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Climate change is threatening global security

In the United States, the White House, the Pentagon and intelligence agencies have each published a report on the risk represented by climate change for world security. These reports predict conflicts related to resources, water in particular, in regions barely capable of coping with the effects of climate change.


Climate change will aggravate the threats to global security that exist already. This is the outlook for the next few decades published in the reports from these three authorities responsible for American security.

The report from the Pentagon is a turning point in the way it sees climate change in its military strategy. Up to now, action consisted in measuring the impacts of disasters like floods and extreme temperatures on the country’s military capacity. Henceforth, climate change is considered as a phenomenon liable to undermine fragile governments. The Pentagon is not the only security organisation to take this new direction: NATO and the British army have already taken such steps.

UN peace keepers in South Sudan, after strong rainfalls forced hundreds of thousands of people out of their homes in November 2019. REUTERS/Andreea Campeanu

Three major risks identified

The three American reports mention complex threats and describe three major risks for global security from now to 2030:

  1. Conflicts linked to food security. Fishing activities, affected by increasing temperatures and the acidification of the oceans, and agricultural production impacted by highly erratic rainfalls, will be disrupted. The resulting consequence for the prices of basic products could lead to new conflicts.
  2. Conflicts linked to water. Withdrawals of water and sharing the resources of cross-border rivers like the Nile and Mekong could exacerbate already tense geopolitical disputes.The National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) identifies geographic areas particularly at risk:

    ~ Pakistan, which depends on India for irrigation by surface water downstream of rivers supplied by glaciers located in India. Another point is that it is vital to share data on discharges upstream to predict flood risks and evacuate villages.

    ~ The Mekong basin, which is already an area subject to disputes over the construction of dams. The retention of water in these reservoirs is liable to threaten resources necessary for subsistence and the incomes of countries downstream, i.e. Vietnam and Cambodia.

    ~ The Middle East and North Africa, where 60% of the surface water crosses borders and where all the countries share at least one aquifer.

    According to the NIE, conflicts linked to water are identified as highly likely due to the absence of cooperation agreements in most of the world’s river basins and the current lack of flexibility of existing agreements to cope with the effects of climate change. Inefficient national governance of water resources in developing countries also increases their exposure to the effects of climate change.

  3. National, regional and global insecurity due to forced migrations. The report from the White House emphasises the effects of climate change – droughts and other extreme meteorological events – on the emergence of conflicts that will drive huge shifts of populations away from their homelands. Regarding this, the White House recommends better integration of climatic migrations in programmes dealing with the reception and asylum given to refugees.

Furthermore, the report mentions that certain countries (Russia, China) could profit from this situation, by supporting countries vulnerable to political instability due to the pressures of migrations.


The least resilient countries are more vulnerable

The most important information provided by these reports is the undoubted increase of geopolitical conflicts in the coming decades, due to the incapacity of certain countries to cope with the physical and political effects of climate change. These effects will be far more catastrophic in countries already affected by extreme events and which are devoid of the means to manage their impacts.

Regarding this, the NIE identified 11 particularly vulnerable countries: Afghanistan, Colombia, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, India, Iraq, Myanmar, North Korea, Nicaragua and Pakistan. In these countries, less water, food and energy security could aggravate poverty, ethnic and tribal tensions, discontent towards governments and the risk of social, economic and political instability.

Source: National Intelligence Council, Climate Change and International Responses Increasing Challenges to US National Security Through 2040 (Washington, DC: National Intelligence Council, 2021)

Although the report emphasises the great vulnerability of these countries, it does not omit to describe the threats within the United States, in particular in relation to rising sea levels, drought and forest fires that endanger whole regions.


The incapacity of countries to carry out coordinated action, an additional risk

The NIE is pessimistic about the possibility of conducting unified international action to face all these risks given that the time available to us to act before climate change causes irreversible damage is increasingly short.

Alok Sharma, President of COP26 at the closing ceremony. / Getty Images

The failure of the international community to orchestrate coordinated action on the global scale is also an additional risk for international security according to the NIE. The unilateral use of geoengineering[1], in the absence of international agreements that would limit its use, could have dramatic impacts. Technology linked to geoengineering used on one side of the world could have uncontrollable consequences on the climate of regions on the other side, potentially triggering global conflicts.

This concern is developed in detail in the NIE: many countries, unable to adapt their economies, are postponing major reductions of their emissions, appearing to count on technologies that do not yet exist.

[1] Geoengineering designates a number of measures taken in view to artificially modifying the climate on a large scale (for example, the stratospheric injection of aerosols to increase the atmospheric albedo, the deployment of a “solar shield”, etc.).

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