As homes and whole towns in California burned to the ground in unprecedented wildfires, themselves spurred by historic drought, the Trump administration quietly released the fourth quadrennial National Climate Assessment (NCA) in a transparent attempt to bury it over the Thanksgiving holiday. It is no surprise, then that it unequivocally states climate change will, and already is, affecting our economy, public health, and infrastructure. While the U.S. cannot escape the impact of climate change, at least we have the capacity and resources to be more resilient, recover, and adapt. The same cannot be said for many parts of the world, a fact that will have far-reaching implications for America’s national security.
Just like the U.S., smaller and less wealthy nations will experience increased drought, bigger storms, more flooding, changes in precipitation, and higher seas. It is a great tragedy that many of the countries that will be hit hardest by climate change are also the most fragile and least able to recover after a climate disaster. As the NCA report acknowledges, climate change exacerbates the underlying social and economic problems of these countries, leading to instability and political unrest. There was a time when this type of impact was theoretical. But today we can point to climate change as a contributing factor to the 2011 Egyptian revolution and recruitment success among by armed groups in Somalia. In short, climate change is making the world a more dangerous place for American interests.
Now that the problem is clear, the government and other stakeholders need to identify the places where climate change is most likely to exacerbate underlying social, economic, or political vulnerabilities and start aiming diplomatic, development, and private resources at the problem.
Urban centers are particularly vulnerable to the destabilizing impact of climate change. Today, 55% of the world’s population live in cities and that number is expected to grow to 68% by 2050. Climate change will contribute to this rapid urbanization as people are displaced by climate catastrophes like drought or flooding. On top of this, many developing cities are already dealing with economic and social issues, such as poverty, outdated infrastructure, and corruption. These underlying issues become major vulnerabilities in coastal cities that must also contend with sea level rise, flooding, storms, and the loss of coastal resources, like fisheries. This intersection of issues in developing coastal urban areas creates a perfect storm ripe for instability.
One example of a coastal urban center sitting at this intersection of issues is Lagos, Nigeria, where the population has exploded from 7 million to 21 million in 2017 in less than 20 years. Many live in impoverished, low-lying neighborhoods that sit right at sea level. More frequent and more intense flooding could displace millions of people in a city already struggling to cope with its size. This could in turn increase economic, social, and food insecurity, especially in low-income neighborhoods, and ultimately lead to unrest or instability.
After identifying the places that are most at-risk, governments, as well as the private sector, have many options to invest in resiliency, to reduce the impact that climate change will have on vulnerable communities and prevent instability. This includes building infrastructure that can withstand floods, severe storms, and rising seas, such as improving drainage systems, burying electrical lines, and raising electrical generators and other vital infrastructure above flood levels. Building resiliency must also include preserving or reconstructing coastal natural infrastructure, including mangroves and coastal reefs, ecosystems that provide significant protection from erosion, floods, and storm surges. Governments and development banks can also play an important role in providing resources for adaptation projects. The private sector, specifically the insurance industry, can also incentivize adaptation by providing lower premiums for communities that have taken steps to increase their resiliency to climate change.
These steps can help vulnerable places adapt to climate change and prevent it from exacerbating underlying insecurities. An integrated approach to climate resiliency is needed that focuses on the interplay between the social, economic, and environmental factors. By viewing the effects of climate change through a holistic lens, it will help develop resiliency-building strategies that stem insecurity.
As world leaders meet in Poland this week to discuss climate challenges, they must recognize the security impacts of climate change and the risk of instability in vulnerable communities and nations. It’s not enough to set emission reduction goals; the international community needs to invest in adaptive and resiliency strategies. Americans know well that a failed government on the other side of the world can have an outsized impact here at home. Helping vulnerable communities prepare for climate change will also prevent climate change from spreading instability and, ultimately, threatening our security.