The climate system is a complex of thermodynamic energy transfers, moving between the Earth’s atmosphere and oceans. Our local experience of weather—hot summers, breezy autumns, monsoon rains, tropical cyclones, droughts, floods, blizzards and mudslides—is an expression of the way climatic forces play out over time.
As more thermodynamic energy gets trapped in the Earth’s atmosphere and oceans, the excess destabilizes patterns of energy transfer that sustain vital ecosystems. Those ecosystems sustain life as we know it. When the global climate system’s dominant patterns are destabilized, vast and complex new security risks emerge.
To get a handle on the global climate security threat matrix, we need to look at the following areas of focus:
Security of the Global Food Supply
The human food supply relies on conditions that allow for agricultural production of specific crops in specific climate zones. Expanding human population, counting on ever higher average standards of living, requires constant marginal expansion of productivity, in reliably highly productive agricultural areas. Only some markets are powerful enough to pull in fresh stocks from the other side of the world, when extreme weather reduces yields everywhere.
Security of Fresh Water Supplies
Whether for food production, industry, or human hygiene and drinking, supplies of fresh water do, to a large extent, determine the viability of cities, nations, and of political, economic and security arrangements of all kinds. While a human being can live for weeks without adequate food, and billions struggle perennially with hunger, water is a life-or-death concern; just a few days without water can kill, so extreme water scarcity can lead to sudden and ferocious conflict and mass migration.
Climate-driven migratory patterns are likely to involve millions. The military, economic, geopolitical impact of mass migration can be extreme. Within countries, internal climate displacement is already happening. There is evidence inland migration from Bangladesh’s coastal region is creating real risks to the human population of the capital, Dhaka, from overcrowding and degraded economic conditions.
Blurring of Borders
In Africa, the Mideast, South Asia, and even among island nations, this is already happening. The question of whether a given population, be it a single village or an entire region, has access to basic life-support sustenance, can determine whether a political border is a viable and accepted convention or an inconvenient assumption. Migration, piracy and other pressures can turn border regions into security-risk hot zones, destabilizing nations and regions.
Sea Level Rise
Sea level rise (SLR) threatens to reduce the land area of any nation with coastline. Some small island nations are already prepping 100% evacuation to neighboring countries and working out nation-within-nation citizenship deals. SLR impacts on populous islands (Indonesia, Philippines, Hong Kong, and others) are particularly worrying, because already-existing population density makes such nations fertile ground for more serious impacts from land scarcity, resource scarcity and black-market dynamics.
Coastal and Overseas Base Displacement
The United States’ overseas bases provide strategic support in many ways: by providing security for allies, strategic footholds in remote areas of the globe, the possibility of protecting vital shipping lanes, and by allowing for an unrivaled information-gathering network. SLR and other climate threats can reduce the footprint available to those facilities. As costs of adaptation and readiness rise, available land-area shrinks, and threat-response requires long-term redeployment of forces, the relative instability of coastal and overseas deployment facilities can further impede readiness.
Loss of Strategic Footholds
The loss of strategic footholds due to climate impacts is a steadily increasing risk. Political destabilization resulting from pervasive and compounded climate impacts (food, water, population, borders, alliances) makes the loss of those strategic positions even more costly. Insecurity breeds insecurity, and a spiral of escalating instability, within nations and across regions, can inflame tensions and foster conflict.
Impact on Reliable Trade Routes
Reliable trade routes make it easier to respond to unforeseen circumstances, by making the supply of goods and services more mobile. A significant disruption of these supply routes can affect civilian populations as well as military preparedness. While military responses can use alternate routes, there are costs to depending on military intervention for resiliency building, climate adaptation and for providing the security of reliable supplies of goods and services. Disruption of trade routes is also a major instigator of conflict.
Open Arctic Ocean Waters
For centuries, nations have sought an Arctic shipping route. In 2014, we have seen a worrying extreme degree of Arctic Ocean ice melt, as well as a worrying dislocation of the Polar Vortex wind currents to lower latitutdes—essentially a wind-bleed effect. Now, with the Arctic Ocean opening up in summer, there is an even more severe risk of escalating tensions between Russia and NATO, and of a flashpoint effect from potential incursion by rogue military vessels, from the DPRK and others.
Obsolescence of Extant Defense Technologies
For many nations, defense infrastructure must respond to climate-specific conditions. The US, with such diverse domestic geography, and with global deployment to so many distinct terrains and conditions, has the range of technologies to cope with a shifting landscape, but there are massive potential costs of adapting, and military aid relationships might take on even more severe cost shocks, as entire national defense technology standards lose relevance to a changing (and likely escalating) and fluid threat environment.
Rising Costs of Adaptation
Adapting to new geographical and geopolitical pressures on the global threat-matrix and to resulting technical shifts in the demand for economic, political and military, interactions, will add ever increasing costs. Those costs are likely to displace currently prevailing priorities and disrupt planning on which many features of national and global strategy depend for long-term viability. The resulting reduction to funding for military preparedness of any specific variety, or to civil-society-building goods and services, adds to general security concerns.
Fiscal Policy Impacts
The escalating and ever more complex web of climate security interactions drives a need to adjust fiscal policy priorities. The US has the aforementioned added costs to deal with, but the risk to less affluent economies is potentially severe. Not only must nations find a way to fund more costly military preparedness, and build long-term civilian sector resilience, while responding to more frequent disaster-level impacts; they must also find a way to cover the costs of coping with volatile shifts in the pricing of money and staple economic resources. This makes foreign aid costs and multilateral fiscal (IMF) and development (World Bank, UN) priorities more difficult to finance.
These are the most evident, initial areas of focus that need consideration. But each of these areas of focus brings with it collateral and tributary threats and opportunities. In future essays, we will explore specific details of these climate security priorities, with a focus both on strategic costs and fiscal resiliency.
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This article was originally published Sept. 2, 2014, at ClimateLiberty.org. Please return to ClimateLiberty’s National Security section for future essays in this series.