Climate change and national security: let’s start off with the facts. What threats does anthropogenic climate change pose to national security of the world’s nations? What have experts said about this topic?
• The Congolese representative at the UN Security Council debate in April 2007 said that climate change is transforming the way we think about security. “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”.
• The French called it the "number one threat to mankind".
• The representative from Papua New Guinea said the dangers that small island States and their populations faced from climate change were "no less serious than those faced by nations and peoples threatened by guns and bombs".
• UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said that scarce resources (e.g. energy, water, or arable land) could lead to a breakdown in established codes of conduct, and even to outright conflict. (1)
So it seems from all this expert testimony that our increasingly unstable climate is no longer seen as primarily an environmental or economic issue.
But maybe this argument is not as persuasive as it could be. From a US perspective, it still focusses mostly on far-flung nations with small GDPs, the security of which does not rank high on US officials’ priorities. So national security threats does climate change specifically pose to the US?
Let’s back up a bit, and first think about what “national security” really means. The United States National Security Strategy of 2010 (NSS) defines national security as a set of specific strategies outlining the goals, objectives, and foreign interests necessary to build a stronger and more secure America (2). They proposed 4 key areas in which global climate change indirectly weakens U.S. national security:
• Critical Infrastructure (roads, buildings, transport, cement degradation)
• Public Health (air pollution, heat waves, zoonotic diseases)
• Economy (loss of productivity, cost of damage)
• Conflicts over new or diminishing resources (threatens U.S. foreign interests, tension over natural resources).
So not only is climate change a threat multiplier for instability in some of the most volatile regions in the world, but it also has tangible negative effects on parts of the U.S.’s infrastructure, public health, and economy, all of which in turn weaken U.S. national security.
Focussing on a national security angle when talking about climate change might be the key to bipartisan support for climate change mitigation policy in the US. The Republican party’s history of climate change denial has made climate change legislation difficult to get through the various government houses, but perhaps Republicans would be more open to supporting legislation that protects American citizens from infringement of their freedoms, from terrorism/ legislation that supports military funding for climate change mitigation?
Indeed, in 2018, when the Trump administration failed to mention climate change in its yearly National Security Strategy report, a bipartisan group of 106 House members, including 11 Republicans, sent a letter to the President asking him to reconsider. In their letter, the lawmakers quoted Defence Secretary James Mattis, who said at his confirmation hearing, “the effects of a changing climate... will impact our security situation” in terms of increased natural disasters, refugee flows, and conflicts over resources like food and water (3).
America produces 15% of all global CO2 emissions, so we seriously need it to lead the way in greening its economy. (And it also seems like China is changing its tune on climate change and national security too! (4)). Wildfires, hurricanes, floods, heatwaves, and storms that are becoming more common in the U.S. and around the world, and they are made more frequent and more intense as global temperature rises (5). The longer we delay climate change mitigation policy, the worse off we’ll be in the future.
(1) Parry, Emyr Jones (n.d.), “The Greatest Threat To Global Security: Climate Change Is Not Merely An Environmental Problem”, in UN Chronicle. Available at: https://www.un.org/en/chronicle/article/greatest-threat-global-security-climate-change-not-merely-environmental-problem
(2) Morales Jr., Emilio (2015), “Global Climate Change as a Threat to U.S. National Security”, in Journal of Strategic Security, 8(3), (Florida: University of South Florida Board of Trustees), pp. 134-148. Available at: https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.2307/26465252
(3) Irfan, Umair (2018), “106 lawmakers — including 11 Republicans — tell Trump climate change is a national security threat”, Vox.com. Available at: https://www.vox.com/energy-and-environment/2017/12/18/16791106/white-house-climate-change-national-security-strategy-threat-military
(4) Moore, Scott & Melton, Michelle (2019), “China's Pivot on Climate Change and National Security”, in Lawfare. Available at: https://www.lawfareblog.com/chinas-pivot-climate-change-and-national-security
(5) Goodman, Sherri & Guy, Kate (2020), “The climate crisis is a national security threat to the US. We already see the effects”, in The Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/sep/16/climate-crisis-national-security-threat-us