Looking at security through the climate lens

The Guatemalan army unloads humanitarian aid after the passage of tropical storm ETA in November, 2020. (Keystone/Esteban Biba)

As global warming gains ground, the security implications of the climate threat can no longer be ignored. But as the Covid-19 pandemic enters its tenth month, how will security and climate change interact in the future?

This is what a group of experts from different parts of the world discussed  on Thursday at a virtual event organised by the Geneva Centre for Security Policy (GCSP) for its 25th anniversary.

What’s at stake. Within thirty years, parts of Asia, Africa and America will be underwater. Other places will become too hot to sustain human life. As climate change unravels, certain regions of the world are gradually becoming inhospitable, water and food become scarce and violence and conflict ensue, leaving millions of people with no other choice but to resettle.

For Alexander Verbeek, founder of the Institute for Planetary Security and one of the panellists, “planetary change will increasingly have an impact on every aspect of security.”

He explained to Geneva Solutions:

“Human security and international security is a continuum. It has to start somewhere, and it starts with individuals. Take a family in the Sahel region. If there is an increase in droughts and they can so longer grow food or herd their cattle, they will increasingly experience competition with others for the last available water resources that might become violent. There will come a point where they have no choice but to move, probably to urban areas, putting pressure on already overwhelmed cities. Climate change is only a contributing factor to conflict but it can be a major one.”

Wake up call. Governments making pledges to reduce carbon emissions and to invest in a green recovery from the pandemic is a sign that the climate and security nexus is being recognised. Dr Jamie Shea, professor of strategy and security at the University of Exeter and former deputy assistant secretary general for emerging security challenges at NATO, highlighted the case of Europe.

“Ursula von der Leyen has placed the EU green deal at the top of the agenda. Every aspect of EU policy is going to be greened, from trade to agriculture to energy,” he said, adding “The level of ambition is impressive!”

This wakeup call is no coincidence as climate change is increasingly recognised as one of the biggest threats to security. As Dr. Shea pointed out, Africa is one of the regions that the EU is looking closely at with particular concern, as it continues to struggle with food production, water supply and stability. This is especially true for France which has deployed a large number of troops to Mali and to the Central African Republic, he added.

Read also: State of the climate in Africa: pressing the alarm button

From a security standpoint, climate has been shaping how states respond for quite some time. According to a report by the International Military Council on Climate and Security, out of 56 military and security experts surveyed, 86 per cent perceive that climate change effects on conflict within nations will present a significant or higher risk to global security within the next two decades. “One of the driving forces in recognising climate as a security threat has been the Pentagon,” Anna Brach, head of human security at the GCSP, said to Geneva Solutions.

The US has given signs of doubling down on this strategy. “John Kerry’s recent appointment as climate czar and at the same time serving on the National Security Council is a recognition of the highest level that you cannot separate climate from security,” Alexander Verbeek analysed.

New horizons. Other strategic questions being raised, he added, are the economic opportunities that come with climate change. As the Arctic sea ice continues to recede — nearly sixty per cent less than the average of the past 40 years —, a new Eldorado for potential oil and gas exploration is opening up. At the same time militarisation of the area has been scaling up in recent years by countries, including Russia and the US. “Competition and rivalry in the region will likely intensify,” he said.

Global warming will also be crucial to the fish industry. As temperatures shift, the water acidifies and ocean currents change, species will migrate to new grounds. This has the potential to shuffle the market dynamics.

Prepare accordingly. If actions that are being taken right now by governments can soften the blow, then there is also a need for more monitoring of the climate risks in order to prepare the response accordingly, the panellists said.

Aid, for instance, should be provided before the catastrophe happens and not afterwards, Dr. Shea noted, in order to build resilience and prepare communities to face the consequences of climate change.

Cooperation is also one of the key solutions highlighted by the panel. Alexander Verbeek said:

“By far most situations of competition that may develop because of climate change, biodiversity loss, or access to resources, will be solved by cooperation and not by conflict. It is therefore important to strengthen both multilateral processes as well as local cooperation mechanisms, preferably before tensions increase.”

“We have to look at security through the climate lens because if we keep emitting greenhouse gasses as we have done in the past decades, this is just a small taste of what we will be seeing in the future,” he concluded.