Human Security and Climate Change
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The issues of human security and conflict in relation to climate change have evolved to a place where they now constitute a recognized and important component in the climate change conversation, and are being addressed in a diverse range of fora through meetings, reports and changes in policy.

The issues of human security and conflict in relation to climate change have evolved to a place where they now constitute a recognized and important component in the climate change conversation, and are being addressed in a diverse range of fora through meetings, reports and changes in policy.

For example, the UN Security Council has dedicated two sessions to the security threat posed by climate change; for the first time ever an assessment report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) devo­ted an entire chapter to human security; and a recently published US Department of Defense Adaptation Roadmap states that “climate change poses an immediate threat to national security,” calling on the military to incorporate climate change into “broader strategic thinking about high-risk regions.”[1]

Climate change is referred to as a “threat multiplier” because of its potential to exacerbate many of the current challenges and threats already being faced in some countries, such as infectious disease, terrorism and conflict over scarce resources. It can contribute to instability, lead to displacement and migration, worsen existing conflicts and threaten global security. Many developing countries, and particularly weaker and poorer States, have less capacity to prepare for and adapt to climate change, with a flood or drought capable of causing instability and unrest. For example, climate change can contribute to food insecurity and increase the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events, which can lead to massive displacement and/or migration and conflict over food, water and/or arable land and border disputes. This ultimately reflects a lack of security in the daily lives of people. As climate change impacts worsen and temperatures rise, the threats to security have the potential to become more prominent and definitive.

However, viewing climate change as a security threat is not something all countries have historically been comfortable with, or were even aware of. Moreover, the issue was not so prevalent and the linkages were more tenuous in the early stages of international discussions on climate change. The UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and the Kyoto Protocol contain no reference to human security. Furthermore, when discussions on security and climate change at the international level first took place almost ten years ago when the UN Security Council addressed the impacts of climate change on peace and security,[2] the issue was still considered a “future” concern. At the time, climate change was mostly being addressed within the traditional climate change-related fora, was considered an “environmental issue” and primarily fell under the purview of environmental ministries. While today security is widely recognized as a legitimate concern in relation to climate change and is being addressed in various fora and international organizations, as mentioned, security-related concerns have yet to make their way into the formal climate change negotiations under the UNFCCC, the only global instrument to address climate change.

As far back as 2007, governments, and research and other organizations were beginning to address the issue of security and climate change. The Council on Foreign Relations, a US-based think tank, published an agenda for action,[3] which moved beyond “diagnosing the threat” that climate change poses to security, provided affordable policy options to reduce vulnerability, and discussed strategic dimensions of reducing emissions, arguing that “sharp reductions” were critical “to avoid a spike in security concerns.”[4]Also in 2007, the German Advisory Council on Global Change (WGBU) assessed the global security risks of climate change, but considered that climate-driven inter-State wars were unlikely to occur.[5] However, WGBU stated that climate change could “trigger national and international distributional conflicts” and intensify already challenging problems, such as “State failure, the erosion of social order and rising violence.” It also identified threats to security, including: a possible increase in the number of weak and fragile States as a result of climate change, and a “triggering and intensification of migration.” Echoing these sentiments and assessments, in 2008, the European Commission published a paper that detailed climate change-driven threats related to security issues,[6] including: conflicts over diminished resources, such as water; economic damage and risk to coastal cities and infrastructure, such as port facilities; loss of territory and border disputes; “fragility and radicalization” in weak or failing States; tension over energy supply; and pressure on international governance, including the fueling of “politics of resentment” between those most responsible for climate change and those most affected by it.[7]

In 2007, the UN Security Council held its first-ever debate on the impacts of climate change on peace and security;[8] however, some countries questioned whether the Security Council was the appropriate place to discuss the issue. At the time, many developing countries, such as India and China, said climate change fell outside the Security Council’s mandate and should be dealt with in other fora, such as the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), the UN General Assembly (UNGA) and the UNFCCC.[9] However, others, and small island States in particular, supported the debate, which was initiated by the United Kingdom, who held the Security Council presidency at the time.

In 2011, another Security Council session on the security impacts of climate change convened, with UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon stating that “climate change not only exacerbates threats to peace and security, it is a threat to peace and security.”[10] The day-long debate concluded with a statement that recognized the responsibility for climate change and other sustainable development issues conferred upon the UNGA and ECOSOC. It also underscores the UNGA’s resolution, which reaffirms the UNFCCC as the primary forum for addressing climate change. However, the statement also notes that “conflict analysis” on the “possible security implications of climate change” is important when climate issues drive conflict, challenge implementation of Security Council mandates or endanger peace processes.[11]

In its latest assessment report, the IPCC addressed security and conflict for the first time by including a subsection on ‘Human Security’ in the Working Group II (WGII) contribution to the Fifth Assessment Report (AR5) on Impacts, Vulnerability and Adaptation. It concludes that climate change is projected to increase the displacement of people due to a lack of resources and extreme weather events, in both rural and urban areas, particularly in low-income developing countries, and has the potential to indirectly increase the risk of violent conflicts, such as civil war and inter-group violence, by exacerbating well-documented conflict drivers, such as poverty and economic shocks. Climate change also impacts on the infrastructure and territorial integrity of States, and, as such, is expected to influence national security policies.[12] For example, land inundation due to sea-level rise threatens the territorial integrity of small island States and countries with extensive coastlines. In addition, some transboundary impacts, such as on water resources, can increase rivalries. While effective and strengthened national and intergovernmental institutions and strong governance at the State level can help enhance cooperation and manage such conflicts, this is not always possible in weaker or fragile States. Whether addressing the issue of human security in the AR5 will create any impetus for or “influence” policymakers to pick up this issue in the intergovernmental negotiations process remains to be seen.

Following on the heels of the IPCC WG II report’s release and echoing its findings that impacts exacerbated by climate change is a growing security concern, the CNA Military Advisory Board, in the US, released a report on National Security and the Accelerating Risks of Climate Change,[13] which points to the threats posed by further pressures on areas where the water-food-security nexus is already stressed.[14] The report reiterates that climate change has led to, inter alia: wheat and maize yield reductions, which could further threaten food security and spark conflicts;[15] and prolonged drought, leading to both food price spikes and mass displacement, both of which contribute to instability and conflict. In addition, according to the report, increased flooding in low-lying urban areas, such as Dhaka, Jakarta and Mumbai, could lead to unprecedented levels of dislocation and mass migration, exerting more pressure on infrastructure and resources. The US Department of Defense report (mentioned above) also describes how drought and food shortages might spark political unrest in the Middle East and Africa, for example.[16]

While one factor among many and less likely to lead to conflict if other risk factors are not present, climate change is and will continue to exacerbate regional and local tensions in ‘hot-zones,’ where its impacts will multiply problems like water scarcity, food shortages and overpopulation, increasing the potential for instability and conflict. As described in a special issue of Political Geography exploring the links between climate change and violent conflict,[17] climate change can lead to a decrease in such resources as food or water, resulting in either fighting over resources due to increased scarcity or migration, internally or across borders.[18] Regardless of the type and size of climatic changes, short-term climate change impacts are likely to have a disproportionate effect on poor countries with already weak governance structures, and poor people in poor countries, particularly in Africa and Asia.[19] The Wilson Center’s Environmental Change and Security Program has numerous publications on this issue, including on ‘Climate-Related Conflicts in West Africa,’ for example.[20] While many States in these regions will suffer droughts, floods and overall poor water quality, some may also experience increased regional tensions or even risk failure due to the inability to cope with sudden shocks, as well as long-term stresses, such as decreased agricultural yields. Thus, planning is critical, and the unexpected must be anticipated and prepared for through adaptation actions and resilience building.

Some are beginning to assess what is being done, as well as what can and should be done in the near future. For example, the American Security Project released preliminary results on a Climate Change and Global Security Defense Index[21]that details how governments around the world are planning for and anticipating the strategic threats of climate change, by consolidating the attitudes of militaries and security establishments toward climate change and comparing national, regional and multilateral security approaches. The Index’s ultimate objective is to determine to what extent governments consider climate change to be a security issue, and whether they have incorporated such concerns into official documents and policies. The Index suggests that, inter alia: almost all countries consider human assistance and disaster relief a crucial responsibility of their militaries; and 70% of countries have built climate change as a national security threat into their planning.[22] This is an encouraging sign.

While the security dimension of climate change is more evident than ever, the issue is still not being addressed by the international climate regime, nor does it have any legal force or backing. However, countries, organizations and various studies and reports are continuing to highlight the issue, and some countries are making changes to their national policies to accommodate these concerns and threats. As threats proliferate and become more diverse and the planet continues to warm, such security concerns will become more international in nature, go beyond borders, as climate change itself, and will require a more concerted international response.


[1] http://www.acq.osd.mil/ie/download/CCARprint.pdf

[2] http://www.un.org/press/en/2007/sc9000.doc.htm

[3] http://www.cfr.org/climate-change/climate-change-national-security/p14862

[4] http://www.cfr.org/climate-change/climate-change-national-security/p14862

[5] http://www.wbgu.de/en/flagship-reports/fr-2007-security/

[6] http://www.consilium.europa.eu/uedocs/cms_data/docs/pressdata/en/reports/99387.pdf

[7] http://www.consilium.europa.eu/uedocs/cms_data/docs/pressdata/en/reports/99387.pdf

[8] http://www.un.org/News/Press/docs/2007/sc9000.doc.htm

[9] http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2007/apr/18/greenpolitics.climatechange

[10] http://www.un.org/News/Press/docs/2011/sc10332.doc.htm

[11] http://www.un.org/press/en//2011/sc10332.doc.htm

[12] http://ipcc-wg2.gov/AR5/images/uploads/IPCC_WG2AR5_SPM_Approved.pdf

[13] http://www.cna.org/sites/default/files/MAB_2014.pdf

[14] http://www.cna.org/sites/default/files/MAB_2014.pdf

[15] http://ipcc-wg2.gov/AR5/images/uploads/IPCC_WG2AR5_SPM_Approved.pdf

[16] http://www.acq.osd.mil/ie/download/CCARprint.pdf

[17] http://www.wilsoncenter.org/publication/political-geography-special-issue-climate-change-and-conflict

[18] http://graduateinstitute.ch/files/live/sites/iheid/files/sites/political_science/shared/political_science/1701/Environmental-Security-Article-Nordas-Gleditsch.pdf

[19] http://www.brookings.edu/research/books/2010/confrontingpoverty

[20] http://www.wilsoncenter.org/sites/default/files/Nyong12.pdf

[21] http://www.americansecurityproject.org/the-global-security-defense-index-on-climate-change-%EF%BF%BCpreliminary-results/

[22] http://www.americansecurityproject.org/the-global-security-defense-index-on-climate-change-%EF%BF%BCpreliminary-results/

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