The Little-Known Relationship between Climate Change and National Security

by Austin Michael Bodetti. He is an analyst specializing in the Muslim world.

Western diplomats, generals, and politicians have long cited China, Iran, North Korea, Russia, and other rivals as the greatest threats to international security, but another, greater challenge looms on the horizon. Climate change threatens not only the natural environment but also national interests from Europe to North America. If Western policymakers want to overcome this challenge, they need to prepare for it just as they have taken precautions against their traditional nation-state adversaries.

“National security extends well beyond protecting the homeland against armed attack by other states, and indeed, beyond threats from people who purposefully seek to damage or destroy states,” Joshua Busby, an associate professor at the University of Texas at Austin, wrote in a research paper for the Council on Foreign Relations. “Phenomena like pandemic disease, natural disasters, and climate change, despite lacking human intentionality, can threaten national security.”

Near the town of Igo, California, on July 28, 2018 (Photo: Hector Amezcua).

Near the town of Igo, California, on July 28, 2018 (Photo: Hector Amezcua).

The effects of climate change and extreme weather can resemble the fallout of a war, resulting in the spread of chaos, death, and destruction across much of a country’s territory. “Like armed attacks, some of the effects of climate change could swiftly kill or endanger large numbers of people and cause such large-scale disruption that local public health, law enforcement, and emergency response units would not be able to contain the threat,” noted Busby.

Global warming proves a unique obstacle to international security in that it threatens all countries. Famines and natural disasters can do just as much damage to Beijing, Moscow, Pyongyang, and Tehran as they can to London, Ottawa, Paris, and Washington. Recognizing this reality will help policymakers across the world cooperate on measures that promote environmentalism and global security.

“Framing climate change as a national security threat has obvious advantages,” Issie Lapowsky, a journalist focusing on national security and politics, observed in an article for Wired. “Not only does it increase the sense of urgency, but it also creates a path for environmental solutions.”

The United States Intelligence Community appears to understand these advantages. In 2008, the Bureau of Intelligence and Research, the Central Intelligence Agency, the Defense Intelligence Agency, the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, and the Office of Naval Intelligence collaborated on a research paper assessing the risks of global warming for the superpower’s national security.

“We judge global climate change will have wide-ranging implications for U.S. national security interests over the next twenty years,” concluded the National Assessment on the National Security Implications of Global Climate Change to 2030. “Although the United States will be less affected and is better equipped than most nations to deal with climate change, and may even see a benefit owing to increases in agriculture productivity, infrastructure repair and replacement will be costly.”

The rest of the federal government is following the Intelligence Community’s lead. The Department of Defense published the 2014 Climate Change Adaptation Roadmap, which acknowledged that “[r]ising global temperatures, changing precipitation patterns, climbing sea levels, and more extreme weather events will intensify the challenges of global instability, hunger, poverty, and conflict.” Congress and U.S. President Donald Trump even signaled their agreement on the issue just last year.

The U.S.’s historical adversaries, which face their own difficulties with global warming, are taking steps to respond. China is trying to position itself as a leader in the environmental movement. Russian President Vladimir Putin has said that “[c]limate change has become one of the gravest challenges humanity is facing.” Some analysts have even speculated that North Korea could cooperate with South Korea to curb climate change. Iran has developed the National Strategic Plan on Climate Change despite the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ brutal, ongoing crackdown on environmentalists.

Climate change presents an even more dire threat for island countries. In Fiji, villagers have had to relocate as the water level risers. In the Comoros, the potential for cyclones and tsunamis will likely increase. In Sri Lanka, the possibility of landslides is growing. Climate change could submerge many of these island countries. “From rising seas to the loss of fresh water, islands are among the most vulnerable nations to global warming,” Brad Plumer and Lisa Friedman wrote for The New York Times.

Villagers stand on jute plants surrounding a flooded house in the Gaibandha District of Bangladesh. The country is among the most vulnerable to increased flooding with climate change (Photo: Jonas Bendiksen / National Geogrphic image collection).

Villagers stand on jute plants surrounding a flooded house in the Gaibandha District of Bangladesh. The country is among the most vulnerable to increased flooding with climate change (Photo: Jonas Bendiksen / National Geogrphic image collection).

These persistent obstacles to the stability of the international community can unite the leaders of all the world’s countries against climate change. Because global warming threatens Western adversaries and allies alike, nation-states from China, Iran, North Korea, and Russia to Britain, Canada, France, and the U.S. have a vested interest in stopping it. International initiatives such as the Kyoto Protocol and the Paris Agreement represent steps in the right direction, but the world has to do much more.

The United Nations can act as a platform for the international community’s efforts in this regard, and the UN Environmental Program, or UNEP, offers diplomats the perfect opportunity to foster collaboration. The UN General Assembly and the UN Security Council can empower UNEP, grow it, and integrate it into wider initiatives such as the UN Development Program to expand UNEP capabilities when the countries behind the UN choose to collaborate on this critical challenge.

While many countries have employed individual or multilateral measures to fight climate change, the most effective initiatives will combine the efforts of great powers, middle powers, small powers, and intergovernmental organizations such as the UN. Preserving international security depends not only on preventing brinkmanship, nuclear proliferation, and terrorism but also on stopping climate change once and for all. Britain, Canada, China, France, Iran, North Korea, Russia, the U.S., their allies, and every other country in the world would benefit from a committed, concerted effort to curb global warming.

Some cultural critics and pundits have portrayed environmentalism as only a moral, political, or social cause. However, the looming threat of climate change and the natural disasters that it can cause illustrate how much the environmental movement also matters to the future of national and international security. If the international community wants to stop global warming, intelligence agencies and militaries across the world can offer logistical support and scientific expertise, but the most significant changes will have to come from the civilian leadership of countries across the world. Politicians, not soldiers, must choose to take definitive action against climate change.

More information
Will the securitization of climate change help to bring it under control? Based on the Copenhagen School, a topic is attributed to “security” in international relations if it deals with an existential threat that needs to be addressed immediately with extraordinary measures, which may also legitimize the use of force. According to an earlier article by Patrick Truffer, the securitization of specific topics may lead to an incorrect prioritization, an inefficient allocation of resources and an unnecessary implementation of extraordinary measures (Patrick Truffer, “Securitization of everything or how to lose the sense of security at all“,, 13.04.2015).

This entry was posted in Austin Michael Bodetti, Climate Change, English, Security Policy.

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