The Rising Security Threat of Climate Change

31 Mar

Bangladesh-climate_refugee (1)

Climate Refugees in Bangladesh. Photo Credit: Sabbir, Wikimedia Commons

By Jack Karsten, PISA Staff Assistant

Climate change is not just an environmental threat whose greatest impacts will be felt in the future; it also plays an immediate role in today’s international security issues. For example, a recent study concluded that a sustained drought compounded factors that started the civil war in Syria, a struggle that endures four years later. Rising temperatures will increase competition for scarce water, food, and energy resources with the potential to spark new conflicts and intensify existing ones. Droughts, floods and storms linked to climate change will displace millions of people each year, adding to the humanitarian crisis associated with war and border conflicts. Recognizing the impact of climate change on international security escalates the issue’s urgency.

Climate and security concerns are especially relevant in Asia, where coastal flooding and desertification pose a dual threat. The expanding Gobi Desert has swallowed agricultural land in western China, forcing many rural farmers to migrate to rapidly growing cities on the eastern coast. However, these cities are at risk of flooding both from rising sea levels and stronger tropical storms. Flood damage has also been a perennial problem in Bangladesh, where 46% of the population lives within 10 meters of sea level. In addition to property damage and loss of life, flooding creates a problem of providing adequate housing for displaced populations. A 2010 documentary called “Climate Refugees” does an excellent job of drawing attention to this issue. Large-scale movement driven by climate change jeopardizes the security of migrants, especially if they are forced to cross international borders.

Resource scarcity has long been a cause of conflict, and climate change can further reduce the resources available to vulnerable populations. First, water will become scarcer as glaciers, lakes, and other freshwater sources shrink from a combination of growing demand and higher temperatures. Diminished water resources and drier topsoil will diminish crop yields and jeopardize local food security. In addition, less water will reduce the energy output of hydroelectric power plants, straining energy supplies of countries that depend on hydro as a source of clean energy. Rising temperatures will degrade food, water, and energy security if nothing is done to improve access to these resources.

The multitude of potential impacts from climate change has prompted the Defense Department to designate the phenomenon as a “threat multiplier” in an October 2014 press release.  Strategic planners are now investigating how environmental factors will challenge the readiness of the United States military in both wartime and peacetime. In addition to conflicts driven by resource scarcity, the press release mentioned the spread of infectious disease and coastal flooding as instances where “military personnel will be called on to deliver humanitarian assistance and relief”. Damage to coastal military installations could also interrupt supply chains that soldiers depend on during overseas deployments. The Defense Department’s stance toward climate change is indicative of a broader need for institutions to examine how the issue effects their operations.

The response to these security threats must take short and long term effects into account. In the short term, governments must build the infrastructure to deliver scarce resources to vulnerable populations. A focus on humanitarian needs would reduce the likelihood that displaced populations become absorbed by armed conflict. In the long term, potential security threats add urgency to efforts to curb greenhouse gas emissions worldwide. Unfortunately, the political nature of defense spending and climate change in the United States has made this connection controversial.  Nevertheless, policymakers must carefully consider all security threats identified by military planners. Further reading on the intersection of climate and security can be found at climatesecurity101.org. Sharing the perspectives of multiple disciplines on climate change ensures that none of its potential effects are ignored.

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