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Home » climate and security » “Is Climate Change the Biggest Security Threat?” Is Still A Bad Question

“Is Climate Change the Biggest Security Threat?” Is Still A Bad Question

World Map, showing Failed States according to the "Failed States Index 2013" (by Ithinkhelikesit)

World Map, showing Failed States according to the “Failed States Index 2013” (by Ithinkhelikesit)

What is the biggest national security threat? Is climate change the biggest national security threat? We, and the current U.S. presidential candidates, get these questions quite a bit. They are not good questions. These questions confuse the nature of today’s security threats, and more specifically, obscure the complex way in which climate change affects the broader security landscape. Climate change is not an exogenous threat, hermetically sealed from other risks. It is, as the CNA Corporation first stated in 2007, a “threat multiplier.” The impacts of climate change interact with other factors to make existing security risks – whether it’s state fragility in the Middle East, or territorial disputes in the South China Sea – worse. Furthermore, there’s a tendency to think of the security implications of climate change in a conflict context only. But this is far too narrow. Climate change intensifies natural resource stresses in a way that can increase the likelihood of livelihood devastation, state fragility, human displacement, and mass death. These dynamics do not always result in conflict, but they certainly represent a threat to human, national, regional, and in the right context, international security. So if we narrow the discourse too much, and focus only on conflict, we run the risk of being unprepared for a range of possible scenarios.

In this context, asking better questions is critical, and not just for enhancing the political discussion. It’s important because if we don’t start asking better questions, we are not going to get good answers. And if we don’t get good answers, we run the risk of failing to put policies in place that address climate risks for what they are.

In short, we need to move away from both “ranking” threats to national security, or focusing on just one element of the risk landscape that’s easily understood. We need to take a closer look at how security risks are connected, and then build from there.

For example: What will a rapidly melting Arctic mean for U.S.- Russia relations?  Will increased water scarcity in North Korea or Iran have implications for higher-order security issues? Will competition over migrating fish stocks increase interstate tensions in a warming South China Sea? In other words, the question is not; “Do we deal with climate change, or deal with Russia, ISIS, and Iran?” because they can’t be so easily delinked. The better questions are: “How does climate change affect our relations with Russia? How does it exacerbate instability in the Middle East? How might it help create stressed environments that non-state actors can more easily exploit?

To be fair, there are a growing number of people who are asking the right questions about climate and security. For example, Brad Plumer does a great job of asking the right questions in a recent article. But more good questions (and questioners) are needed.

In this vein, below is an FAQ (with answers provided) drawn from our Climate Security 101 Project. Hopefully, this helps.


  1. Climate 4 Revolution says:

    Like Brad Plumer’s corporatist hit peice on Bernie Sanders, this article is trash.

    The climate-conflict relationship is well established, and makes absolute sense: less resources mean that humans will fight over them for survival.

    Those trying to raise doubts against the large volume of research have done nothing to warrant taking them seriously at all. Much like the morons claiming climate sensitivity is low.

    Climate Denialism takes new shapes every day.

  2. Threat multiplier is spot on. Read an extensive study about the various psychological impacts

    For instance (from above link):
    The psychosocial impacts of climate change include large-scale social and community effects of issues such as heat-related violence (Anderson & DeLisi, in press), conflicts over resources (Reuveny, 2008), migrations and dislocations (Agyeman, Devine-Wright, & Prange, 2009), postdisaster adjustment (Norris, Stevens, Pfefferbaum, Wyche, & Pfefferbaum, 2008), and chronic environmental stress (Albrecht et al., 2007).

    On the basis of experimental and correlational research, Anderson (2001) concluded that there is a causal relationship between heat and violence and that any increase in average global temperature is likely to be accompanied by an increase in violent aggression. Predictions include a rise of about 24,000 assaults or murders in the United States every year for every increase of 2 degrees Fahrenheit in the average temperature. In a more recent article, Anderson and DeLisi (in press) described some of the probable effects of climate change on violence. Both lab-based manipulations of temperature and comparisons of differences in violent crime associated with seasonal and regional temperature differences indicate that heat can have an immediate effect on violent tendencies. More subtle but possibly more powerful long-term impacts may result from an effect of heat on fetal and child development.

    Thus, we have to factor in psychological aspects, and then add additional stressors from resource scarcity, and tendencies during extreme conditions. As James Woolsey noted, on day 3 without water, people will literally start going door to door. Another term recently coined is solastalgia ( ), which defines distress that is produced by environmental change impacting on people while they are directly connected to their home environment. Hence all these effects on populations, economy, security can exacerbate existing conflicts. But this will affect everybody to some degree, let alone all the various possible health impacts.

    Also notice the rather broad definition of NS (Via Wikipedia), “National security is a concept that a government, along with its parliaments, should protect the state and its citizens against all kind of “national” crises through a variety of power projections, such as political power, diplomacy, economic power, military might, and so on.”

    With the climate crisis we will not only face a regional threat from “failed states” or “failed regions”, we will have collapse on a global level, a threat which can not directly be pinpointed, since it goes so deep to affect even our psyche, no matter where you are. Sure there will be regions which are affected to a lesser degree but through our systems we will be impacted no matter what. And that is why i think that our current approaches will not help much other than to have situational responses. But this would not help to reduce the various threats entirely (Sea level will still rise, weather and climate will still change).

    Adapting to and combating climate change means much more, above all this requires emissions reductions. Hence, national security means in this context to reduce our emissions. And because the impacts are so fundamental and so far reaching it can be considered the greatest threat to our society, to our civilization, to our species.

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