Climate change could emerge as a leading cause of global security threats, and some say we are past the point of prevention.
The nature of climate change as an “existential threat” has become abundantly clear, with discussions over how to combat it taking prominence on the agendas of global bodies.
Several international actors recognise the implications of climate change on national and global security, and have taken steps to define climate change as a security threat.
The United Nations has been at the forefront of sounding the alarm bells over climate change, from a security council report that quotes David Attenborough as saying “Climate change is the biggest threat to security that humans have ever faced,” to recent remarks by Secretary General Antonio Guterres.
Climate change has been included in the national security and defence documents of several nations including the US, UK, France, Germany, and Russia, and has been recognised as a threat in the Climate Change Strategy document of Turkey.
Nevertheless, despite the apparent presence of climate change as a prevailing issue in the security priorities of countries, the measures taken against combating climate change have been in stark contrast to the alarming language regarding the subject.
“None of the measures that have been taken are enough when we look at the amount of carbon dioxide that has been emitted since 1958,” climate scientist Professor Levent Kurnaz from Turkey’s Bogazici University told TRT World.
Just a couple days ago, COP26, the 26th UN Climate Change Conference dubbed by many as the world’s “best hope” in the fight against climate change, resulted in a disillusioning agreement that fell “far short of” ensuring effective measures.
COP26 was “just another meeting in a series of meetings,” Kurnaz said. “Like the 25 meetings before, this one didn't achieve anything significant. We are not making considerable headway.”
Threat to security
A report called A New Climate for Peace outlines “compound climate-fragility risks” in seven groups as “local resource competition, livelihood insecurity and migration, extreme weather events and disasters, volatile food prices and provision, transboundary water management, sea-level rise and coastal degradation, and unintended effects of climate change policies.”
All of these threats go hand in hand, with one triggering or exacerbating the other.
The nature of climate change as a threat to security is already a harsh reality on the continent of Africa, where the effects of climate change have already taken hold.
The security implications of climate change for human beings can be classified in two categories: human security and traditional security, both of which are visible on the continent.
The former encompasses each effect of climate change that poses a threat to the lives of individuals, such as famines or floods. A striking example is Madagascar, where the world’s first climate change induced famine is taking place.
On the other hand, the traditional security implications of climate change pertain to conflict, such as armed confrontations over scarce resources. The prevailing example is Sudan’s Darfur, considered to be the world’s “first climate change conflict”.
To quote former UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, “Amid the diverse social and political causes, the Darfur conflict began as an ecological crisis, arising at least in part from climate change.”
Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta expressed the same concern in a UNSC meeting, saying: “The drought-stricken Horn of Africa, the drying up Lake Chad basin and the shrinking Sahel and savannah grasslands have worsened economic vulnerabilities and set in motion political, demographic and migratory dynamics that increase the threat of insurgency and violent extremism.”
The peril of climate change looms over South Asia as well, with floods and rising sea levels threatening coastal areas of countries including Pakistan, India and Bangladesh, while natural disasters such as cyclones, floods and droughts plague several countries in the region.
“Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh are among the top eight countries in terms of population. Sea level rise, higher temperatures, and other consequences of climate change will have severe effects for these countries. What will follow is mass migration,” said Kurnaz.
Bangladesh is already among the top five countries affected by climate change displacement, along with Afghanistan, The Philippines, Haiti, and Senegal.
Human security vs traditional security
A key point to note is that human security and traditional security implications of climate change are inseparable.
Not only is climate change a threat to human security, endangering human lives, it has also become a leading cause and amplifier of migration and existing conflicts, which are already prevailing security threats.
“If millions of people from an area start moving somewhere, that constitutes a serious security risk for everyone. States will want to protect their borders from migrants who want to protect their lives,” Kurnaz said.
Climate change will cause violent conflicts as well, even more so than it already does, according to Kurnaz. “For example, in the following years, Ethiopia and Egypt will fight over the waters of the Nile as water insecurity intensifies.”
The conflict, which will begin as small-scale local confrontations, will escalate into instability in Northern Africa, which could in turn pose a threat to global stability by affecting broader political and economic relations, Kurnaz explains.
Climate change can also be a useful tool that violent non-state actors can utilise to further their goals.
Moreover, although it is widely accepted that the most vulnerable regions will suffer the most due to climate change, there is an existential threat for the developed countries as well, and not just to their way of life in the form of millions of people at their borders.
Europe, for instance, has already been observing the environmental consequences of climate change.
“With rising sea levels, the Netherlands will be completely submerged in water. The same will be the case for parts of the UK, Germany, and other European countries,” Kurnaz warns.
In spite of mounting scientific and political pressure, the nature of climate change as a matter of security is still relatively obscure, and no trace of truly effective action is on the horizon.
“At the moment, compared to climate change, there are more severe and obvious threats to security for many countries. Even when many of these threats are connected to climate change,” said Professor Kurnaz.
“All governments must consider the climate crisis as their top concern if we want effective change. But the economy, or political tensions are always more important.”
One concern, as stated in a UNSC research report, is that there is still contention about the security implications of climate change, namely on whether the link between climate change and security is clear or strong enough to face it as a security issue.
This mostly stems from a traditional understanding of security, which is limited to military matters focusing on violent conflict. This is why climate change is usually termed a “threat multiplier" and not a threat in and of itself with direct links to security.
“Climate change requires immediate and extensive action just as much as any other security issue, if not more,” says Kurnaz.
But the countries that can actually make a difference have their hands full with more “immediate” and evident concerns, so they deny the time and resources necessary for combating climate change.
With the consistent failure of efforts towards mitigation, there is little doubt that the consequences of climate change will become aggravated in time, with worsening implications for security in all its forms.
Meanwhile, countries will continue to greenwash their activities with “hollow” promises as they postpone their accountability for a couple other decades.
“It is getting late, even for mitigation. Globally, we should be taking immediate steps towards adaptation. The only thing left to do is try to prevent worsening conditions,” says Kurnaz.
“The world needs to go above and beyond current measures. We are still entangled in the same system that brought us to this crisis point, and we are still trying to use the tools of the same system to get us out of this problem.”