The U.S. Government Accountability Office, or GAO, has issued two reports in the past two months that address the security implications of climate change. One on climate and migration, and the other on emerging threats.
The most recent, titled “Climate Change: Activities of Selected Agencies to Address Potential Impact on Global Migration” was released last month. The full report is worth a read, but the section on climate change, migration and possible national security implications is particularly interesting, not least as the GAO is wisely cautious about how it describes those dynamics. In the section titled “Climate Change Impacts on Migration that May Affect National Security,” on page 6, the report states:
Migration, potentially driven by climate change, may contribute to instability and result in national security challenges, according to some international organizations and national governments. For example, an influx of migrants to a city may put pressure on existing resources, resulting in tensions between new migrants and residents, or between the population and its government. The U.S. Global Change Research Program has also stated that migration, such as displacement resulting from extreme weather events, is a potential national security issue. At different times, the United Nations General Assembly and, in 2014, DOD have deemed climate change to be a threat multiplier, as the effects of climate change could increase competition for resources, reduce government capacity, and threaten livelihoods, thereby causing instability and migration. Further, the U.S. intelligence community considers climate change to increase the risks of humanitarian disasters, conflict, and migration.
This is an apt description of how many credible organizations, both inside and outside government, have described the intersection of climate change, migration and security. However, the GAO is careful to acknowledge the complexity of the issue, avoiding the potentially harmful (and statistically unsupported) rhetoric of “migration as a national security threat.” From the same section:
Identifying the cause of a conflict, however, is complicated, and experts debate the connections linking climate, migration, and national security. For example, IOM has reported that existing evidence on climate migration and instability must be considered with caution. Further, some studies stress that other factors can mitigate the effects of climate change on migration and stability, including governance and community resilience, as the World Bank has reported.
You can read the full report here.
This report comes on the heels of a GAO “Report to Congressional Committees” issued last December, titled “National Security: Long-Range Emerging Threats Facing the United States As Identified by Federal Agencies” – a response to a House committee report from the last Congress accompanying the 2018 National Defense Authorization Act, which asked the GAO to “identify emerging threats of high national security consequence.”
On page 4, the report breaks down emerging threats in four categories:
1) Adversaries’ Political and Military Advancements
2) Dual-Use Technologies
4) Events and Demographic Changes.
Under the fourth category, the GAO lists “climate change” as one of three emerging threats, alongside infectious diseases and internal and international migration (which, incidentally, cannot be wholly separated from climate change).
In describing the climate change threat on page 10, the GAO states:
Extreme weather events—such as hurricanes and megadroughts—could intensify and affect food security, energy resources, and the health care sector. Diminishing permafrost could expand habitats for pathogens that cause disease. The loss of Arctic sea ice could open previously closed sea routes, potentially increasing Russian and Chinese access to the region and challenging the freedom of navigation that the United States currently has.
As the paragraph shows, it’s not so easy to disentangle climate change from other threats, including more traditional threats related to great power dynamics. For example, climate change leading to increased Russian and Chinese access to the Arctic has a direct bearing on the “Adversaries’ Political and Military Advancements” category of threat identified in the GAO report, particularly the two sub-categories listed as “Chinese Global Expansion” and “Russian Global Expansion.” As we’ve known for some time, and as the GAO report affirms, climate change is a “threat multiplier,” exacerbating existing threats in the geostrategic landscape.
The GAO report also notes that climate change-related threats are not just on the long-term horizon, but imminent. From page 4:
A range of global hazards pose imminent and longer-term threats that will require collective action to address—even as cooperation becomes harder. More extreme
weather, water and soil stress, and food insecurity will disrupt societies. Sea-level rise, ocean acidification, glacial melt, and pollution will change living patterns. Tensions over climate change will grow.
In all, the GAO reports affirm what U.S. governments have been warning about across both Republican and Democratic Administrations since all the way back in 1989. Climate change is a security threat – a complicated one, but a threat nonetheless. The reports also reaffirm what the defense and intelligence agencies have been telling us for some time now: that threat is already here.
For more from the GAO on climate change and security, see a full list of reports here.