Assessing the Security Challenges of Climate Change

Obayedul Hoque Patwary | Exclusively written for | May 2011

Issue:Climate change

At the outset of the twenty first century, climate change has become one of the greatest challenges to international peace and security. It is seriously affecting hundreds of millions of people today and in the coming decades those affected will likely more than double, making it the greatest emerging humanitarian and security challenge of our time. Climate change acts as a threat multiplier for instability in some of the most volatile regions of the world. Projected climate change will seriously aggravate already marginal living standards in many Asian, African, and Middle Eastern nations, causing widespread political instability and conflict.

A crucial new quality of current climate change is its speed and extent. The matter is thus not one of individually occurring, monocausal crises and conflicts, but rather one of a great number of destabilising, mutually amplifying factors. To comprehend the danger of climate change, the CNA report on “National Security and the Threat of Climate Change” released in April 2007 has clearly stated that-

“When climates change significantly or environmental conditions deteriorate to the point that necessary resources are not available, societies can become stressed, sometimes to the point of collapse.”

Recent Scientific Assessment Regarding Climate Change

The recent scientific assessment presents a worrisome picture regarding climate change. The evidence of the scientific community clearly suggests that the scale of climate change has continued to widen at an accelerated pace. According to the Fourth Assessment Report of IPCC, eleven of the last twelve years (1995-2006) rank among the twelve warmest years in the instrumental record of global surface temperature (since 1850). The report presents a statistical idea about this trend where it suggests that the 100-year linear trend (1906-2005) of 0.74 °C is larger than the corresponding trend of 0.6 °C (1901-2000) given in the Third Assessment Report (TAR). The linear warming trend over the 50 years from 1956 to 2005 (0.13 °C per decade) is nearly twice that for the 100 years from 1906 to 2005.

The IPCC in its Fourth Assessment Report also concludes that some extreme weather events have changed in frequency and intensity over the last 50 years. It has been observed that:

Cold days, cold nights and frosts have become less frequent over most land areas, while hot days and hot nights have become more frequent.

Heat waves have become more frequent over most land areas.

The frequency of heavy precipitation events (or proportion of total rainfall from heavy falls) has increased over most areas.

The incidence of extreme high sea level has increased at a broad range of sites worldwide since 1975.

Regarding future climate change, IPCC projected that continued Green House Gas (GHG) emissions at or above current rates would cause further warming and induce many changes in the global climate system during the 21st century that would very likely be larger than those observed during the 20th century.

Security Implications of Climate Change

Climate change is a very complex phenomenon that affects many aspects of international politics and acts as a stressor making situations of instability, conflict and humanitarian crises more likely and severe. Climate change presents both direct and indirect threat to the security and stability of the society and the state. This has been discussed below in detail:

Primary threats of climate change

Resource scarcity and conflict

Climate induced resource scarcity always has the potential to be a contributing factor to conflict and instability. Over the past centuries there have been various instances in which climate change has exerted a highly negative influence on societies, in some cases triggering crises or aggravating conflicts and, in combination with other factors, leading to the collapse of entire societies. Some recent examples include: the 1994 genocide in Rwanda that was furthered by violence over agricultural resources; the situation in Darfur, Sudan, which had land resources at its root and which is increasingly spilling over into neighbouring Chad; the 1970s downfall of Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie through his government’s inability to respond to food shortages; and the 1974 Nigerian coup that resulted largely from an insufficient response to famine (CNA Report, 2009)

Water crises

Climate change aggravates water quality and availability in regions that are already struggling hardest with water scarcity: Africa, South Asia, the Middle East and the Mediterranean. 1.1 thousand million people are currently without access to safe drinking water (German Advisory Council on Global Change, 2008) and the situation is likely to be aggravated through climate change. This global crisis may in turn fuel existing internal or inter-state conflicts and social conflict and heighten competition among different users of the scarce water resources. The Indus water dispute is a glaring example of how water can complicate relations between states. It is predicted that unresolved water issue could trigger Indo-Pak war which would have unpredictable consequences in the international arena.


Large scale migration is another consequence of climate change which has deep security implications. Changes in local and regional climatic conditions in the form of sea level rise, heat stress, desertification, flooding and drought severely restrict livelihood options for large groups in developing countries. On the one hand, these changes may directly challenge basic subsistence of already disadvantaged communities in the region, thereby further increasing their vulnerability across social, economic and institutional settings. On the other hand, increasing local vulnerability could potentially trigger large-scale internal displacement and migration in search of new avenues for employment and settlement that can further lead to destabilization and violence. Such destabilization may take place at various levels: local (group vs. group), national (group vs. state) and international (state vs. state) level. For instance, an exercise at the National Defense University, published in the New York Times in August 2009, explored the potential impact of a destructive flood in Bangladesh that sent hundreds of thousands of refugees streaming into neighbouring India, touching off religious conflict, the spread of contagious diseases and vast damage to infrastructure. Indicating the severity of the problem, the Deputy assistant secretary of defenSe for strategy Amanda J. Dory commented that:  “It gets real complicated real quickly.”

Climate shock

Climate change is expected to increase the intensity and frequency of climatic shocks. In recent years, abrupt climatic disasters are increasing in frequency and touching the lives of more people. Such abrupt disaster which is also termed as ‘climate pearl harbour’ is reinforcing wider risks and vulnerabilities, leading to short and long-term setbacks to human security.

Melting of Himalayan Glacier

The fast melting of Himalayan glacier due to climate induced global warming also present severe security challenges to countries like Bangladesh. The expanding volume of water is causing higher sea levels which in turn can submerge a significant portion of land area. For instance, a rise above one metre, which could be reached by 2050, means Bangladesh could lose 15 per cent to 18 per cent of its land area, turning 30 million people into "environmental refugees".

Natural Disaster

Another consequence of climate change that has the potential to undermine the security of the state and individuals is related to natural disasters. Global warming is predicted to increase the frequency and intensity of various natural disasters e.g. tropical storms, flash floods, landslides etc. For instance, according to the Bangladesh Ministry of Environment and Forests, between 1991 and 2000, 93 major disasters were recorded in Bangladesh, resulting in nearly 200,000 deaths and causing US $ 5.9 billion in damages with high losses in agriculture and infrastructure. As a result, governments and individuals are still dealing with the effect of one event when another hazard strikes. Impacts of global warming and climate change thus challenge our development efforts, our human security and our future.

However, climate change not only leads to primary security challenges, but also presents a number of secondary threats.

Secondary Threats of Climate Change

Possible increase in the number of weak and fragile states

Climate change is likely to lead to an increase in the number of weak and fragile states. Weak and fragile states have inadequate capacities to guarantee the core functions of the state, notably the state’s ability to deliver basic services and maintain public order, and therefore already pose a major challenge for the international community. The impacts of unabated climate change would hit these countries especially hard, further limiting and eventually overstretching their problem-solving capacities. This is particularly relevant to regions like South Asia (the most crisis-ridden in the world -World Bank, 2006) and Africa, whose state institutions and intergovernmental capacities are weak. It is therefore foreseeable that climate change will overwhelm political structures and will further complicate economic and social problems of these regions.

Health Risks

Current weather conditions heavily impact the health of poor people in developing nations, and climate change has a multiplying effect. It is estimated that the health of 235 million people a year is likely to be seriously affected by gradual environmental degradation due to climate change (Human Impact Report, Global Humanitarian Forum, 2009). This is based on the assumption that climate change will increase malnutrition, diarrhoea and malaria. Malnutrition is the biggest burden in terms of deaths. Climate change is projected to cause over 150,000 deaths annually and almost 45 million people are estimated to be malnourished because of climate change, especially due to reduced food supply and decreased income from agriculture, livestock and fisheries. (Human Impact Report, Global Humanitarian Forum, 2009).

Threat to global economic development

Climate change slows - and in the worst cases reverses - progress made in fighting poverty and disease, and threatens the long terms sustainability of development progress. Climate change can lead to the destruction and devaluation of economic capital, as well as the loss of skilled and productive workers through environmentally induced migration and an increase in climate-induced diseases and malnutrition. Furthermore, economic resources that would normally be channelled directly into the production process instead have to be spent on adaptation measures, e.g. preparing for extreme events, or on reconstruction or the delivery of additional health services. Unabated climate change thus results in reduced rates of growth which will increasingly limit the economic scope, at national and international level. According to the Stern Review, which was commissioned by the British government, climate change impacts could cost 5-20% of global GDP each year (Stern, 2006) which can halt progress in meeting the Millennium Development Goals.

Increases in Poverty

Climate change compounds existing poverty by destroying livelihoods. Specifically, rising temperatures, changing rainfall patterns, floods, droughts and other weather-related disasters destroy crops and weaken or kill livestock. The majority of the people suffering from the impacts of climate change are already extremely poor. Currently about 2.6 billion people - two thirds of them women - live in poverty (below $2 a day) with almost 1 billion living in extreme poverty (less than $1 a day). About 12 million additional people are pushed into poverty today because of climate change (Human Impact Report, Global Humanitarian Forum, 2009).

Energy, infrastructure and transport

In view of the predicted climate trends and their associated socio-economic processes, key infrastructures are facing new demands. Climate induced consequences negatively affect the key infrastructures and make it more vulnerable which has wide ranging security implications such as:

The impacts of climate change may damage key infrastructures, such as energy supply, and consequently destabilise public order.

Wide-ranging destruction of the coastal infrastructure may lead to mass migration movements and trigger tensions in regions of destination.

The decline in hydroelectric power generation may additionally reinforce competition/conflicts over fossil energy sources.

New supply channels may additionally increase GHG emissions and thus aggravate problems-including the drivers of conflict.

Food crisis

Reduced or constrained agricultural productivity is often conceived as potentially the most worrisome consequence of climate change which reduces food security - especially in the poorest part of the world where hunger is already an issue. As a result, more than 850 million people worldwide are currently undernourished (German Advisory Council on Global Change, 2008) and the situation is likely to worsen in future as a result of climate change. Such impacts are particularly severe in developing regions such as South Asia, Sub-Saharan Africa and the dry land belt that stretches across the Sahara and the Middle East. This situation can trigger regional food crisis and further undermine the economic performance of weak and unstable states, thereby encouraging or aggravating destabilization, the collapse of social systems and violent conflicts.

Gender and climate change

Though climate change affects everyone, it is not gender neutral. Women are, in particular, more vulnerable to the effects of climate change as they represent 70% of those living below the poverty line. Consequently, they are most likely to bear the heaviest burdens when natural disasters strike. When poor women lose their livelihoods, they slip deeper into poverty and the inequality and marginalization they suffer from because of their gender, increases. In this way, climate induced disaster presents a very specific threat to their security.

North-South Conflict

Climate change can fuel conflict between the industrialized north and the developing south over the sharing of burden caused by unabated climate change. Though the industrialized countries have been primarily responsible for climate change, developing countries are bearing the main burden of the rising costs associated with climate change impacts. This reality has also been reflected through the words of Kofi Annan, the former Secretary General of the UN, as he stated that: “The countries most vulnerable…contribute least to the global emissions of greenhouse gases. Without action they will pay a high price for the actions of others.”

The unabated climate change thus herald the onset of a diplomatic freeze between the main drivers of climate change and a substantial number of developing countries that are especially hard hit by its impacts.

Radicalization and terrorism

Radicalization and terrorism may be increased in many developing societies due to the climate induced social and economic deprivation. Many developing countries do not have the government and social infrastructures in place to cope with the types of stressors that could be brought on by global climate change. When a government can no longer deliver services to its people, conditions are ripe for the extremists and terrorists to fill the vacuum. The radical and terrorist exploit this condition as a recruiting ground by offering various social services to the people. Lebanon’s experience with the militant group Hezbollah is a glaring example of how the central governments’ inability to provide basic services has led to the strengthening of a radical organization.

Undermining the Conditions of Human Rights

Climate change affects the situation of human rights adversely. Food security and access to drinking water could be challenged by the impacts of climate change in affected countries and regions, destruction caused by rising sea levels and extreme weather conditions could put people’s livelihoods at risk. In this way, climate change can endanger the human dignity to a large number of people by denying them the conditions in which they will not be able to safeguard their human rights.

Cultural Threat

Climate change can jeopardise the cultural heritage of people and society. As people are losing their places and livelihoods, increasing number of people are becoming climate refugees - leaving their history and tradition behind. It is predicted that some of the endangered groups in Africa which are coming under further stress due to climate impacts will be disappeared in future, thereby posing a threat to the cultural security of the society and the state.

Limiting the prospect of international cooperation

Climate change can also put additional stretch on international system by limiting the potential of cooperation over the management of scarce resources. When the countries come under further stress caused by climate change, they will become more insular and may take in-ward approach, thereby limiting the prospect of international cooperation in managing natural resources.

International Legal Complications

It is predicted that climate change could deepen the international legal complications. If the prediction of the scientific community becomes true, then countries like Maldives will be nowhere in the global Map in the foreseeable future. This could completely destabilize international maritime boundaries, and fuel tensions between maritime countries.

Concluding thoughts

At this juncture of history, it needs to be recognized that environmental crisis potentially has more pervasive and more security implications than any other crisis. For this reason, environmental challenges should be placed at the core of security considerations in a rapidly changing world. Hence, effective international cooperation should occur to address the unpredictable consequences of climate change.

Finally, I would like to conclude quoting the Obama’s Noble Peace Prize acceptance speech where he clearly states that:

‘It is undoubtedly true that development rarely takes root without security; it is also true that security does not exist where human beings do not have access to enough food, or clean water, or the medicine they need to survive…This is why the world must come together to confront climate change. There is little scientific dispute that if we do nothing, we will face more drought, famine and mass displacement that will fuel more conflict for decades.’

Image source: Oland0 7

Obayedul Hoque Patwary is a graduate of the department of Peace and Conflict Studies of Dhaka University, Bangladesh. He is working as a Research Analyst at the Bangladesh Institute of Peace and Security Studies. His research mainly focuses on the issue of 'climate change and security' and the 'transnational security threats'.


Nice one!

Very good effort!

fantastic article vaia!

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