The idea that climate change constitutes a threat to national security is well established, with climate change first appearing as a debate in the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) over 15 years ago, in 2007

The concept gained traction quickly, with a study undertaken 5 years after the inaugural UNSC discussion estimating that around 70% of countries who had released national security strategic documents acknowledged that it presents a threat, in some form, to their national security. 

But the question is, is this actually constructive in our efforts to address the problem?

What does climate change have to do with national security?

The Curious.Earth team previously examined the links between climate and conflict in this article – (check it out)! But in short, climate change has been recognised by some national security institutions as a ‘threat multiplier’

This means that the effects of climate change can exacerbate other environmental, social, economic and political factors which frequently drive conflicts. Examples of this include climate-induced droughts leading to greater competition for resources and general discontent resulting in civil unrest.

The Center for Climate and Security highlights that climate change may also drive conflict through geopolitical factors. In an article by Werrell and Femia, they highlight the potential for geopolitical tensions to arise as a result of disputes over sought-after resources. 

One example they consider is warming oceans leading to fish migration out of one country’s territorial waters and into another’s. Another example is that greater Arctic sea ice melt has been linked to geopolitical tensions over the petroleum-rich sea bed, which has been compounded by hazy territorial boundaries. 

There is an argument that understanding climate change as a threat to national security emphasises the magnitude of the problem it poses, and brings with it focus, action and investment. 

Does this actually help us address climate change? 

Despite this argument, there are many contradicting voices outlining that, for a number of reasons, the linking of climate change and national security is unhelpful.

The problem with militaries…

Von Lucke et al., argue that since the main institution responsible for national security is the military, viewing climate change as a threat to security may be used to justify military expansion. This is problematic for several reasons. 

Military activity is a huge emitter of carbon, and one study estimates that between 1-5% of global emissions come from military activity across the world. Perhaps more shocking, the same study found that: “If it was a nation, the USA’s military would have the highest emissions in the world per person at 42 metric tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent per staff member.”

Clearly then, military enlargement is not an ideal response to climate change. That same article by Von Lucke et al agrees that a national security approach may also mean we fail to fully address the causes of climate change and instead focus on mitigating its impacts.

“While defining climate change as a threat to national security may generate attention from the national security establishment, it may encourage practices inconsistent with addressing the problem itself”

McDonald, 2018

Not only this, but military expansion would require huge amounts of investment which could be better spent on environmental protection. Costa Rica is a super positive example in this respect. 

Costa Rica abolished its army in 1948, and instead redirected its military spending into its education, healthcare and environmental policies. Since then, Costa Rica now enjoys one of the highest standards of living in the region. According to the UNEP, over 98% of its energy comes from renewable sources, ¼ of its land is now protected and forest covers now over 53% of the country, following extensive work to reverse deforestation. (It’s not to say that if we were all to abolish our militaries we could guarantee this money would go towards environmental protection instead, but it’s definitely food for thought)! 

Costa Rica in all its glory!

The exclusivity of security

The use of security institutions to address climate change is further problematic when we consider who is included and excluded from the conversation. 

At the start of this article, we mentioned the appearance of climate change in the UNSC debate in 2007. There isn’t a single permanent African member state of the UNSC, and as climate change is inherently global by nature, a forum which overlooks a large proportion of the world and excludes them from decision-making is clearly unsuitable. 

Further damaging to collaboration is the nationalism associated with national security approaches. In an article, Deudney highlights that nationalism, along with the ‘zero-sum’ mindset of military institutions, is detrimental to the global cooperation required to address climate change. The global nature of climate change means that collaborative efforts are essential to addressing the problem in a fair and inclusive way. 

Be Curious! 

Check out this article for a more in depth look at the debates surrounding whether climate change is an issue for national security.

Watch this video which covers the links between climate change and security.

Learn more about calls to reform the UNSC so it is more inclusive.