At the Intersection of Climate Change and International Security

8 February, 2021

Terrorist attacks and weapons of mass destruction: these are just a few of the threats that come to mind when considering international security. As the United Nations warns of a new climate crisis each week, climate change is deemed as the security threat most pertinent. By threatening resource scarcity and growing global unrest with conflict potential, the climate crisis is consistently growing larger in scale and clearer in outline.

Flooding, crop-failure, drought, and disease are some of the consequences of climate change that threaten our international security regardless of the region. These consequences will, and already have, lead to increased migration from conflict areas that are most affected by climate change. With intensified competition for resources in areas that are already pressed, collective security in an already fragile and interdependent world is showing its cracks. As always, the most vulnerable populations and those who have the fewest resources are the most affected ones. Climate change is dividing the world into those who have the means to adapt to the rising temperatures, and those who do not.

Climate change as a threat multiplier

It’s best to view the climate crisis as a threat multiplier in terms of international security, a variable which exacerbates existing unrest and tensions in already-stressed regions and overburdens those who are already the most vulnerable to conflict. It therefore increases the probability of sparking political violence. While researchers find that climate change has had a moderate effect on conflicts in the past, they fully expect that its effects will increase fivefold in the future if the world doesn’t change its current trajectory.

To give an example, the effects of climate change served as a threat multiplier in the case of the Arab Spring, contributing heavily to driving instability in the region. Researchers from the Center for American Progress and the Center for Climate and Security as well as the Stimson Center studied climate change’s role as a stressor in this case, finding that food scarcity, water rationing, crop failure, migration, and rapid urbanization drove society to the edges of what it could handle before collapsing into itself.

How exactly will climate change affect our international security?

So what exactly does climate change as an international security threat to our future look like? If the climate crisis barrels beyond two degrees Celsius, a number of tipping points will be triggered, leading to irreversible and highly unpredictable scenarios across the globe. It is important to note that climate change is never the sole reason behind an international security crisis, rather an exacerbator. For instance, climate change leads to unrest in urban areas because of the increase in food prices, or it can prolong violence amidst already vulnerable groups. As climate change has already caused an alarming increase in extreme weather events in countries that produce food, rising food prices have become a ticking time bomb across the world due to our global interdependence.

From acidifying oceans to soil degradation, wildfires, and rising sea levels, human security is alarmingly at risk. According to the 2019 Senate Select Committee on Intelligence report from the United States, there are three main critical scenarios we can expect which will vastly increase competition from resources, raise economic distress beyond what we’ve already experienced in this past year, and rocket social discontent.

First, unpredictable extreme weather events will continue to plague urban coastal communities in South Asia and the Western Hemisphere, damaging communication, energy, and transportation infrastructure. These damages will inflict untold economic costs on already impoverished communities, causing human displacement and increasing migration. Secondly, the vast unpredictability of extreme weather events such as heat waves, similar to those experienced with increasing frequency here in the EU, droughts, and floods will have unprecedented effects on food and water insecurity throughout the world. Most at risk are nations which already experience interstate tensions, poor governance, and social unrest, such as Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, and Ethiopia, thus again increasing migration. Lastly, the Senate report highlights how the diminishing Arctic sea ice has potential to increase competition between China and Russia over resource access, as the increasing temperatures are making the sea ice less prohibitive to engaging in activities in the region and thus attracting other players to enter the mix.

Similar to what we’ve experienced in the decade that has been the year 2020, climate change additionally threatens global health and human security through more frequent outbreaks of infectious diseases due to the exacerbation of humanitarian crises and increased rapid urbanisation from unplanned increases in migration. Europe particularly is expected to experience more severe weather events that have potential to destabilise key economic sectors and further exacerbate the rising inequality, as well as affect ethno-nationalist responses to increased migration and have negative impacts on both civil and military infrastructure.

The seasonality of political violence

A rather less discussed aspect of how climate change will adjust our international security landscape is its direct effect on violent crime. Recent studies are now showing correlations between seasonal climate and violent crime rates, suggesting that as we experience warmer winters we will also see a rise in violent crimes, thus affecting security on a community level, in addition to global. Data even shows that the percentage of increase in crime hinges on whether the world hits its targets associated with the Paris Agreement, meaning that we should anticipate an increase in violent crime of 1.8%, 3%, 5%, and 7% should the world warm by 1.5°C, 2°C, 3°C, or 4°C respectively, as shown in a study of regions across the United States.

How can we move forward?  

When discussing the risks of political violence and international security issues rising alongside the ever warming planet, it is essential to bear in mind that these concerns are not limited to humanitarian risks in the Global South, where the effects of climate change are more drastic and have a far greater effect on human security. Instead, these issues directly affect the interests of the European Union, requiring policy responses that adequately address the situation and invest in mitigation efforts as well as in preventative security policies. These issues are not something that we will merely face sometime in the future, they are already occurring, as we have seen with the case of the Arab Spring.

Regarding preventative measures, it is essential that the EU works toward building resilience toward climate change and its security implications by achieving net-zero global emissions, investing in mitigation and adaptation, improving its disaster response, and climate-proofing its infrastructure and institutions upon which human security depends. Efforts to mitigate climate change should take into consideration its security risks as well, blending the policies for a more integrated plan for our future.

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