Building global climate security

The changing climate poses one of the most serious threats to global security.

Expert comment Published 29 September 2021 3 minute READ

Thammy Evans

Non-Resident Senior Fellow, Atlantic Council

The impacts of a changing climate pose a serious threat to global security and rethinking traditional security concepts, understanding the interconnected demands of climate security, sustainable human development and regenerative economic systems are all needed to address arguably the most serious threat to global security we face.

The impact of a changing climate on security

There is no doubt that climate change is fast becoming a major security risk. Severe weather events, mass migration, diminishing global freshwater supplies and changing disease vectors are adding to old and new security concerns as a result of their potential to exacerbate fragile situations and increase the vulnerability of countries – particularly countries already affected by conflict.

Indeed, worsening climate change impacts in conflict environments, such as Afghanistan, Mali or the Tigray region in Ethiopia, already complicate peacebuilding and could potentially lead to further social and political tensions.

But these risks are not confined to the Global South. They can act as a ‘threat multiplier’ around the world with impacts on other security domains and in other regions. For example, the World Climate and Security Report 2021, published by the International Military Council for Climate and Security, provides a deep dive into the multiple climate security risks, not only across Sub-Saharan Africa, but also for the European Union and other regions as well.

In this vein, climate change is beginning to shape security narratives. In fact, the security community has advanced the securitization agenda of climate change by recognizing climate change as a critical factor that militaries will have to deal with, not only because of its impacts on military operations, but also anticipating increasing climate-induced internal displacement which is already three times higher than conflict displacement. However, despite this, many armed forces are still precariously underprepared for the security implications of the world’s changing climate.  

Interestingly, the role of militaries around the world in contributing to climate change is also of concern. Military equipment supply chains are a significant source of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. For example, the US military emitted 1.2 billion metric tonnes of GHGs since the start of the war on terror in 2001. Yet emissions reduction targets for military organizations are mostly lacking, absent even, in the EU’s Climate Change and Defence Roadmap endorsed in 2021, despite some advances in electrification of military platforms.

Climatizing defence budgets 

Importantly, the lack of climate finance is a major barrier to meaningfully addressing climate change and building climate security. In 2009, the international community promised $100 billion in climate finance for developing countries but this pledge is still not fulfilled with only two months to go until COP26.

The security risk posed by climate change should be used by political leaders across the world as leverage to increase ambition around climate finance while also convincing their national constituencies that enlarged spending on tackling climate change would make a major contribution to improving national security and preventing upstream conflict.

The security risk posed by climate change should be used as leverage to increase ambition around climate finance.

Furthermore, the climate finance pledge could be better achieved with changing military priorities, if not budgets, towards sustainable development as a conflict-sensitive military tool that partners on military climate adaptation assessments and decarbonization technologies.

Systemic finance solutions that address climate threats will require climatizing defence spending. Some countries, including the UK, have partially started this, but the majority of increases in military budgets are not yet directed towards climate-relevant upgrades.

Furthermore, substantial parts of military expenditure and expertise should be aligned with support for renewable energy programmes, climate regeneration mitigation and adaptation projects.

Towards ‘regenerative security’ approaches

Along with all other sectors, the security community needs to support efforts to fully decarbonizing energy, construction, agriculture and transport systems, as well as supporting natural carbon sinks, and systemically linking responses to, and bridging the gap between, the biodiversity crisis with responses to the climate crisis.

Calls to legally define ecocide as a crime under the International Criminal Court have been growing and the prospect of armed forces defending against ecocide looks increasingly likely. For example, the partnering of militaries with national law enforcement agencies might be needed to defend the Amazon and other key habitats from further destruction. In Brazil, for example, the military has had mixed results at best over the last decade, intertwined with at times contradictory political policies. To improve effectiveness will require, not only a shift in mindset, but also retraining, new tools and different command structures.

Calls to legally define ecocide as a crime have been growing and the prospect of armed forces defending against ecocide looks increasingly likely.

More complex interventions include countering illegal wildlife trade (CIWT) and shipments of toxic waste as well as deterring piracy and prohibiting illegal, unregulated and unreported fishing (IUUF).

There is also significant scope for militaries partnering with industry to help bring sustainable technologies to market, connecting with beneficiaries to conduct climate impact risk assessments and incorporating human security considerations into military planning to provide climate adaptive solutions.

The idea of ‘regenerative security’ entails addressing escalating climate impacts while building broader resilience through circular economic models that provide for long-term resource security and human and ecological security.

The solutions involving the armed forces could involve the use of force directly against actors causing ecological damage or enforcing a mandate to protect shared ecological assets. But they can also be as simple, and relatively uncontentious, as planting a Great Green Wall and reforesting degraded landscapes.

There are also proven solutions that not only limit the damage of climate change, for example, there are opportunities to create positive feedback loops between economic resilience, environmental integrity and human wellbeing through regenerative circular economies that contribute to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals.

‘Regenerative security’ has the potential to restore confidence, legitimacy, a sense of rule of law, basic rights, access to justice, resources themselves and, ultimately, trust in people, systems and environments. Simply put, ‘regenerative security’ is the regeneration of a state of sustainable positive security.

The forest fires, heatwaves, flooding, landslides and famines seen this year must herald a turning point for national security agendas.

Regions and countries leading on climate change through their decarbonization commitments, such as the EU and UK, are well placed to lead on climate security risks and building resilience through ‘regenerative security’ approaches. For example, the EU’s Common Security and Defence Policy and Climate Change and Defence Roadmap could be used to institutionalize ‘regenerative security’ approaches as well as Germany’s Bundeswehr, which is a significant sized force, and has built a reputation in non-lethal roles. This could in turn lead to a NATO response to developing a ‘regenerative security’ agenda thereby setting an example for defence and security forces around the world.

The forest fires, heatwaves, flooding and landslides seen across the US, Europe and China this year, as well as the climate-induced famines across Africa, must herald a turning point for national security agendas. Governments around the world and the international security community needs to realize that traditional concepts of national security need to be complemented by new approaches if we are to provide climate security for all.