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Climate and Security: Steering the Ship of State Through Uncertain Waters


Fog in Hinlopen Strait, Svalbard. Photo by Andreas Weith

The year 2016 may go down in history as a sea change in geopolitics – not least due to the decisions of voters in the United States and the United Kingdom, and what that might mean for world order. While the full nature of that change – its scale, depth and longevity – remains to be seen, it’s difficult to deny that something significant has happened. Readers of history are searching their libraries for clues from our predecessors on how best to navigate through this 21st century fog. But while history excels at issuing stern warnings to future readers, it is easy to forget that for the people in those histories, the future was unknown. The question “now what?” which lingers on many minds today, has been a perennial constant since humans were humans. Today, the answer to that question is complicated by the cacophony of the daily news cycle. Amidst the tumult of talk shows and tweets, it is difficult to remember that there is a bigger picture, never mind make sense of it. And in the mercurial world of the small picture, uncertainty and confusion reign. In such times, it is important to take stock of what we know for sure. What are the most probable trends? Which are systemic and which are temporary? What will likely remain, regardless of political dynamics?

The climate change constant

This is the conversation climate change belongs in. A conversation about core, structural trends in international security, not about the minutiae of environmental policy. It is also where nuclear weapons proliferation, demographics, cyber-threats, natural resource stress, and rising powers, among other things, fit. These are trends that will likely continue, regardless of shifting political dynamics. These are issues that political leaders will seek to shape and manage, but will not be able to eliminate.

Indeed, climate change is happening without concern for who is in power. Just as it’s impossible to dispute the existence of nuclear weapons, and the threat nuclear proliferation poses to all nations, the reality of a rapidly-changing climate is here to stay. The Arctic is melting, the seas are rising, and wildfires and droughts are becoming more severe. This is the existing global reality. If tomorrow’s leaders don’t recognize and deal with this underlying trend– distracted as they are by the turbulence of daily events – we are likely to miss critical threats to national, regional and international security.

Nature of the risk

In this context, it’s important not to artificially separate the climate change issue from broader human systems. In popular discourse, there’s a tendency to treat climate change as one item in a laundry list of issues that governments either deal with in earnest, put on the back-burner, or ignore. As most security practitioners would tell you, that’s a mistake. The truth is that a changing climate is baked into the underlying fabric of the geostrategic landscape in which all nations operate.

In the Middle East and North Africa, climate change plays a significant background role, driving extreme droughts that have contributed to mass displacements of people and increased instability in a strategically-significant region. Climate change is causing a warming ocean in the South China Sea, propelling fish stocks to migrate northward into contested waters, thus possibly increasing tensions between China, its smaller neighbors, and the United States. It’s melting ice in the Arctic and contributing to greater commercial and military activity in the High North, just as cooperation between the United States, its Arctic allies and Russia is at a low point. Climate change is contributing to melting glaciers in the Himalayas, leading to projections of a future of extreme water stress in already-volatile places like Pakistan, where international terrorist organizations thrive, and nuclear materials are exchanged on the black market. A changing climate is driving up sea levels, which is already having a significant effect on U.S. military bases and training ranges domestically and internationally, thus directly affecting U.S. military readiness, operations and strategy.

Attempting to isolate climate change from this landscape – to either address it or dismiss it as a singular element – is futile, and will obscure opportunities for good policy. We don’t have the luxury of either choosing whether we want to deal with climate change, or other pressing national and international security issues, as climate change is a background player in all of them. In other words, it’s part of the set dressing. And if you ignore the set dressing, you’re likely to trip over it.

Sailing through uncertain waters

While climate change may be a steady part of the background scenery, the play and its actors have seemingly gone off the rails. The political dynamics that are keeping security and foreign policy analysts awake at night – whether it’s a perceived backlash against globalization and regionalization, the accompanying rise in nationalist and ethno-nationalist sentiment, the spread of ISIS across the Islamic world, cyber-threats to the democratic process, or a newly revanchist Russia – are introducing a volatile level of uncertainty into the very real human drama of international affairs. There remain significant uncertainties about whether or not these dynamics are structural or temporary, how deeply they will impact the ability of governments to govern, how firm existing alliances are, how resilient our institutions, and what all that will mean for global stability in the years ahead. The truth is that most experts are quite in the dark about how it will play out, and most political leaders are navigating in that same darkness.

Climate change, left unaddressed, will likely exacerbate these uncertain risks. This is particularly the case if unprecedented strains on natural resources, such as staple foods and reliable water supplies, drive some governments into real or manufactured states of emergency, where decency and democratic norms can suffer, and conflict becomes more likely. In the event that more and more nations are incapable of either providing basic food and water resources to their publics, or sustainable prosperity for rising middle classes, instability, conflict and authoritarianism may become even more commonplace than it is today.

In such a future, the most robust governments may be those that are both most resilient to climate shocks and most responsive to their publics. Stability may be measured by a state’s ability to absorb climate stresses, while simultaneously managing all the other factors related to governing, without losing sight of human decency. In this juggling act, those leaders that keep their eyes on the underlying trends, and put their efforts into dealing with them, are likely to be the most successful (at least, in the long-term). Knowing which balls to drop, and which to keep in the air, will be vital.

The way forward

Climate change is happening, and it presents a range of security risks, from the infrastructural all the way up to the geostrategic. This is a global reality that our security and intelligence communities, regardless of the political leaders they serve, have been warning us about for years. Unfortunately, this is usually not how climate change is portrayed in the day-to-day cacophony. It is often ranked in a list, or cast as one special interest among many: healthcare, immigration, the economy, education. It is still broadly discussed as the domain of “environmentalists.” This is a mistake. It is a misreading of the true nature of the risk, which affects nearly all aspects of society. If we keep the aperture too narrow, we will miss the critical systemic risks, and be caught flat-footed. This is clear from the most cursory reading of tumultuous times in our history.

What we choose to do or not do in the face of climate risks is up for discussion. The fact that these risks exist is not. Climate change is part of the new geostrategic landscape and it is here to stay. Our political leaders should use that as a guide, not a hindrance. A guide to building more resilient governments and societies in an uncertain time.

1 Comment

  1. This is a superb and important essay. Thank you so much.

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