When scientists first unravelled the evidence of human-induced changes to the environment in the 1970s it was in most cases dismissed as an environmental issue only worthy of marginal attention. It was certainly not until the 1990s that the international community understood that the current pace of rising greenhouse gas emissions is also a matter of economic policy, but it was not yet acknowledged that climate change was as a threat to international peace and security. Even today, as one has to sadly confess, some governments have still not heard the gong and are only slowly- if at all- recognising the threat posed by climate change to food security, water supplies and the ability to allocate resources. In turn, some governments only peripherally understand that such developments can lead to forced migration and displacement as well as tensions within communities the world over. Treating climate change as a back-burner issue prevents governments (and in consequence in some cases international organisations) from preparing for the economic and social stressors that the nation state will face in the 21th Century and beyond. Already fragile situations in certain parts of the world may turn into full-scale catastrophes.
Cause for concern but also hope
Nevertheless, the situation is not all bleak. In more recent years, more and more governments have placed the climate change issue into a broader context of global security. Germany, for example, has even placed climate and security at the centre of its tenure in the UN Security Council in 2019/2020 and raised awareness of the impact of the changing environment on international security. Thus, one might beg the question: Is climate change transforming the way we think about global security threats? The answer to this question is complex and it is as much an academic exercise as it is a matter of perspective. We would however put forward, that climate change SHOULD change the way we think about international peace and security. That fact of the matter is simple: extreme weather, natural disasters and adverse impacts on ecosystems due to human-induced changes to the environment will have (and already have) devastating consequences on social cohesion, on the ability of people and governments to secure sufficient food and water, and will direct refugee and migration flows.
The current climate crisis has led to severe impacts for mankind and the environment the world over. Entire communities have already been displaced, the threat of species-extinction is at unprecedented levels due to rise in temperatures and changing ecosystems, and the competition over resources has intensified. The Congolese representative to the UN put it amply when he addressed the Security Council in 2007 by saying: “This will not be the first time people have fought over land, water and resources, but this time it will be on a scale that dwarfs the conflicts of the past.” There should be little doubt that the continuously developing global climate emergency is set to severely destabilise global security and, if no immediate and far-reaching action is taken, the crisis poses huge difficulties for communities. To put it more to the point, small island States – and many Pacific Island nations -will not survive increased sea levels. Entire traditions and cultures, which have existed for thousands of years, may become an artefact of the past under our watch.
Climate change and broader threats to peace and security
As the Congolese representative has highlighted above, climate change can constitute a cause of destabilisation for security and peace on a global scale. There are several issues to be tackled urgently to avoid far-reaching consequences for affected regions but also more generally for the maintenance of international peace and security. But what are the interlinkages between climate change and security, and how can this current crisis reinforce security concerns and conflict hotspots?
First, the struggle over existing natural resources – which is as noted above not a new phenomenon – has intensified due to spikes in temperature and environmental degradation. Drought and shifting weather patterns have put enormous pressure on water supply, agriculture and subsistence farming. Communities in Africa and Asia have been forced to survive with even less than before, which has the potential to lead to social unrest and internal displacement. Furthermore, coastal communities whose income solely depend on the ocean are jeopardised by changes in salinity and sea surface temperature. Food and water scarcity are not only threats to the survival of thousands of individuals, they can also be linked to the emergence of internal conflicts, often of violent nature. Although conflicts need to be seen from a holistic perspective – there is rarely one single reason for internal disputes or wars – climate change can fuel and accelerate such conflicts significantly. In the case of Somalia, for example, or the war in Sudan (Darfur), the presence of severe drought in the affected areas has certainly intensified those conflicts. The pressure on farmers and herders resulted in serious tensions adding another layer of unrest. While one has to perhaps be a bit cautious and wary of not mixing reasons and consequences of conflicts, it seems clear that climate change threatens livelihoods and in turn social and economic stability.
Second, the consequences of climate change can lead to both internal and external displacement. In this context, the terms ‘environmental migration’ and ‘climate refugees’ come to mind. Many countries face considerable problems in dealing with the resettling of individuals and it has put enormous pressure on informal settlements or already densely populated urban areas. Various security challenges including increased crime rates, social inequality and stressors on domestic health systems are consequences that are likely to grow in the coming years.
Lastly, the implications caused by climate change can also have a political-populist dimension. The overt simplification of security concerns to increasing migration patterns is already being used by populist and right-wing parties across the globe. Such movements also strongly urge for political solutions to be sought on national levels rather than through joint cooperation on a global scale; they highlight the importance of national consciousness as well as patriotism and express the need to recalibrate focus on their own borders. While the aim seems to be that populations could benefit from this approach, global issues need to be addressed jointly within established international fora, like the United Nations. The trend of rising populists and right-wing parties often includes climate change denial and their nationalism jeopardises the efforts of tackling environmental challenges effectively and can again lead to instability and security gaps. Given the world’s intertwined and globalised nature, security-threats can only be resolved collaboratively. Economic imbalances or health crisis like the current pandemic supersede borders, and sustainable solutions can only be found if national and global leaders recognise the need of joint actions.
Where do we go from here?
As the global climate crisis unfolds, extreme weather patterns and the struggle over natural resources are only two of many challenges that we will continue to face in the coming future. The scarcity of resources and their spike in value can certainly intensify conflicts both on the inter-state as well as intra-state level and will pose a significant challenge to social cohesions. More so, forced migration due to environmental degradation will continue to play a role in many parts of the world. Anyone that is still convinced that climate change is a purely environmental concern is in for a rude-awakening. The climate crisis needs to be seen from a holistic perspective, including its far-reaching consequences on security and peace worldwide. In this sense, the need to end offshore hydrocarbon exploration, to name one specific example, would benefit marine ecosystems and would at the same time reduce greenhouse gas emissions, in turn contributing to global security in the long-run. Legal frameworks and policies need to be adjusted to reflect these severe risks for the global community and international collaboration has to be intensified to implement joint actions and long-lasting solutions. Leaders and experts from different areas and disciplines need to move in the same direction to tackle climate change as a global phenomenon with greater attention and determination. This includes political and financial commitments, especially for those suffering the most from the impacts of climate change.
Paul currently works as a Communications Consultant at the Independent Redress Mechanism (IRM) of the Green Climate Fund (GCF). He specialized in International Migration and Ethnic Relations in his master studies at Aalborg University in Denmark where he focused on the nexus between climate change and migration patterns. During his studies, he spent time abroad in Indonesia working for a small NGO and in Fiji conducting ethnographic research for his final thesis about environmental migration in the Pacific. He also worked for UN-Habitat (United Nations Human Settlements Programme) in Fiji where he was involved in informal settlements upgrading in particular in relation to environmental and climate change impacts. Paul received his bachelor’s degree in Communication Science and Journalism at the University of Vienna and worked for three years in the health promotion sector for the town council of Vienna.
Johannes currently works at OceanCare, a Swiss-based international non-governmental organisation. OceanCare holds Special Consultative Status with the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations (ECOSOC) and works at national and international level in the areas of environmental challenges relating to marine pollution, fisheries, whaling and ocean governance. Johannes obtained his bachelor’s degree from the Univeristy of Vienna in political science and subsequently completed a master’s degree from the University of St Andrews. Most recently he concluded his doctoral research at the University of St Andrews’ department for international relations with a focus on a long-term assessment of the United Nations’ response to terrorism.
Select bibliography for further reading:
Brown O., Hammill, A., and Mcleman, R., 2007. Climate Change as the ‘New’ Security Threat: Implications for Africa. International Affairs. 83(6), pp. 1141-1154.
Parry J. E., unknown. The Greatest Threat to Global Security: Climate Change Is Not Merely An Environmental Problem. UN Chronicle, [online] unknown. Available at: https://www.un.org/en/chronicle/article/greatest-threat-global-security-climate-change-not-merely-environmental-problem [Accessed 5 June 2020].
Verbeek, A., 2019. Planetary Security: the security implications of climate change. NATO Review, [online] 10 December. Available at: https://library.aru.ac.uk/referencing/harvard.htm [Accessed 20 May 2020].
United Nations., 2019. Climate change recognized as ‘threat multiplier’, UN Security Council debates its impact on peace. UN News, [online] 25 January. Available at: https://news.un.org/en/story/2019/01/1031322 [Accessed 20 May 2020].