Climate Change as a Threat Multiplier

Climate change has often been called the single biggest challenge for humanity over the coming centuries. Given the scale of the problem, its impacts on human life on earth, and the level of coordinated action required to solve it, this statement seems only adequate.

Our planet suffers from increasing pressure from population growth, economic development, and climate change. As a consequence, basic needs such as food, water, health, and shelter are in danger. Catastrophic weather events, variable climates that affect food and water supplies, new patterns of infectious disease outbreaks, and emerging diseases linked to ecosystem changes, are all associated with global warming and pose health risks. The ramifications of not responding adequately are far greater than any earlier threat to humanity in recent history.

Rejecting climate change because one does not like the possible causes has the inherit danger of ignoring the devastating effects of the phenomenon. Causes are in a way less relevant to map the possible impact of a changing climate and consequent erratic weather patterns. Research shows climate change has such an impact it is a threat multiplier for human disaster, security and ultimately conflict.

Increasingly, climate change is framed as a security concern. Through a number of debates on the potential security implications of climate change, the European Council and the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) lifted the issue to the highest level of political discourse on matters of international peace and security. Also a number of governments, like the United States, India, Germany and the United Kingdom, identify climate change as a national security challenge.

Despite this increase in attention, the ways in which the effects of global warming will affect security at various levels are still far from clear. In this paper, we first examine state-of-the art research and thinking on the implications of climate change for security and then identify the key governance challenges the international system faces. We explore potential pathways for reform, both to make multilevel climate governance more fit for purpose, and to better anticipate and address the predicted security implications of climate change. Specifically, we pose two research questions:

  1. What are the key policy and (multilevel) governance challenges at the intersection of climate change and security?
  2. How can current policies and governance arrangements (at different levels) be improved to better meet these challenges?

Many and even conflicting notions and dimensions of security coexist. Each entails a different set of assumptions about who is to be secured and from what threats. Depending on the logic used to define such links, concrete policy decisions and responses flowing from that logic may differ substantially.

Narrow conceptions of climate change as a threat to state security legitimize certain political measures more than broader notions of security would, for example, the security of people as well as of states. This working paper has addressed two broad categories of threats and related political measures: institutional security, both national and international, and human security.

Some of the negative impacts that climate change will have on human livelihoods are relatively straightforward. It is not difficult to imagine how land degradation, chronic droughts, and repeated crop failure will erode agricultural production and threaten the security of communities’ livelihoods. Secondary impacts, however, may be equally important drivers of social conflict. Water shortages or malnutrition, for example, often lead to infectious diseases, which may be less visible but is an equally powerful determinant of poverty, socioeconomic exclusion, and conflict.

Natural disasters are now a primary cause of forced migration, and the effects of climate change are expected to intensify such disasters and accelerate displacement in the decades to come. Over the past five years, an average of nearly 27 million people have been displaced annually by natural hazard-related disasters.

One dominant threat is that climate change will lead to new or more intense resource scarcities, which, in turn, will trigger more intense competition and conflict between states and local communities sharing common resources. Several UN reports show that from 2006 to 2011, 60% of Syria had to deal with the worst prolonged drought and the heaviest crop failures for thousands of years.

This drought made Syrians face extreme “food insecurity”, causing 2 to 3 million people living in extreme food insecurity in 2011, according to a UN report, forcing farmers to relocate to Syrian cities. The dire circumstances made youngsters become more susceptible to joining extremist groups. The first protests against the Syrian government, early 2011, evolved in the current civil war with huge regional consequences.

Another example of climate change as a ´threat multiplier´ is the potential for confrontation and conflict over resources made accessible as a result of climate change, a sort of “geopolitical rush”.

A specific region for potential conflict is the Arctic. While the melting ice caps cause sea level rise, retreating ice uncovers vast and so far unexplored stores of hydrocarbons. Increased international attention to the potential for exploitation goes beyond the Arctic littoral states. Countries farther away, such as China and some EU-members show great interest.

A neorealist line of thinking considers it apparent the melting ice leads to competition and conflict over the resource reserves, particularly oil and gas. The quest for energy security turns into a ‘hard’ security issue in a region with underdeveloped or ineffective governance structures.

In short, climate change may exacerbate existing or create new socioeconomic stresses such as loss of arable land, resource scarcities, forced migration and weakening institutions, all of which could make a violent escalation of inter- and intrastate conflicts more likely.

Addressing increased scarcity of key resources caused by climate change, climate-induced migration and other impacts, demands measures by governments at all levels. It requires political measures focusing on policy and governance reform for advancing climate security. Precautions to prevent the potential devastating impact of climate change as a threat multiplier are urgently needed. Increased adaptive capacity at multiple levels is vital to improving the systemic ability to anticipate and respond to change rather than simply reacting to threats.

In this new working paper the following key policy implications and governance reform recommendations have been highlighted:

  • integrating climate action and international peacebuilding efforts
  • building adaptive capacity at multiple levels to advance climate security (including climate-related human security issues)
  • developing a conflict-sensitive approach to climate change mitigation and adaptation for preventing inter- and intrastate conflicts
  • establishing plans for multilevel and multi-stakeholder climate governance
  • developing institutional design propositions for climate governance at multiple levels

To be effective, multi-level governance and context-specific arrangements are critical. These arrangements need to take the environment in which local government and other stakeholders have to operate into account. It requires a focus on effective cooperation across levels, stakeholder participation, capacity building and staff training, joint information production and exchange, how to deal with corruption, and how to provide a positive incentive structure, which stimulates accountability and responsiveness.

All the progress, capabilities and wisdom available to mankind needs to be deployed to its limit, and far beyond, if we want to survive and leave a healthy planet for the coming centuries.

Further Reading

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