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Survey of Security Experts Warns of Potentially Catastrophic Climate Threats in the Next 20 Years

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By Kate Guy

Urgent climate risks are impacting our world today in profound ways, as leaders from the United States and 40 other countries will discuss in the virtual Leaders Summit on Climate later this week. Climate change is no longer a “future” risk that will strike decades from now, but one that is already actively shaping the security landscape for all countries. These risks are now on track to increase significantly in response to the Earth’s continued warming trajectory, and will require new investments in resilience to keep communities safe. Forecasting surveys offer one tool for security actors to plan for this changing–and increasingly dangerous–future. 

For the second year in a row, the Expert Group of the International Military Council on Climate and Security (IMCCS Expert Group) surveyed top climate security experts on their predictions of how and when climate security risks are likely to progress (see last year’s survey here). Their responses offer insightful opinions about which risks this expert community deems the most likely to disrupt security in the years ahead, as well as how these security threats may interact with each other. 

Early analysis of the results of this survey offer an interesting picture of the climate risks that experts assess to be most severe for global security, today and in the decades to come. The full results will be formally published in the IMCCS Expert Group’s World Climate and Security Report 2021 later this year. Top findings include:

  1. Security experts are more worried about the threats posed by climate impacts to water, food, health, and biodiversity, than to militaries themselves. While respondents said that climate change will have moderate to high impacts on military infrastructure, installations, and operations, they rated society-disrupting threats to agricultural, sanitation, health, economic, and environmental systems higher, over all three time periods. In 2041, for example, fewer respondents rated direct risks to the military as high-to-catastrophic — critical infrastructure (73%), missions (73%), international conflict (68%) and military alliances (44%) — than whole-of-society social and environmental risks — like population center disruptions (98%), forced displacement (96%), agricultural disruption (95%), increased natural disasters (94%), and precipitation changes (93%).
  2. Overall, experts believe climate security phenomena are dangerous now, and will become increasingly severe in the near-term. Climate impacts are already disrupting security environments at present through surging natural disasters, growing inequalities, and biodiversity loss. In the next twenty years, respondents said all climate security phenomena will pose increasingly high and potentially catastrophic levels of risk. In 2021, most respondents did not rank climate security phenomena as posing high-to-catastrophic risks, with sea level rise (63%), increased inequality (43%), increased natural disasters (37%), biodiversity loss (37%), and infectious diseases (35%) raking highest. By 2041, however, respondents found nearly all surveyed phenomena to pose high-to-catastrophic security risk, with over 70% of respondents rating a full twenty phenomena in this severe category.
  3. Experts rate natural climate security phenomena as the most pressing risks to security over the next two decades. Climate impacts said to pose high-to-catastrophic security risks by 2041 include disruptions to biodiversity and oceans (both 85%), agricultural disruption (95%), infectious diseases (80%), extreme heat (84%), and natural disaster and precipitation changes (95% and 93%, respectively). Also highly ranked were threats to the security of human communities, like disruptions to population centers (98% high-to-catastrophic risk), and forced displacement (96%), and increased inequality and instability within nations (both 91%).
  4. Novel risks from the misuse of geoengineering technology or climate data are also of concern, as are the cascading impacts of multiple climate risks. A majority said that these novel climate security risks could pose moderate, high, or even catastrophic security risks by 2041, like the misuse of geoengineering technology (92%) or climate data (85%). They also noted concern about the compound impacts of multiple climate security phenomena striking in tandem, with 94% of respondents rating “cascading climate disasters” at moderate or higher security risk by 2041.

Survey Methodology

The 2021 Climate Security Risk Perception Survey was administered from February-March 2021 with responses from 57 global climate security experts working on these issues in the fields of defense and intelligence, climate and ecosystem change, and national security. The pool of respondents included members of the International Military Council on Climate and Security, the Climate and Security Working Group, and the Planetary Security Initiative.

Respondents were asked for their judgement on the severity (low, moderate, high, and catastrophic) of climate-related national security risks in three time periods: today (2021), ten years from now (2031), and twenty years from now (2041). Respondents were then asked to consider the compound impacts of climate security risks, selecting five pairs of climate security categories that together will pose the highest risks to security over the span of the next twenty years. 

For the purposes of this survey, the IMCCS Expert Group defined “climate security” phenomena as “climate change-exacerbated events that affect global security, including the security environment, security institutions or security infrastructure.” The survey did not assess opportunities for mitigating these risks, or ask for information on how to adapt to or build resilience to them. Those policy decisions will ultimately be in the hands of leaders and policymakers who read the results.

For full descriptions of each climate security phenomenon, see the Appendix. For greater detail on these threats and the regions under most risk, see our World Climate and Security Report 2020, regional briefer series, and the World Climate and Security Report 2021, to be released later this year.

Survey Analysis

The survey responses are clear: over the next twenty years, climate phenomena will present severe and catastrophic levels of security risk. The increase in severity that expert respondents anticipate over the next two decades is stark. Whether because continued warming means that climate impacts will increase in severity and frequency over time, or due to a pessimism about society’s ability to handle the compound effects of these impacts at once, these responses suggest that climate security risks will become more dangerous in the years to come. 

Though respondents perceive climate security threats as generally low-to-moderate now (2021), they see those risks quickly growing in severity over the next decade. As soon as ten years from now, a majority of climate phenomena will pose high-to-catastrophic levels of risk to security. Twenty years from now, respondents expect very high levels of risk along nearly every type of climate security impact.

Particularly concerning in the short-term will be direct environmental impacts, including precipitation changes, sea-level rise, and more severe natural disasters, as well as the subsequent effects that those impacts will pose to agricultural, economic, and healthcare systems worldwide. This suggests that nations should prioritize investment in disaster-relief and insurance systems, while focusing on bolstering critical infrastructure against increasing vulnerabilities.

Respondents found a variety of different climate security phenomena to pose risks, depending on the time period in question. A few risks were consistently deemed more severe than others, specifically Increased Natural Disasters, Infectious Diseases, Forced Displacement, Precipitation Change, Increased Inequality, and Population Center Disruptions

Interestingly, this surveyed group of defense and security experts were far less worried about the risks posed to military installations, missions, and institutions than the risks posed to society as a whole. Even by 2041, risks to the “military security” category of threats, including military over-reliance, mission failures, and the degradation of key alliances, were ranked as less severe than those to other human security categories, such as food, water, economics, and infrastructure. This suggests that the most pressing threats to security come from the disruption of social systems, rather than from traditional military threats. This consideration should be understood alongside the finding that “instability within nations” was ranked consistently more severe, across all time periods, than “instability between nations.” These findings suggest that to prepare  security establishments to confront climate security risks effectively, training and planning operations will need to adjust to account for a broader understanding of threats to society, rather than simply to traditional national security considerations.

Importantly, survey responses also suggest that currently under-studied and novel risks to security stemming from climate change require more attention. Though they may not pose significant threats at present, respondents saw the severity of threats, such as the unilateral deployment of geoengineering technologies and the potential for cascading climate-induced disasters increasingly sharply over the next two decades. This poses problems, since the level of understanding and preparation for such threats is exceedingly low within security services, and suggests that nations may not be in a place to confront such novel threats when they arise. To build resilience to such threats, policymakers and defense leaders must collaborate closely with natural and social scientists to forecast how new risks might evolve, and work to build capacity within their institutions to address them.

Finally, these results also offer a new understanding about the intersection of a wide range of risks and the inevitability of their impact on each other. When considering how climate security risks will interact with each other to pose compound threats, the group of respondents detailed relationships among nearly all categories of phenomena. The most interconnected categories of risk were water security, ecosystem security, economic security, and health security.

The COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated the swiftness with which one risk can infiltrate all other aspects of society, impacting the stability of a multitude of societal components. The data gathered here predicts that climate threats will manifest  in a similar, compounding manner.  An example of this is the nexus between food, water, and ecosystem security. To address food security, greater water and land availability are needed for agricultural production, limiting both the amount of available water for human consumption and the amount of available land for biodiversity conservation. Any limitations on one of these systems has the potential to impact the others; and overlapping stressors could prove disastrous. An acute awareness of this interconnectivity must be integrated into the design process when curating any climate policy, security policy, or other policy. 

Taken together, the forecasts identified by this survey represent a critical input to planning efforts needed to address climate security threats into the future. While the most severe near-term risks do not always mirror those that will be most severe in the coming years, all will become increasingly pressing security concerns for world leaders to address. They will require deliberate and informed efforts to pivot planning toward increasing ability to withstand these growing threats, while also confronting the climate challenge head-on to minimize warming to levels safe for humanity.

The 2021 Climate Risk Perception Survey was administered by Kate Guy, Deputy Director of the International Military Council on Climate and Security (IMCCS), with assistance from Leah Emmanuel. The survey and its analysis were edited by Erin Sikorsky and Francesco Femia (IMCCS/Council on Strategic Risks), and will be published in the forthcoming IMCCS Expert Group’s World Climate Security Report 2021. Data visualizations were designed with Flourish.

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