Climate Change: A Threat to National Security

Commentary by Alex IRELAND

Climate change has been in the news recently due to the UN Climate Change Conference held in Paris, but is an issue of enduring importance. However, the effects of climate change are often hard to visualise, leading people to underestimate the scale of the problem. Maps of rising sea levels can feel detached from reality, and too far into the future to matter at present. Likewise, research on temperature changes for different regions can be too abstract and difficult to imagine.

But there is another little-discussed consequence of climate change, which is likely to strike far more quickly and far more violently. Climate change represents a major threat to political security across the globe. Long before rising sea levels or acidification of the oceans causes major destruction, or global warming-aggravated famines and water scarcity cause widespread deaths, climate change will fuel major social and political unrest in the most-affected countries.

Climate Change CC BY 2.0
Members of the Free Syrian Army in 2012. There is evidence to suggest that climate change contributed to the political instability that caused the Syrian civil war – by Freedom House, licensed under CC BY 2.0

It is already accepted that climate change will exacerbate problems of resource scarcity, making famines and droughts, for example, more likely. However, the way that people and societies react to such problems is crucial. Before water scarcity, for example, becomes pronounced enough to cause large numbers of deaths in a region, thousands of people will have migrated out of the affected area. Whatever place receives them will face some of the common difficulties of coping with an influx of migrants or refugees, be that rising unemployment from an oversupply of labour, or increasing pressures on their own services, amongst many other problems. Before a food shortage in a country or region becomes severe enough to cause widespread starvation, the price of staple foods will have increased by many multiples – food price inflation being one of the major immediate causes of mass protests and riots – or countless agricultural workers will have lost employment. Such effects, or others similar, will exacerbate existing causes of social unrest or even create new ones, and contribute to political upheavals and conflict.

It will be difficult to measure each individual instance of climate change intensifying resource scarcity, and difficult also to measure each instance of resource scarcity exacerbating or causing social and political unrest. However, with the entire globe affected, and decades upon decades to impact, it is safe to say that even if the impact is small in most individual cases, there is more than enough opportunity for climate change to wreak havoc through this mechanism. Unfortunately, the countries most at risk from climate change are often underdeveloped and already suffering from political tensions, and so problems of resource scarcity can act as a multiplier of already-existent instability, and thus have a strong ultimate effect.

One example of this, and a warning of what may be to come, is provided by the ongoing Syrian civil war. Syria suffered a record drought in the years 2006-2009, which was likely intensified by global warming, and some commentators identify this as one of the key causes of the civil war. Failure of crops and difficulty farming, worsened by unhelpful policies from central government, caused large migrations from the rural north into the southern cities, overwhelming the cities’ resources and infrastructure and raising unemployment with the influx of new labour. Despite there being many other competing causes to the conflict, it is likely that climate change acted indirectly to multiply the already-existent grievances of the population, and thus can be seen as a contributory factor.

Likewise, despite the immediate cause of the 2003-present conflict in Darfur, Sudan, being a regional rebellion sparked by tensions between the non-Arab citizens in Darfur and the Arab-led central government, a UN report highlights climate change as being a major underlying cause. Climate change-aggravated drought caused desertification of the northern reaches of Darfur, pushing previously spread-out ethnic groups into rivalry with each other for access to the scarce remaining land and water, raising tensions between the Arab and non-Arab population. This massively increased the underlying instability in the region, contributing to the outbreak of violence later on.

Worse still, political unrest can spill over to neighbouring countries through a number of mechanisms. These can be as diverse as refugee crises, armed conflict, or the contagion effect of mass uprisings. Witness, for example, the migration crisis in the EU resulting in part from the Syrian civil war, or the recent terrorist attacks suffered in Europe and the US that were enabled by state weakness in Iraq and Syria. These examples are not necessarily the result of climate change, but the message should be clear: not only is the developing world at risk from the direct security implications of climate change, but so is the developed world at risk from spillover effects.

A critical observer may be tempted to dismiss the connection between climate change and increased unrest as tenuous and unprovable, or reject it in favour of more tangible effects of political actors. In one sense they would be correct to, for climate change will likely never present itself as the direct cause of a conflict. However, to do so would be a mistake. Climate change and its effects will increasingly act as a catalyst or ‘multiplier’ of existing problems in societies and regions that are already at risk of instability, and so act as a major threat to security around the world. It is highly likely that the world will see an increase in conflict and social unrest over the coming decades fuelled by this effect. There may be little that we can do in the short-term beyond relief and peace-making attempts in each individual scenario, but for the long term it is clear that we must fight climate change in order to avoid the widespread political strife that it would bring.

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