Climate Security: Out of the Frying Pan and into the Fire?

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By David Michel – Public policy makers around the world worry that global warming poses an increasing threat to global security. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, absent vigorous measures that would reverse the trend, steadily mounting greenhouse gas emissions will boost global average temperatures by 1.1-6.4oC over 1980-1999 levels by the year 2100. Deteriorating environmental conditions wrought by climate change could in turn carry considerable social and economic consequences. Altered precipitation patterns could diminish freshwater availability and impair agricultural production, provoking sharpened competition for natural resources. Increasingly frequent and severe floods and storms could destroy infrastructure and rising sea levels inundate coastal settlements, creating environmental refugees. The weight of these strains may exceed the ability of some societies to adapt, kindling civic unrest and possible political upheaval. In a globalizing world, such woes will not necessarily stay put. Pandemic diseases, population displacements, political disturbances, even eventual armed conflicts caused or exacerbated by climate pressures could spill over borders to upset global peace and prosperity.

From the pages of scientific journals and climatologists’ models, such scenarios now preoccupy many security professionals. A flurry of recent analyses in the United States and Europe have bluntly pressed policy makers to better protect the global climate in the name of preserving global order. European Union policy, for its part, explicitly invokes climate security risks as a basis for EU action.[1]

Growing awareness of the potential security challenges presented by unchecked global warming gives policy makers powerful reason to enact effective greenhouse mitigation measures. Yet framing climate change as a looming risk to international stability holds important hazards of its own.

  • Focusing states’ attention on the climate security risks to themselves could deflect energy and resources away from necessary cooperation with others.
  • Countries concerned that climate stresses could ignite domestic strife may hoard relief supplies rather than assist stricken neighbors. 
  • States worried that an influx of climate migrants from abroad could cause civil turmoil at home may close their borders to refugees fleeing greenhouse impacts. 
  • Nations anxious that global warming could trigger struggles over scarce natural resources may move preemptively to control their supply.

If fearful governments take such adversarial actions to protect themselves from the anticipated consequences of climate change, they could well aggravate the very international tensions that both greenhouse and security policy makers hope to avoid.

Numerous analyses have rightly noted the risk that global warming’s impacts could simply overwhelm the coping abilities of many states. Dissatisfaction with government responses or disputes over distribution of disaster assistance could then spark potentially violent confrontations. For many of the most susceptible states, the possible consequences for national stability could prove calamitous. One study of 41 African states determined that, wherever drought precipitated a 5% drop in a nation’s GDP growth one year, the likelihood that country would suffer civil war the next increased by more than half.[2] Behind states’ growing recognition of this vulnerability, however, lurks another danger in how they choose to meet the prospect of climate insecurity.

Excessive focus on climate security risks deforming governments’ response to the greenhouse threat, driving them to emphasize military means to meet climate challenges that are not inherently a military problem. Many of the countries most exposed to climate impacts have weak or troubled state and civil institutions. As a practical matter, these nations cannot rapidly or readily improve their governing capacities to deal with extreme climate stresses. Should they come to view global warming primarily through a security lens, these states may feel compelled first to deploy their military and security apparatus to head off perilous civil conflict when greenhouse impacts strike, with all the attendant dangers that such tactics could become repressive. The problem risks being all the more acute in ethnically or religiously divided societies where a drought, flood, or other natural disaster may afflict one group more than another. By the same token, these same considerations may lead neighboring countries to look upon the more greenhouse vulnerable states principally as sources of regional instability – and so as candidates for military intervention or quarantine as much or more than for disaster relief and reconstruction.

The increasing understanding of global warming’s global security implications can provide a strong incentive for international cooperation to meet the climate change threat. But these issues must be addressed carefully and collaboratively. Otherwise, they risk furnishing a new inducement to international conflict instead.

Photo Credit: Lawrence Livermore National Security for the US Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration.

[1] Commission of the European Communities/High Representative (2008) Climate Change and International Security, Council of the European Communities, 7249/08, 3 March, Brussels, Belgium.

[2] Miguel, Edward, Shanker Satyanath, and Ernest Sergenti (2004) Economic Shocks and Civil Conflict: An Instrumental Variables Approach. Journal of Political Economy 112:725-753.

David Michel is a Research Fellow with the Stimson Center’s Regional Voices: Transnational Challenges project.

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