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New report assesses critical global security risks of a changing climate

A soldier protects the fishers' catch on the shore of the Lake Chad.

Climate change was more central than ever at this year’s Munich Security Conference (MSC), the leading international forum for senior military, security and foreign policy leaders. The release of the inaugural “World Climate and Security Report 2020” (WCSR 2020) by the Expert Group of the International Military Council on Climate and Security (IMCCS) should help policymakers take effective action.  

The new report presents a global assessment of the security risks of a changing climate and opportunities for addressing them, through five distinct and interrelated chapters broken up into two themes: risks and opportunities.

Our research team compiled an overview of global climate change and security risks based on a review and aggregation of existing literature and information and a summary of critical risks across important world regions. Each nation and region faces its own variation of climate change-related threats, and each has its own societal dynamics that influence how gravely those threats are felt and how fraught mitigation and adaptation decisions will be. However, all nations around the world are wrestling with challenges of too much or too little water and associated strains on food and water systems. We identified increased political instability and conflict, as well as mass displacements of people, as significant future risks. Climate impacts, such as extreme heat, drought, sea level rise, and saltwater intrusion in aquifers, are putting these more and more strain on these critical systems.  


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I was the author of the section on Africa, which came to some important conclusions about the risks facing countries across the continent: although climate change impacts alone do not create instability, the changes expected to occur in a changing climate will exacerbate several risks, such as food security or water resource management. African populations currently depend mainly on agriculture, fisheries and livestock - three activities very much dependent on climate change. For instance, rainfall helps determine crop yields for millet, corn, wheat and sorghum, and many regions will get either too much or too little rain as the climate changes.

These developments, combined with a fast-growing population, could fuel an exodus from rural areas into already saturated cities or, locally, conflicts between herders and farmers. And this combination of stressors could lead to conflicts in the coming decades if necessary adaptation and resource management policies are not correctly designed and implemented. Under the worst climate change scenario, scarcity (and perception of scarcity) could also be very dangerous for transboundary water management—just look at the current dispute between Ethiopia and Egypt about the Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD). Finally, hurricanes like Idai, which hit Mozambique in March 2019, are also a major source of concern if awareness and disaster management capabilities are not reinforced.

A comprehensive approach

In putting together the report, we authors also asked relevant experts what they thought: in December 2019, we surveyed a select group of 56 security and military experts in order to assess perceptions of how climate changes will affect global security over three time periods among and practitioners from across the globe. According to the respondents, 100% of the climate security risks assessed will get more severe in the next twenty years (2020-2040).

The third section presents the results of the yearlong The Climate Security Strategic Capability Game, a tool designed to raise awareness and address what climate change will mean for the planning of policies, activities and operations of different ministries, and to discuss the role of militaries in climate change prevention, response and reconstruction. The exercise led participants to some important realisations: most concluded that they did not have all the capabilities required to address climate security risks, and agreed that that games like this can enrich understanding of climate risks.

The fourth chapter highlights best practices on climate and security among select nations’ militaries and national security establishments, as well as intergovernmental security and military institutions. A review of current policy practices and learnings makes clear that climate change often has direct implications for military capabilities, since it can lead to additional domestic calls for assistance to civil actors. Our research picked out some nations that were leading the way in the field: for example, France has a very proactive approach to addressing drivers of climate insecurity, while climate change features heavily in New Zealand’s defence plans, and the Jordanian army has realized the potential contribution of nature conservation to peacekeeping efforts.

In its last section, the report offers a more comprehensive set of conclusions and recommendations for a path forward towards global security cooperation on climate change. This includes the overarching recommendation that national, regional, and international security institutions and militaries around the world acknowledge climate security risks and advance climate resilience—especially water and food security and their associated effects on stability, conflict and displacement—in their primary mission sets or lines of effort.

The IMCCS was created at The Hague, Netherlands, on February 19, 2019 in response to a growing demand from military professionals for sharing information and best practices on addressing the security and military dimensions of climate change. It was founded and is administered by the Center for Climate and Security (CCS), an institute of the Council on Strategic Risks, in partnership with the French Institute for International and Strategic Affairs (IRIS), the Hague Centre for Strategic Studies (HCSS) and the Planetary Security Initiative of the Netherlands Institute of International Relations (Clingendael).

Bastien Alex is a research fellow at IRIS, in charge of the Climate, Energy and Security program.