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VIDEO: Can Climate Change Increase the Risk of Nuclear War?

By Natasha E. Bajema, Ph.D.

Yes. But it’s Complicated.

In the second video of its new series on nuclear detonation risks and climate change, the Council on Strategic Risks (CSR) posed questions about the impact of climate change on conflict and nuclear proliferation to five leading national security experts with different perspectives. Together, their diverse answers may help us to better understand the complex linkages across climate change, domestic, regional, and global conflict, the effect of nuclear energy on carbon emissions, future trends in nuclear proliferation, prospects for cooperation within the global nuclear order, and the potential for conflict escalation and nuclear war.

Many experts, including Dr. Elizabeth Chalecki of the Wilson Center, Andrea Rezzonico of CSR, and Alex Gilbert of the Nuclear Innovation Alliance, consider climate change to be a critical threat multiplier in that the effects of climate change can exacerbate existing domestic and regional conflicts. The effects of climate change—natural disasters, droughts, food shortages, flooding, migration, and refugee flows— contributes to domestic and regional instability and can thus shape conflict, especially when local governments fail to meet citizen demands. When considering the complex linkages between climate change and conflict, Alex Gilbert suggests it is important to separate out the “climate signals” from the broader political, economic, and societal context.

As several experts in the video argue, the regional conflicts among three nuclear weapon-possessing states in South Asia—when exacerbated by the effects of climate change such as drought, extreme heat, and flooding—demonstrate a dangerous potential for escalation that could possibly lead to a nuclear conflict. Pakistan, India, and China share river resources and borders and have engaged in military conflicts in the past. Whilst Pakistan and China remain close allies, India considers both countries to be geopolitical rivals. Meanwhile, Pakistan depends on rivers that flow through India for fresh water supply, which makes it vulnerable to political threats. In the interview, Andrea Rezzonico notes that India has threatened on multiple occasions to divert those resources in retaliation for terrorist attacks or military incursions by Pakistan. Although the use of nuclear weapons would not resolve anything and greatly exacerbate the effects of climate change, experts agreed that a conventional conflict between India and Pakistan has the potential to escalate to a nuclear exchange.

Dr. Elizabeth Chalecki says many countries are expanding nuclear energy production, in part to reduce carbon emissions as part of their Paris Accord commitments. As noted by Dr. Lami Kim of the U.S. Army War College, the global nuclear order protects the right of all countries to exploit the peaceful uses of nuclear energy. Although an expansion of nuclear energy is not likely to lead more countries to develop nuclear weapons, Andrew Weber of CSR argues that it does carry a number of risks if not properly implemented. For example, the construction of nuclear infrastructure at many locations around the world will have to contend with sea-level rise and extreme weather events. In most cases, the expansion of nuclear energy is not expected to lead to greater numbers of uranium enrichment and reprocessing facilities due to overcapacity and economic costs. However, Dr. Lami Kim suggests some states may still seek to develop indigenous capacity for producing nuclear fuel, an action that should raise a red flag for the global nuclear order. Amidst a decline in global norms against nuclear weapons, the experts agree that there is some risk of increased proliferation among countries seeking to strengthen their security.

See below or click here for the full video.

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