Foreign Relations & International Law

Climate Change and National Security, Part II: How Big a Threat is the Climate?

Michelle Melton
Monday, January 7, 2019, 12:45 PM

The U.S. national security establishment has been increasingly vocal that climate change is a national security threat—and the U.S. is not alone in this regard. But exactly how serious is this threat? How concerned should policymakers be? Assessing the magnitude of the national security threat posed by climate change requires addressing the antecedent issue of timing.

The dry river bed of the Niranjana River in Bihar, India (Source: Flickr/Hideyuki Kamon)

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The U.S. national security establishment has been increasingly vocal that climate change is a national security threat—and the U.S. is not alone in this regard. But exactly how serious is this threat? How concerned should policymakers be? Assessing the magnitude of the national security threat posed by climate change requires addressing the antecedent issue of timing. Climate change is unfolding—for now—in a relatively linear, gradual way, and as a result, the magnitude of the threat depends on the time horizon. The national security implications of climate change are different between now and 2050, between now and 2100, and between now and 2300.

At least until 2050, and possibly for decades after, climate change will remain a creeping threat that will exacerbate and amplify existing, structural global inequalities. While the developed world will be negatively affected by climate change through 2050, the consequences of climate change will be felt most acutely in the developing world. The national security threats posed by climate change to 2050 are likely to differ in degree, not kind, from the kinds of threats already posed by climate change. For the next few decades, climate change will exacerbate humanitarian crises—some of which will result in the deployment of military personnel, as well as material and financial assistance. It will also aggravate natural resource constraints, potentially contributing to political and economic conflict over water, food and energy.

The question for the next 30 years is not “can humanity survive as a species with 1.5°C or 2°C of warming,” but, “how much will the existing disparities between the developed and developing world widen, and how long (and how successfully) can these widening political/economic disparities be sustained?” The urgency of the climate threat in the next few decades will depend, to a large degree, on whether and how much the U.S. government perceives a widening of these global inequities as a threat to U.S. national security.

By contrast, if emissions continue to creep upward (or if they do not decline rapidly), by 2100 climate-related national security threats could be existential. The question for the next hundred years is not, “are disparities politically and economically manageable?” but, “can the global order, premised on the nation-state system, itself based on territorial sovereignty, survive in a world in which substantial swathes of territory are potentially uninhabitable?”

National Security Consequences of Climate Change to 2050

Scientists can predict the consequences of climate change to 2050 with some measure of certainty. (Beyond that date, the pace and magnitude of climate change—and therefore, the national security threat posed by it—depend heavily on the level of emissions in the coming years, as I have explained.) There is relative agreement across modeled climate scenarios that the world will likely warm, on average, at least 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels by about 2050—but perhaps as soon as 2030. This level of warming is likely to occur even if the world succeeds in dramatically reducing greenhouse gas emissions, as even the recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report implicitly admits. In other words, a certain amount of additional warming—at least 1.5°C, and probably more than that—is presumptively unavoidable.

Looking ahead to 2050, it can be said with relative confidence that the national security consequences of climate change will vary in degree, not in kind, from the national security threats already facing the United States. This is hardly good news. Even small differences in global average temperatures result in significant environmental changes, with attendant social, economic and political consequences. By 2050, climate change will wreak increasing havoc on human and natural systems—predominantly, but not exclusively, in the developing world—with attenuated but profound consequences for national security.

In particular, changes in temperature, the hydrological cycle and the ranges of insects will impact food availability and food access in much of the world, increasing food insecurity. Storms, flooding, changes in ocean pH and other climate-linked changes will damage infrastructure and negatively impact labor productivity and economic growth in much of the world. Vector-borne diseases will also become more prevalent, as climate change will expand the geographic range and intensity of transmission of diseases like malaria, West Nile, Zika and dengue fever, and cholera. Rising public health challenges, economic devastation and food insecurity will translate into an increased demand for humanitarian assistance provided by the military, increased migration—especially from tropical and subtropical regions—and geopolitical conflict.

Long-term trends such as declining food security, coupled with short-term events like hurricanes, could sustain unprecedented levels of migration. The 2015 refugee crisis in Europe portends the kinds of population movements that will only accelerate in the coming decades: people from Africa, Southwest and South Asia and elsewhere crossing land and water to reach Europe. For the United States, this likely means greater numbers of people seeking entry from both Central America and the Caribbean. Such influxes are not unprecedented, but they are unlikely to abate and could increase in volume over the next few decades, driven in part by climate change-related food insecurity, climate change-related storms and also by economic and political instability. Food insecurity, economic losses and loss of human life are also likely to exacerbate existing political tensions in the developing world, especially in regions with poor governance and/or where the climate is particularly vulnerable to warming (e.g., the Mediterranean basin). While the Arab Spring had many underlying causes, it also coincided with a period of high food prices, which arguably contributed to the protests. In some situations, food insecurity, economic losses and public health crises, combined with weak and ineffectual governance, could precipitate future conflicts of this kind—although it will be difficult to know where and when without more precise local studies of both underlying political dynamics and the regionally-specific impacts of climate change.

2100 and Beyond

While the national security impacts of climate change to 2050 are likely to be costly and disruptive for the U.S. military—and devastating for many people around the world—at some point after 2050, if warming continues at its current pace, changes to the climate could fundamentally reshape geopolitics and possibly even the current nation-state basis of the current global order.

To be clear, both the ultimate level of warming and its attendant political consequences is highly speculative, for the reasons I explained in my last post. Nonetheless, we do know that the planet is currently on track for at least 3-4°C of warming by 2100. The “known knowns” of higher levels of warming—say, 3°C—are frightening. At that 3°C of warming, for example, scientists project that there will be a nearly 70 percent decline in wheat production in Central America and the Caribbean, 75 percent of the land area in the Middle East and more than 50 percent in South Asia will be affected by highly unusual heat, and sea level rise could displace and imperil the lives hundreds of millions of people, among other consequences.

But even higher levels of warming are physically possible within this century. At these levels of warming, some regions of the world would be literally uninhabitable, likely resulting in the depopulation of the tropics, to say nothing of the consequences of sea-level rise for economically important cities such as Amsterdam and New York. Even if newly warmed regions of the far north could theoretically accommodate the resulting migrants, this presumes that the political response to this unprecedented global displacement would be orderly and conflict-free borders on fantasy.

The geopolitical consequences of significant levels of warming are severe, but if these changes occur in a linear way, at least there will be time for human systems to adjust. Perhaps more challenging for national security is the possibility that the until-now linear changes give way to abrupt and irreversible ones. Scientists forecast that, at higher levels of warming—precisely what level is speculative—humanity could trigger catastrophic, abrupt and unavoidable consequences to the ecosystem. The IPCC has considered nine such abrupt changes; one example is the potential shutting down of the Indian summer monsoon. Over a billion people are dependent upon the Indian monsoon, which provides parts of South Asia with about 80 percent of its annual rainfall; relatively minor changes in the monsoon in either direction can cause disasters. In 2010, a wetter monsoon led to the catastrophic flooding in Pakistan, which directly affected 20 million people; a drier monsoon in 2002 led to devastating drought. Studies suggest that the Indian summer monsoon has two stable states: wet (i.e., the current state) and dry (characterized by low precipitation over the subcontinent). At some point, if warming continues, the monsoon could abruptly shift into the second, “dry” state, with catastrophic consequences for over a billion people dependent on monsoon-fed agriculture. The IPCC suggests that such a state-shift is “unlikely”—that is, there is a 10 to 33 percent chance that a state-shift will happen in the 21st century—but scientists also have relatively low confidence in their understanding of the underlying mechanisms in this and other large-scale natural systems.

The consequences of abrupt, severe warming for national security are obvious in general, if unclear in the specifics. In 2003, the Defense Department asked a contractor to explore such a scenario. The resulting report outlined the offensive and defensive national security strategies countries may adopt if faced with abrupt climate change, and highlighted the increased risk of inter- and intra-state conflict over natural resources and immigration. Although the report may be off in its imagined timeframe (positing abrupt climate change by 2020), the world it conjures is improbable but not outlandish. If the Indian monsoon were to switch to dry state, and a billion people were suddenly without reliable food sources, for example, it is not clear how the Indian government would react, assuming it would survive in its current form. Major wars or low-intensity proxy conflicts seem likely, if not inevitable, in such a scenario.

This is not to say that a parade of climate horribles is certain—or even likely—to come to pass. Scientific understanding of the sensitivities in the climate system are far from perfect. It is also possible that emissions will decline more rapidly than anticipated, averting the worst consequences of climate change. But this outcome is far from guaranteed. And even if global emissions decline precipitously, humanity cannot be sure when or whether the planet has crossed a climate tipping point beyond which the incremental nature of the current changes shifts from the current linear, gradual progression to a non-linear and abrupt process.

Within the next few decades, the most likely scenario involves manageable, but costly, consequences on infrastructure, food security and natural disasters, which will be borne primarily by the world’s most impoverished citizens and the members of the military who provide them with humanitarian assistance and disaster relief. But while the head-turning national security impacts of climate change are probably several decades away, the nature of the threat is such that waiting until these changes manifest is not a viable option. By the time the climate consequences are severe enough to compel action, there is likely to be little that can be done on human timescales to undo the changes to environmental systems and the human societies dependent upon them.

Michelle Melton is an attorney who works on environmental issues. The views expressed in this post are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of her employer.

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