There is growing evidence that climate change can increase the risks of conflict and violence. When government authorities are unable or unwilling to mitigate and adapt to climate shocks such as hurricanes, tornadoes, floods and droughts, these extreme weather events are more likely to be followed by surges in crime, including homicide, robbery and sexual violence.
Slower, creeping forms of climate change also matter. Desertification and shrinking water resources can sharpen disputes, including in areas where extremist groups are active, such as the Sahel region in West Africa. In places where survival depends narrowly on a natural resource, scarcities can inflame pre-existing tensions — or incite new ones. These relationships demand urgent but balanced action, especially steps toward prevention.
Research indicates that climate change rarely, if ever, causes conflicts directly; intervening variables — most of them related to governance, underdevelopment and resource management — mediate this relationship. While reliably quantifying how much climate change contributes to a single event is challenging, researchers are identifying the causal paths in which climate conditions worsen insecurity.
There is also growing evidence from the Sahel, the Caribbean, the Horn of Africa, the Amazon Basin and the Pacific Ocean that extreme weather accelerates and multiplies social tensions and violent disputes, often by worsening water or food shortages or more dire scarcity. Droughts have killed hundreds of thousands people in Somalia and contributed to the displacement of millions of Syrians; they may also be helping to drive the crisis in Venezuela.
Climate change may also increase risks of interstate conflict, as in raising tensions between Sudan and Chad over pastoral land. Hot spots may proliferate as climate change progresses and more people migrate to vulnerable areas. With rising sea levels or soil degradation, climate change intensifies insecurity by shrinking sources of income and tearing apart communities.
For instance, in the Northern Triangle of Central America — Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala — this chain is provoking increased internal displacement, primarily within the countries. In Bolivia, the disappearance of Lake Poopó has caused entire indigenous communities to relocate because their main livelihood, fishing, is vanishing. These people express a huge sense of loss of belonging, identity and stability.
The most recent special report of the International Panel on Climate Change says that we have only 11 years to avoid a climate change catastrophe; many of the risks cited, including flooding of low-lying coastal areas and damage to critical infrastructure, are relevant to national, regional and international security and stability.
In 2017, the Hague Declaration on Planetary Security devised an agenda for action to tackle climate and security challenges and called for a special envoy to be appointed by the United Nations. Although this step has not been taken yet, the topic of climate and security is gaining momentum at the UN. Since April 2017, mostly because of work done by Sweden and Germany, the UN Security Council has issued at least six resolutions recognizing climate change as a “threat multiplier.”
The Dominican Republic, the tiny Caribbean nation that shares the island of Hispaniola with Haiti, organized an open debate in January 2019 in the Security Council on how climate disasters threaten international peace and security. A UN climate and security mechanism has been established to propose new risk assessments and tools. Across the UN system, there is growing concern that climate and security may be undercutting progress on achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. Climate and security is also relevant to several actions of the UN Climate Action Summit, scheduled for Sept. 23 in New York.
Civil society is also engaging vigorously with the topic. Youth leaders like Greta Thunberg are breathing new life into climate activism, bringing attention to catastrophic risks. A new Global Commission on Adaptation, announced by the Washington-based World Resources Institute in 2018, is preparing a report with recommendations on how to curb climate-related security risks.
In addition, think tanks and companies are starting related initiatives on research and policy, from Adelphi (Germany) and Igarapé Institute (Brazil) to Sipri (Sweden) and the Center for Climate and Security (US). In February 2019, a group of think tanks announced the creation of the International Military Council on Climate and Security (IMCCS), an umbrella organization of senior military leaders, security experts and security institutions working on the topic too.
Considerable pioneer thinking on climate and security is being generated by countries most vulnerable to climate change. The Pacific Island Forum, for instance, included climate change as a security issue during its 2018 Nauru Summit. In Latin America, the Caribbean Disaster Emergency Management Agency organized a conference to debate the effects of climate change in the region.
Yet the reality is that most governments have not begun incorporating a climate and security theme into their policies.
Part of the challenge is that the topic continues to be controversial at the UN. Some member states, such as India and Brazil, fear that linking these two thematic areas can lead to securitization — reframing the issue as requiring military solutions and thus distributing the allocation of resources away from development and human rights toward hard security. Many countries fear that the securitization of climate change could also threaten principles of national sovereignty; for instance, climate change being invoked as justification for military intervention.
Despite the decision by the US to withdraw from the Paris Agreement, UN member nations will need to start addressing the relationships between security and climate change more directly. Diplomats and researchers have noted that nowhere on the planet can climate change contribute toward insecurity more than in the Arctic, where geopolitical rivalries are mounting as the ice melts with global results. (The Arctic Council meeting in Finland this week failed to produce a final declaration, reportedly because the US refused to allow mention of climate change in the document.)
On the other hand, some Pacific island nations fear that turning climate and security into a global agenda at the UN may provide fodder for conservative governments to channel resources narrowly into challenges at home, at the expense of climate-related assistance to developing countries.
At least three steps are needed to move the debate forward.
First, high-quality diagnostics that draw explicitly on local knowledge can help to consolidate the evidence linking climate and security, especially in regions such as Latin America, where they have been far less studied than in Africa. Promoting quality research can also contribute to building an interdisciplinary epistemic community cutting across climate, development and security agendas. This research can have immediate effects: early warning systems and early response mechanisms can incorporate relevant climate stressors and related security results.
Second, climate and security priorities must be streamlined across the UN system. Country teams will need to incorporate appropriate stressors, risk factors and associated outcomes into their diagnostics and planning. Climate and security factors should be included, wherever possible, in national development strategies — while keeping in mind that poorly planned adaptation responses can lead to unintended consequences, as when newly introduced crops damage ecosystems and livelihoods. Responses should also address the disproportionate effect of climate and security on vulnerable populations, from the poor to women, children and indigenous communities.
Third, addressing the challenges posed by the connections between climate and security requires sensitizing people at the UN, the African Union and among governments in making climate and security a human-centered agenda. Given the increase in the global rejection of multilateralism and leadership that dismisses science for politics, breaking the complex vicious cycles linking climate and security requires creating incentives to shift institutional preferences and behavior toward improving people’s lives.
We encourage your US tax-deductible donations to PassBlue, enabling a free press to thrive.
We welcome your comments on this article. What are your thoughts?
Adriana Erthal Abdenur is the executive director of lataforma CIPÓ, a Brazil-based, women-led institute dedicated to issues of climate, governance and peace.