￼￼￼Dr. Irwin Redlener spends a lot of time thinking about what can go wrong. For decades, he has advised governments about how to handle the public health consequences of hurricanes, tornadoes, terrorist attacks, earthquakes, and the like. That’s because, as director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at the Earth Institute at Columbia University, analyzing all the various catastrophes that can befall human beings—as well as figuring out strategies for preparing to withstand disaster and recovering when the worst happens—is, quite simply, his job.
Lately, Redlener, also a professor of public health at Columbia and the founder of the Children’s Health Fund, has been devoting a growing amount of time to considering the particular challenges posed by climate-related crises, like drought. He believes that such crises are among the top five disaster threats emerging in the world today. The others include such dire possibilities as antibiotic resistant superbugs; large-scale cyber threats; regional nuclear conflicts, which he believes would have extraordinary global consequences; and high-impact infrastructure failures.
We talked with Redlener by phone about the psychological trauma that drought can cause, the potential for technological solutions to long-term drought, and the geopolitical implications if we ignore ongoing droughts around the globe. The interview has been edited and condensed.
Sarah Goodyear: You’ve mentioned that one of the things that keeps you up at night is the prospect of drought becoming a more widespread phenomenon in the near future.
Irwin Redlener: It’s a very complicated situation, because drought has existed since the beginning of time. Way before there was a significant growth in human population, drought has been part of the reality of the atmospheric conditions that cyclically affect the planet. I don’t want to be characterized as saying that this is all about climate change.… But there are things that are happening around the world that make drought an increasingly threatening reality. Those factors that have created this situation have to do with a much greater global population and much more overcrowding.
We also have people on the run seeking water, which is critical for human health, critical for agriculture, and a critical part of the economy. [And] The chance for increasing international conflict at various levels with various kinds of consequences, I think, becomes a more prominent reason for concern.
SG: Can you talk about public health outcomes associated with drought that you’re studying now?
IR: Let me start with the more medical outcomes. When you have drought and you’re living under extremely arid conditions, then you have an increase in the potential for everything that may be raised and spread. For example, spores of certain types of fungal diseases will be picked up and transmitted much more easily. Dust storms, which happen much more frequently in drought areas, have a tremendous impact on respiratory conditions and allergies and everything else. And with overcrowding and a persistent very high rate of asthma—particularly among children, particularly among indigent populations, even in the United States—the threat of increased particulate matter in the air is real and it’s important. And certain diseases carried by mosquitoes—we’re worried about the increase of certain kinds of viruses like West Nile virus and equine encephalitis.