ground and surface water availability. Extreme regions, such as deserts, can become intolerable, temperate regions can become extreme, and colder regions can become more temperate. Habitat includes native plant species that may be weakened and even replaced, which can affect incidence of wildfires, landslides, and floods, as well as agricultural productivity.

Habitat also includes microorganisms, viruses, and their vectors (insects and other animals that help many of them spread) that affect humans, livestock, and other animals (and plants). Warmer climates can facilitate spread of otherwise tropical diseases to previously temperate regions with dense populations and little inherent immunity. The same changes can also reduce disease occurrence in regions in which they were endemic. It is difficult to project a global net change, but it is likely that some diseases with longstanding geographic confinement will find new populations, and that diseases with limited human exposure will see greater incidence. These and other U.S. regional health effects are summarized in Figure 1 of an October 2015 U.S. Government Accountability Office report.

The IAEM-USA position statement “specifies that emergency managers have a critical role in this process and should be considered essential participants at all levels of government,” but emphasizes a collaborative, interdisciplinary approach. Climate change is a complex process with extensive, intertwined effects that no single discipline can address. It will not be the only dynamic set of hazards that emergency managers face in the next few decades, but it may be the broadest, most interconnected, and least obvious one.


Jeffrey Rubin has served as emergency manager for Tualatin Valley Fire & Rescue, Oregon’s largest fire district, since 2001, and has been involved in hospital and health-system preparedness since the mid-1990s. He holds a BS in geology and geophysics from Yale University, and an MA and Ph.D. in geological sciences from the University of Texas at Austin, where he was a research scientist and assistant dean. He served with City of Austin (Texas) Emergency Medical Services for five years, has been on numerous boards and committees, and has published in geological, medical, safety, and emergency management journals.