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In August 2023, the Military Responses to Climate Hazards (MiRCH) tracker identified 19 countries in which militaries were deployed in response to climate hazards, often multiple times to different regions and types of hazard. The tracker identified 35 incidents total.
In the United States, the devastating wildfire in Maui resulted in one of the largest military deployments in response to a single hazard in recent years, which the military has sustained for more than a month. The disaster was the most lethal U.S. wildfire in a century, exceeding the annual deaths from terrorism in the United States in any year since 9/11. The fires prompted the creation of a U.S. Department of Defense task force to coordinate contributions from all U.S. armed forces branches and the National Guard, which have totaled nearly 600 personnel. In support of FEMA, the task force has provided relief services including water and fuel distribution, search and recovery, air and sea transportation, mortuary and forensic services, and facility usage.
The crisis has attracted disinformation as well, such as a false claim that the military had arrested the head of FEMA in the wake of the disaster, Chinese government disinformation that the fires were caused by a U.S. “weather weapon,” and Russian claims that U.S. aid to Ukraine had undermined wildfire response.
The Maui wildfire underscored the fact that militaries are responding to hazards that reflect not only climate change, but broader ecological disruption as well. The fires were likely more destructive because of invasive species (an example of a biotic eruption) and insufficient environmental management. Grasses intentionally introduced in the late 1700s likely contributed to the fires through the buildup of flammable biomass in abandoned post-agricultural lands, which also spread into populated communities. There were many warnings about the risks posed by these invasive grasses prior to the fire, but lack of regulation, resources and urgency confounded efforts to reduce the grasses’ density and to exclude them from populated areas. Further, on Maui, decades of water diversion from streams supporting agriculture and development contributed to a drying of the land, increasing fire risk.
Meanwhile, responses to severe climate hazards prompted thorny political questions. In Canada, the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) continued to assist firefighting and evacuations in British Columbia and the Northwest Territories. The summer’s extreme weather prompted one retired Canadian military leader to call for a new national emergency response agency to minimize the burden on the CAF. In China in early August, thousands of People’s Liberation Army and People’s Armed Police personnel conducted evacuations during flooding from the landfall of Typhoon Doksuri, and a decision to divert flood waters to parts of Hebei Province to protect Beijing prompted anger at the government. (For more on the dynamics in China, see our analysis here).
Elsewhere, climate-driven hazards led neighbors to help neighbors, both in the United States and internationally. A wildfire in Louisiana drew in National Guard troops from as far away as Minnesota, while the EU Civil Protection Mechanism was activated for the second time this summer in Greece in response to wildfires. Many countries that deploy in support of the mechanism do so via their militaries, especially smaller countries like Croatia. According to the European Commission, the August fires in Greece were the largest fires ever seen in the EU.
As extreme weather this summer shows, no place is immune from climate change’s impact on the interconnected natural and human systems that underpin stability and security. Iran and Türkiye are two geopolitically critical countries that, despite not being among the very most vulnerable states, face serious climate risks that are likely to fuel insecurity and shape foreign policy. Just this summer, Iran experienced worsening water scarcity and an extreme heatwave that forced a two-day nationwide shutdown for fear of blackouts and protests. Türkiye faced dwindling reservoirs and severe flooding in Istanbul amid lethal wildfires that prompted the closing of the Dardanelles Strait, which connects the Aegean Sea to the Black Sea.
In these reports, CCS and Woodwell combine projections of climate trends, security analysis, and country expertise to convey how climate change is likely to fuel security challenges in both countries and what it means for the United States. The Iran analysis explores how climate change, poor governance, and international isolation are decimating agricultural livelihoods and exacerbating water insecurity–fueling repression and generating tensions with Türkiye, Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Gulf States. Meanwhile, Türkiye faces worsening water shortages and wildfires that are likely to amplify domestic political tensions, exacerbate mistreatment of refugees, and fuel disputes with downstream countries over the shared Tigris and Euphrates rivers.
These publications continue a partnership between CCS and Woodwell to jointly create analysis on the nexus of climate change and security in key locations. This partnership combines sophisticated science, policy-relevant security analysis, and compelling presentation to identify and communicate climate-related security risks. Previous case studies examined climate security challenges involving nuclear-armed states, and focused on the Arctic, China-India border region, and North Korea.
An Ecological Security Program Report by Robert Bentley, Lily Boland, Michael R. Zarfos, and Andrea Rezzonico
Edited by Erin Sikorsky and Francesco Femia
This scenario exercise explored how security risks may be heightened by ecological degradation due to anthropogenic stressors. The scenario was set in a fictional country, Khomland, with a number of geographic, social, economic, and political features characteristic of actual Southeast Asian states. During the game, three teams representing domestic civil society, the international community, and the governing elite, faced three stages of deteriorating ecological conditions. Teams were given the opportunity to respond directly to these ecological changes and to interact with one another. The game was structured to facilitate negotiations between various actors and to explore emerging conflicts among teams, illuminating the evolution of player decision-making and how those decisions may interact with a pressing ecological crisis.
Key takeaways from the exercise include:
- Human-driven ecological disruption initiated a domestic security crisis. Mismanagement of Khom’s ecosystems and external pressures from climate change, led to the collapse of fisheries and coastal agriculture—the resulting food and job insecurity prompted large scale migration into cities.
- Climate change and other forms of ecological degradation catalyzed internal conflict. Increasingly intense episodes of precipitation combined with upland deforestation made much of the country’s population centers and agricultural lands vulnerable to severe flooding. At the same time, extreme wet bulb temperatures proved fatal. These extreme events led to a spiraling conflict of extreme actions and responses.
- Society was not able to cope with the opening ecological crisis or its evolution. Players accepted the fate of Khom’s ecosystems and made pivots from actions intended to restore ecosystem services and solve the crisis toward ones intended only to manage it. Ecological mitigation, not restoration, was a more achievable goal given the lack of adaptation measures in place.
- It would have been more efficient and effective to avoid ecological degradation than it was to restore ecosystems. Ecosystem restoration takes years of community cooperation, funding, and a commitment to monitoring and upkeep. These capacities were largely absent from a society experiencing an internal security and political crisis.
- Player decisions often exacerbated rather than resolved the ecological crisis. The ecological situation forcibly shaped player decisions. Although play began with specific stressors and tipping points, followed by human action, this sequence was often obfuscated. As play progressed it became more difficult to distinguish between when human actions drove the ecological situation and when the ecological situation drove humans to act. Factional politics and unrest, catalyzed by job losses, food insecurity, and migration, largely distracted players from opportunities to restore ecosystems. Instead, ecological degradation was allowed to continue. This feedback loop between ecological degradation and insecurity and unrest only exacerbated the political crisis.
- Competing actions driven by socio-economic and political aims also contributed to ecological disruption. International funds reached the pockets of elites instead of the ecosystems that desperately needed attention. Civil disobedience in response to corruption resulted in the death of thousands and created a hotspot for disease spillover. Disruptive agricultural practices also continued as people migrated from cities to rural areas in search of better livelihoods threatened by both the country’s security services and the crisis.
- Rather than join forces to address the immediate impacts of ecological degradation, actors turned on one another. The government militarized its response to both the crisis and opposition from domestic political groups and civil society. As domestic actors turned against one another and vied for power, the international community became less incentivized to seek out financial support. Providing humanitarian aid became too precarious for risk-averse international nongovernmental organizations (NGOs).
- The political system turned from semi-democratic to a concentrated authoritarian state. The ruling elites amassed more power as the country’s situation worsened, in the name of preserving state stability. Ultimately, the crisis led to the end of the existing semi-democratic political system and the establishment of amore authoritarian state.
The results of this exercise show that loss of ecosystem functions and services, and the acceleration of climate change, may contribute to resource scarcity, food insecurity, economic fragility, community displacement, societal unrest, political instability, civil conflict and increased authoritarianism. Since this scenario exercise explicitly eschewed involvement of external powers, such a possibility cannot be ruled out. The scenario demonstrated that where social imperatives meet ecological degradation, the resultant cascade of risk pathways will be unpredictable and hazardous.
This report concludes with a series of recommendations inspired by participant discussions. Some of these include:
- Fund research, education programs, and scenario exercises focused on translating the security risks posed by ecological degradation and collapse. Governments and IGOs –particularly their security agencies—need data, resources, and expertise to begin to understand and successfully mitigate the complexities of ecological security issues. The private sector can fiscally support these initiatives.
- Direct early and upstream investments in governance and stability to ensure local organizations and state entities have the foundation to respond to complex crises when they emerge. This preparation prevents catastrophic impacts from completely overwhelming government capacities.
- Prioritize conservation and disincentivize environmental damage from the outset – it is easier to prevent ecological disruption than it is to respond to it. Governments and intergovernmental organizations (IGOs) must address this initiative in partnership with local civil society organizations (CSOs) and the private sector to ensure communities are considered, supported, and involved in these efforts. Communicating the economic value provided by these integral ecosystem services will help reluctant actors recognize their benefits and the costs of their degradation and loss.
- Increase aid for, and investment in, adaptation and resilience. Local communities, CSOs, and governments need support to adapt to ecological degradation and build more resilient societies. Nature-based solutions ( e.g. restoration of upland forests, wetlands, and mangroves to protect against flooding) are an essential part of this approach.
- Build the capacity to quickly deploy hybrid responses to ecological emergencies. There is a clear need to augment global institutional capabilities to be able to deliver complex humanitarian, developmental, reparative, and structural responses during complex ecological crises. IGOs should prepare to respond to issues such as mass displacement and food insecurity, and governments should consider more flexible policies for absorbing and hosting displaced peoples. At the same time, organizations must be able to rapidly deploy solutions aimed at strengthening communities through climate adaptation and ecosystem restoration.
- Invest in and deploy technology to make agriculture more resilient and regenerative; Subsidize and promote agricultural practices that rebuild and protect ecosystem function, biodiversity, and reduce emissions while maintaining yields.
- Combat or circumvent corrupt networks and actors. Corruption thwarts the efficacy of external aid, investment, and influence campaigns. This can be mitigated through improved transparency by proactive governments and direct support for civil society from the international community.
By Michael R. Zarfos
This month, the Center for Climate and Security (CCS) and its Ecological Security Program (ESP) had the opportunity to comment on the Draft Prospectus for the First National Nature Assessment (NNA1) prepared by the U.S. Global Change Research Program (USGCRP), and is publishing its input here. The NNA1 will be completed in 2026 and will consider the state, direction, and probable future of U.S. lands, waters, wildlife, biodiversity, and ecosystems. It will identify the benefits these sources provide to society, and the risks associated with their deterioration or loss. In accomplishing these tasks, the NNA1 will quantify and characterize the state of the ecological security of the United States and its future outlook. While the United States has published a National Climate Assessment since 2000, NNA1 will be an important step in systematically assessing broader ecological security assets and risks.
CCS broadly supports the themes and framework proposed in the draft prospectus. The themes (conservation and natural resource management, economic interests, human health and well-being, safety and security) and cross cutting areas woven throughout them (climate change, equity) all intersect with the national security of the United States and, in particular, climate and ecological security. The framework is designed to consider information from a variety of sources ranging from the peer-reviewed literature to the experiences and perspectives of local communities. This breadth, diversity, and specificity of information should make the NNA1 useful to many consumers. Furthermore, the communication of NNA1’s findings will be enhanced by additional products designed to supplement the primary report, including special peer-reviewed journals and videos relating how a diversity of communities value nature.
While all four themes identified in the Draft Prospectus intersect with security issues, the “Safety and Security” theme is most directly relevant to CCS and ESP. In addressing this theme, NNA1 would focus on the following questions (paraphrased):
- Question 1: What losses from natural and environmental hazards have been averted by nature (e.g., protected areas, green and blue infrastructure, restored areas) over time, and for whom? Where and how much can nature-based solutions equitably reduce future risk from these hazards?
- Question 2: How have trends and spatial patterns in nature affected food and water security? What are opportunities for nature-based solutions to avert these emerging risks?
- Question 3: Where might changes in nature and climate cause people within the US to migrate, and where might they go? What nature- or natural resource-related risks and opportunities are they likely to face in these new locations?
CCS comments on the theme of Safety and Security and its proposed questions:
Generally, CCS suggested that geographic coverage of the NNA1 be expanded beyond the United States and its territories to include ecosystems in close proximity to US diplomatic, scientific, and military installations and shared infrastructure abroad. Proximate ecosystems likely provide services to these installations and the communities that support them. Ecosystem loss or degradation might undermine community and installation resilience to threats such as climate change and natural disasters, undermining US national security, global operations, and deterrence.
CCS provided the following input on each of the thematic questions:
- Question 1: In addition to constructed, protected, or restored nature, USGCRP should also consider unprotected, but extant nature (e.g., privately owned forests or grasslands) and anthropogenic ecosystems (e.g., crop monocultures, urban vegetation) as a source of potential hazard aversion. For example, in New England, about 80% of forests are privately owned, most are not protected through any legal instrument, and many of these forests regenerated naturally, rather than being actively restored. Anthropogenic ecosystems also provide services (e.g., water infiltration, thermal regulation), even if these are reduced.
- Questions 1 & 2: When evaluating the potential for nature-based solutions to mitigate natural hazards and food and water insecurity, CCS recommends that USGCRP present example benefit-cost analyses that compare nature-based solutions with synthetic solutions (e.g., conserving a wetland and riparian buffers vs. constructing a waste treatment plant). Such analyses could include a comparison of different methods for valuing ecosystem services. These comparisons should help policymakers weigh the potential benefits of retaining ecosystems rather than relying on technology to replace services once they have been destroyed.
- Question 2: CCS recommends that USGCRP’s assessment of changes in nature which could impact food and water security include trends in environmental pollution and in biotic eruptions (e.g., introduced non-native invasive species and pests, algal blooms) that may impact both anthropogenic and natural ecosystems. Atmospheric deposition of pollutants such as nitrogen, sulfur, and mercury is often transboundary, challenging regulation. Compounding biotic eruptions may have a significant impact on water quality and food production which is not evident when considering these eruptions in isolation.
- Question 2: USGCRP should consider broadening its analysis to consider the impacts of changes in nature abroad on US food and water security. To the extent that the United States imports food and shares water resources with other countries, its security may be impacted by changes in nature that interrupt global supply chains or undermine food production or aquatic ecosystems abroad.
- Question 3: In addition to considering where changes in nature and climate might lead to human migration (both from and to), consider exploring how this migration might impact nature and its associated benefits and risks in some of the probable receiving locations (i.e., cascading impacts and feedback loops). If mismanaged, the necessary expansion of services, housing, and infrastructure could eliminate important ecosystem services while leaving migrants vulnerable to future natural disasters (e.g., building in future flood plains and on existing wetlands).
The First National Nature Assessment is an important step in America’s growing effort to quantify the state, trajectory, and benefits of our nature. The inclusion of climate and ecological security considerations in this assessment is vital for national security and is complementary with its other themes (conservation and natural resource management, economic interests, human health and well-being) and cross-cutting areas (climate change, equity).