When people debate the negative consequences of climate change, they seldom think about the national security implications that it has. The earth, our habitat and lifeline, shapes our everyday lives in a more direct way than we want to believe.
Beyond the banal daily considerations that are related to climate (should I take an umbrella at work? Am I dressed warmly enough?), there are deep underlying conditions that have the potential to shape the geostrategic environment and affect our lives in wholly different ways.
Climate change is real
Although global awareness about climate change has increased considerably over the past few years, current policies and pledges by countries around the world are insufficient to meet the goals set by Paris Agreement in 2015. Then, an unprecedented coalition of 196 countries agreed to fight climate change and limit global warming to 1.5˚C (2.7°F) of the pre-industrial levels.
Global temperatures have increased by 1.1˚C (2°F) since pre-industrial times. But by the end of the decade, an extra 0.4˚C (0.7°F) is anticipated for a total increase of 1.5˚C (2.7°F). According to NASA, since the 1960s, every passing decade is hotter than the previous. Should the level of global greenhouse emissions remain the same, by 2050 the temperature will have increased by 2.0˚C (3.8°F). To hit the Paris Agreement’s goal, greenhouse gases emissions will need to be severely curtailed, and hit zero by mid-century.
Last year, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI), released a report on the national security implications of climate change.
The National Security Implications of Climate Change
In its report, the ODNI, which is the head of the U.S. Intelligence Community, assessed that climate change will progressively exacerbate risks to U.S. national security because the physical impacts are becoming increasingly evident, and geopolitical tensions on a global response will create further tensions between the globe’s big powers.
“Countries are arguing about who should act sooner and competing to control the growing clean energy transition. Intensifying physical effects will exacerbate geopolitical flashpoints, particularly after 2030, and key countries and regions will face increasing risks of instability and need for humanitarian assistance,” the U.S. Intelligence Community assessed.
Furthermore, the U.S. Intelligence Community stated that it “has moderate confidence in the pace of decarbonization” and low to moderate confidence in how the physical aspects of climate change will affect U.S. national security interests “and the nature of geopolitical conflict,” citing the complex dimensions of human and state decision-making.
The ODNI report produced three key judgments.
First, geopolitical tensions are likely to increase because countries are still arguing about the optimal global approach to reduce net greenhouse gas emissions that meet the goals set by the Paris Agreement.
“Debate will center on who bears more responsibility to act and to pay—and how quickly—and countries will compete to control resources and dominate new technologies needed for the clean energy transition. Most countries will face difficult economic choices and probably will count on technological breakthroughs to rapidly reduce their net emissions later,” the U.S. Intelligence Community predicted.
Second, as the physical effects of climate change are becoming more pronounced, there is an increased likelihood of tensions in cross-border areas of interest as countries seek to secure their interests. These interests can refer to water resources or the proximity of natural resources that had thus far been inaccessible, for example in the Arctic Circle.
“As temperatures rise and more extreme effects manifest, there is a growing risk of conflict over water and migration, particularly after 2030, and an increasing chance that countries will unilaterally test and deploy large-scale solar geoengineering—creating a new area of disputes,” the ODNI report stated.
And finally, developing countries, which are the least prepared and thus most vulnerable, are going to be hit the hardest by the physical effects of climate change. These climate pressures are likely to cause instability and internal conflicts. As a result, it has the potential to create new or renewed diplomatic, military, economic, and humanitarian demands on the U.S.
“Despite geographic and financial resource advantages, the United States and partners face costly challenges that will become more difficult to manage without concerted effort to reduce emissions and cap warming,” the U.S. Intelligence Community stated.
The Department of Defense is equally concerned with the effects of climate change on the world and what that might mean for future military operations.
“Climate change is altering the strategic landscape and shaping the security environment, posing complex threats to the United States and nations around the world. To deter war and protect our country, the [Defense] Department must understand the ways climate change affects missions, plans, and capabilities,” Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin had said when the Pentagon released its own report on climate change.
Climate change has clearly become a national security threat as far as the experts are concerned. The U.S. and its allies are diverting civilian and military resources to address adverse natural phenomena, while third-world countries face political and economic instability caused by natural disasters. However, not all in the international community are united in dealing with this global issue.
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How China Weaponizes Climate Change
China is notorious for weaponizing climate change.
Alongside India, China will play a critical role in whether the world achieves the Paris Agreement’s temperature goals. A giant awakened from its slumber, China has secured its position on the global stage through astounding economic growth over the past 30 years. To achieve that economic growth, Beijing has—understandably—used humongous amounts of fossil fuel. But now that it has become the second-largest economy in the world, China has overly stated its intent to curb greenhouse gas emissions and fight climate change.
But despite its public claims in favor of the climate change agreements, Beijing is pursuing another approach. China is the world’s largest greenhouse emitter, consuming 50 percent of the world’s coal, and continues to expand its dependence on fossil fuels by manufacturing longtime coal power projects. Despite U.S. efforts to compartmentalize climate change from other topics, China refuses, using it to gain concessions on issues like human rights. China’s actual approach to climate change is opportunistic, indicative of a regime that sees climate change, and its potentially disastrous implications, as just another form of leverage it can maintain over the international community.