Climate Change and the Role of the OH/IH
Editor’s note: This post draws from the article “Climate Security: A Premortem Approach to a Sustainable Global Future” by John Comiskey and Michael Larrañaga in the December 2019 issue of Homeland Security Affairs.
In November 2015, The Synergist published an article on climate change and industrial hygiene. The authors posed the question “What does climate change have to do with industrial hygiene?” and consider how climate change can affect workers through the following lenses:
- Amplification of known safety and health hazards such as severe weather events, heat, wildland fire, and infectious diseases
- New, unanticipated, or unrecognized hazards (increased infectious disease vector ranges, increased pesticide use)
- Hazards that result from our response to climate change such as the development of renewable energy, recycling, carbon sequestration, and material substitution
The article identifies a number of worker populations that may be particularly vulnerable to threats from climate change, including outdoor workers, first responders, commercial fishermen, healthcare workers, transportation workers, and workers in hot indoor environments such as warehouses and factories.
We’ve known for quite some time that the global community will experience a dramatic increase in the number and intensity of extreme weather events, public health crises (epidemics, tropical diseases, vector-borne diseases), supply-chain disruptions, large-scale critical infrastructure failures, and other cascading effects like waterway conflicts, species extinctions, fisheries collapse, human migration, and terrorism (see the resources listed below for more information). Climate change is the greatest threat facing humanity, and, as network scientist and futurist Ted Lewis notes in his Book of Extremes, “the most extreme events lie ahead of us.” AIHA should not wait for the inevitable to take action. Well-established scientific data and research dictate that the time for action is now.
While it is commonly argued that developing nations will face most of the burden of climate change impacts, developed nations will not be spared. The United States will continue to experience intensification of wildfires, floods, heat waves, droughts, desertification, precipitation events, water scarcity, erosion, and other climate-related hazards. Climate change impacts will have dour and long-lasting impacts on agriculture, energy production, public health and safety, and other facets of the economic and social well-being of communities. (For more information, see “Broad Threat to Humanity from Cumulative Climate Hazards Intensified by Greenhouse Gas Emissions” in the December 2018 issue of Nature Climate Change.)
Climate change and its resulting effects are likely to pose wide-ranging global challenges including heightened social, political, and economic tensions; frequent mass migrations; and an increase in the incidence of crime and terrorism. The U.S. will experience human migration events on a scale never before witnessed. Climate change will significantly damage or destroy significant elements of the nation’s infrastructure, and occupational health/industrial hygiene (OH/IH) professionals are essential to every one of the nation’s 16 critical infrastructure sectors.
Here are a few of the challenges climate change presents for the OH/IH profession:
- How will we meet the need for additional OH/IH professionals brought about by climate change?
- How will we adapt to new roles, professions, and technologies that we have not yet imagined?
- Our profession is notoriously resistant to change. How will we expand our role to include community members and members of the public outside of the workplace and serve those who are not “workers” while maintaining core competencies of worker protection?
- How will we develop new collaborative partnerships and improve existing partnerships to strategically evaluate current strengths while at the same time developing new avenues for the application of OH/IH?
With every challenge comes opportunity. As we look ahead, AIHA can leverage climate change to our advantage through the following:
- new educational and training tools (augmented reality, virtual reality, artificial intelligence, machine learning, and so on)
- new sensor technologies and data integration/analysis tools
- growth of the profession and the need for paraprofessionals
- increased knowledge/skills/abilities related to OH/IH and green jobs, construction, transportation, agriculture, advanced materials, and a variety of other fields, some not yet imagined
What should AIHA be doing? Here are some ideas:
- engage in a futurist exercise to conduct strategic climate change scenario and simulation planning for multiple time horizons with an interdisciplinary team of collaborators
- identify what roles OH/IH professionals will play in climate change planning, prevention, mitigation, response, and recovery
- pivot to climate change impacts and explore how IHs can integrate into the climate change space, specifically within the critical infrastructure sectors
- include climate-related impacts and the outcomes of scenario and simulation planning in AIHA strategic planning with multiple time horizons
The time has come for AIHA to create a national Climate Change Advisory Group to explore these and other challenges and opportunities. Ideally, the group would include an interdisciplinary representation of non-OH/IH professionals who are well-versed in climate change and future impacts. We must seize the opportunity to begin outreach to allied associations (such as the American Psychological Association, the Urban Land Institute, and the American Geophysical Union) and government agencies (NOAA, NIOSH, DHS, FEMA), and to develop new strategic partnerships. By clearly identifying the issues, challenges, and resultant hazards facing workers across all industry sectors, AIHA will be better able to begin positioning the OH/IH professional as a solutions provider to this global threat facing us all.
We welcome your thoughts on this topic. Do the issues discussed in this post resonate with you as an OH/IH professional? Please share your ideas and suggestions for other approaches in the comments.
Adelphi: Insurgency, Terrorism and Organized Crime in a Warming Climate (PDF, 2016).
Cambridge University Press: “Human Security” in Climate Change 2014: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability. Part A: Global and Sectoral Aspects. Contribution of Working Group II to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (PDF).
The Center for Climate and Security: “A Responsibility to Prepare: Strengthening National and Homeland Security” in The Face of a Changing Climate: Roadmap and Recommendations for the U.S. Government (2018).
The Center for Climate and Security: “Food, Food Security and Future Conflict Epicenters” in Epicenters of Climate and Security: The New Geostrategic Landscape of the Anthropocene (PDF, 2017).
The Center for Climate and Security: “Water Towers: Security Risks in a Changing Climate” in Epicenters of Climate and Security: The New Geostrategic Landscape of the Anthropocene (PDF, 2017).
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Henry Holt: The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History (2014).
Homeland Security Affairs: “Climate Security: A Premortem Approach to a Sustainable Global Future” (December 2019).
Nature Climate Change: “Broad Threat to Humanity from Cumulative Climate Hazards Intensified by Greenhouse Gas Emissions” (December 2018).
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Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences: “Climate Change in the Fertile Crescent and Implications of the Recent Syrian Drought” (March 2015),
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Springer: Book of Extremes: Why the 21st Century Isn’t Like the 20th Century (2014).
Swiss Re Institute: “Natural Catastrophes and Man-made Disasters in 2017: A Year of Record-Breaking Losses” (PDF, 2018).
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U.S. Department of Homeland Security: 2018 National Preparedness Report (PDF, 2015).
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World Economic Forum: The Global Risks Report 2019 (PDF, 2019).