Richard Weitz: Security Implications of Climate Change


Although Al Gore’s film, An Inconvenient Truth, has drawn renewed attention to the global warming issue, commentators on worldwide climate change have not sufficiently addressed its potential international security implications. Thus far, most of the debate has focused on whether climate change is occurring, whether human or natural causes are primarily responsible, how it will affect people’s health and lifestyles, and what we should do about the problem. Whatever the ultimate magnitude and cause of global climate change, prudent contingency planning behooves us to consider how it could affect international conflict and security alignments.
Climate change could easily exacerbate existing conflicts within countries or between neighboring states. Declining agricultural yields or rising sea levels could engender major movements of people, both within and across national frontiers. Such massive population resettlement often causes friction between the existing residents and the newcomers, especially over scarce assets like land and water. Mass migrations due to depleted resources could also worsen border disputes over natural resources.

In all likelihood, certain political, social, and economic conditions such as weak political institutions, tense ethnic group relations, and limited national resource endowments would heighten the intensity of such conflicts. For example, if established political authorities prove unable to manage climate-induced droughts, famines, and population flows, some groups might turn to extralegal movements to secure their basic needs. Alternately, climate-induced crises could lead affected peoples to push for political and economic reforms if they believe that democratic and free market institutions more effectively manage environmental challenges.
The divergent regional effects of climate change (e.g., some areas of the world suffering more than others) could over the long term affect the evolving global distribution of power, with unpredictable consequences for international security. For example, cold-climate countries such as Russia might benefit most from a rise in average global temperatures since their environments would become more temperate. States anticipating declines in their relative power might attempt, as Japan did in the 1940s, to seize foreign resources preemptively to stabilize their competitive positions.
Many of the policies developed by individual national governments to deal with rising temperatures (such as carbon-emissions trading) might not work at the global or regional levels due to the weaker international enforcement measures available to induce sovereign states to adopt or adhere to such arrangements. For this reason, multilateral institutions, nongovernmental organizations, and coalitions of countries have greater opportunities to promote innovative and tailored climate change solutions.
Responding to climate change could lead to tensions between countries that cut-across traditional security alignments. For example, the EU and the United States differ regarding several related issues, including how to improve energy efficiency and expand the use of renewable resources. Although most traditional U.S. security allies strongly support the Kyoto Treaty, the Bush administration has pursued separate, perhaps competing initiatives with other governments. The recently launched Asia-Pacific Partnership on Clean Development and Climate involves Australia, China, India, Japan, South Korea, and the United States working outside the Kyoto framework to stimulate private-public partnerships to curb global warming. These countries account for about half of the world’s population and more than half of the world’s GDP, energy use, and greenhouse gas emissions.
The effects of such novel international alignments driven by environmental factors are unpredictable. On the one hand, efforts to form environmental “coalitions of the willing,” or even undertake unilateral actions to solve external climate threats, could disrupt existing security ties and alignments formed on the basis of other issues. On the other hand, the mutual threat of climate change could lead countries to cooperate more with their neighbors. Depending on its scope, regional cooperation could either extend globally or produce regional climate blocs reminiscent of the regional military and economic blocs of the 20th century.
Managing the challenge of climate change could enhance U.S. global leadership since only the United States has the military logistical capacity to organize large-scale international responses to major global disasters. Much of the world applauded the United States last year after the American military provided essential humanitarian relief capabilities following the Asian tsunami. In contrast, Chinese government representatives were visibly defensive when asked about their own miserly financial assistance to the disaster regions. On the other hand, worsening climate change could alienate the United States from other countries if foreign nations saw Americans as refusing to bear their share of the costs of an effective international response.
The Asian tsunami experience also highlights the need to enhance information exchange and other collaboration between climate scientists and military planners. At a minimum, the U.S. and foreign militaries should consider the implications of global climate change for their roles and missions. Given NATO’s expanding role in managing security problems in Africa, Eurasia, and the Middle East, its member governments need to develop contingency plans for managing climate-induced humanitarian crises. Besides enhancing the world’s capacity to respond to these emergencies, such collaboration could help sustain transatlantic cooperation despite NATO governments’ differences over the issue.
What do you think?
Richard Weitz is a Senior Fellow and Associate Director of the Center for Future Security Strategies at the Hudson Institute.


7 comments on “Richard Weitz: Security Implications of Climate Change

  1. TokyoTom says:

    You’re absolutely right, but there’s little we can do about it without serious leaders. Right now political horizons are way too short, and by nature most people are simply concerned about themselves – including our politicians and those who are looking for sweet deals from government.


  2. g510 says:

    If we disregard humanitarian impacts of climate change on poorer nations, we will remain inactive on the overall issue long enough that it will proceed past a tipping point that eventually drags us down with the rest.
    In more detail:
    At present we see early signs of climate crisis and yet our response is to do nothing. The longer we wait, the greater the risks, and the fewer the options. Also the longer we wait, the greater the accumulating impacts in various parts of the world. To the extent that there are potentially catastrophic tipping points, the longer we wait, the closer we come to falling over the edge of one or another of those tipping points. The signs and symptoms will intensify along the way. As they do so we will see humanitarian crises and overt emergencies in various parts of the world. Each of those instances is a warning sign of the progression toward potentially catastrophic tipping points. To the extent that we ignore those warning signs when seen elsewhere, our own risk increases. Eventually we fall over the edge and face severe impacts ourselves.
    There is a terrible sort of karmic justice here: to the extent that we ignore others’ pain, we place ourselves at greater risk of our own pain. This has been the case many times in human history and in many societies and it appears we have still not learned the lesson. No matter how I examine these issues, the recurrent bottom line is that human societies and attitudes must evolve or we will face the consequences of not doing so.
    Here’s another prediction for you:
    Biological weaponry is within reach of even desperately poor nations. Emerging diseases offer additional prospects for bioweapons. Of those nations or states that have nothing left to lose, all it takes is one instance of a depraved ruler motivated by revenge, to unleash a plague. To the extent that we ignore the rising tide of humanitarian crises driven by climate change, we accumulate the enmity of large enough numbers to increase the probability of the “one instance” occurring. This, truly, is a case where the terrorists only have to succeed once.
    There was a time when we could say that it was in our interests to see to the lifting of living standards in the poor nations. After all, we faced the competition of communism, and we had to demonstrate that our ways were better. Apparently this is no longer the case; absent a competing superpower we have grown complacent. Our complacency on this front, as on other fronts, will come back to haunt us.


  3. TokyoTom says:

    Richard, you are of course correct to mention these issues, but I don’t think that there’s really anything new here. Anthropogenic climate change resulting from fossil fuel combusiotn and other GHGs is a “tragedy of the commons” type of institutional failure problem that has been bedevilled by free rider, equity and national governance issues internationally and by rent-seeking and intergenerational issues domestically. We will all suffer from climate change, but the key impacts will be outside of the temperate zone and thus is not of the greatest import to most developed countries. That many of the countries that will suffer are basketcases with corrupt and incompetent governments is well known but hardly produces much of an urgent response from the West. Yes, there will humanitarian crises, but these poor countries do not pose a strategic threat to the West. Granted, if we really want to forestall disasters we would be very proactive in trying to impose the necessary stability and legal regimes, while eliminating corruption, so that these countries can better look after their own interests.
    There may be some chance that the US will decide to negotiate seriously with China, India and others to accept meaningful GHG limitations, and to even seek to reduce atmospheric concenttrations in coordination with other Western countries, but any effort will be substantially late, and will be suboptimal since benefits that come at current costs will benefit future generations.
    In other words, I am expecting a changed environment and that action to forestall change will be too little, too late. The West will adapt and I expect our response to humanitarian crisis will be to erect increasing barriers to immigration and to protect ourselves from unreast from the poorer countries. I do not expect that we will make a serious and coordinated effort to improve governance in the third world.


  4. serial catowner says:

    I think you’re illustrating why traditional think-tanks and governments will disappear in bunches when the climate change hits the fan.
    In about 40 BCE the Romans discarded their republic in favor of an executive state. Shortly afterwards, executive religion, typified by the story of Jesus, emerged.
    I suspect that if human life on earth survives, it will be because a new religion has swept away the old religions. This new religion will be primarily concerned with taking control of Spaceship Earth and making it sustainable.
    Dithering for another 15 years will create a situation in which only a massive dictatorship, empowered to confiscate the largest corporate assets, will be able to deal with the crisis. By then, I imagine, people will be fed up to the gills with claims that the ‘free market’ can solve the problems.
    Given that democracy is the only form of government to have emerged as viable over the past 300 years, the most likely outcome if survival happens will be a sort of United States of the World. Considering the incredibly short time-span in which these changes need to occur, it seems unlikely to me that the United States of America will be able to add much to the process. If Americans can prevent their ‘leaders’ from launching a nuclear attack on someone, that will be a major contribution.
    On the bright side, there’s a whole world out there with a lot more experience dealing with hard problems than we have. At some point we’re going to have to let the majority rule.


  5. Mike Treder says:

    John Muir said: “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.”
    Your analysis brings that point home. There is a clear connection, as you note, between climate change and national security. At the same time, other risk factors are emerging. Here’s a piece of what I wrote today on my Responsible Nanotechnology blog:
    “Changing climates, weapons of mass destruction, shifting balances of power — the global situation is becoming a vortex, a maelstrom in which multiple risk factors will swirl and combine to create sudden new crises for which we may not have time to prepare….”


  6. richard power says:

    The security implications of global warming are profound, and as you point out, largely ignored. At the end of Clinton-Gore administration, it had been rightly identified as a national security priority. The Bush-Cheney regime, as we all know, is pretending that the science itself is still inconclusive. Global warming with act as a threat-enhancing factor, in regard to terrorism, etc. It will aggravate existing geopolitical struggles, and ongoing conflicts over resources (e.g., water), it will also open up new ones, and re-activate dormant ones. It will put an ever-increasing percent of the global population in harm’s way vis-a-vis natural disasters, and therefore require emergency respone and relief capabilities on a scale never before contemplated. All governments should be scoping out the impact. All organizations should factor it into their risk analysis. All familes should understand it, and develop their own emergency plans. Here are links to two postings, which may be of use to those interested in this vital theme:
    Words of Power #7: Global Warming Is A Security Threat To Your Family & Your Business
    Words of Power #20: Cusco, Kyoto and The Yellow Sand Storm


  7. richard power says:

    Thank you for raising this issue.
    It is a question of profund importance, and it impacts all of risks and threats in many disturbing ways. Indeed, global warming is at the center of what I call the “Dissonant Convergence, The 21st Century Security Crisis.” I have recently written in the EU Observer on this subject, “Global Warming is the Greatest Security Threat” (EU Observer, 3-8-06)
    Here is a posting from 12-1-06, on Security Implications of Global Warming….
    Words of Power #7: Global Warming Is A Security Threat To Your Family & Your Business
    The timing of the UN conference is poignant. This week marks the end of the 2005 hurricane season, which as predicted, broke numerous records.
    Global warming is, indeed, accelerated and aggravated by our activity.
    It is too late to thwart the crisis, and perhaps it is even to late to mitigate it (although it is imperative, spiritually and psychologically, that we, as a species, try to mitigate it).
    Either way, we must understand and prepare. We must adapt.
    Analyzing and articulating the security implications of global warming is one of the most important aspects of our adaptation, but it is being largely ignored.
    In this issue of Words of Power, we will explore some of the reasons why all us globally, i.e., parents, officials, business executives, and, especially, security and intelligence professionals, should be considering how global warming and climate change are already impacting the security situation of our organizations, our societies and our personal lives. But, first, a reality-check…
    Reality-Based, Not Faith-Based
    Three important studies, released in recent days, confirm that profound changes are underway, and two of them provide conclusive evidence concerning the human factor:
    “The powerful ocean currents that transport heat around the globe and keep northern Europe’s weather relatively mild appear to be weakening, according to a new scientific report…Computer models have long predicted that the warming of the oceans and the “freshening” of the seas with water from melting glaciers and increased precipitation — all linked to the warming of the Earth by greenhouse gases — could slow the currents, but scientists did not expect to see such changes so soon… (Los Angeles Times, 11-30-05)
    “Global warming is doubling the rate of sea level rise around the world, but attempts to stop it by cutting back on greenhouse gas emissions are likely to be futile…The oceans will rise nearly half a metre by the end of the century, forcing coastlines back by hundreds of metres, the researchers claim…By drilling down 500 metres through layers of different sediments and using chemical dating techniques, the scientists were able to work out where beaches and dry land were over the past 100m years. The analysis showed that during the past 5,000 years, sea levels rose at a rate of around 1mm each year, caused largely by the residual melting of icesheets from the previous ice age. But in the past 150 years, data from tide gauges and satellites show sea levels are rising at 2mm a year. (Guardian/UK, 11-25-05)
    “An ice core about two miles long — the oldest frozen sample ever drilled from the underbelly of Antarctica — shows that at no time in the last 650,000 years have levels of the greenhouse gases carbon dioxide and methane been as high as they are today…The work provides more evidence that human activity since the Industrial Revolution has significantly altered the planet’s climate system, scientists said. “This is saying, ‘Yeah, we had it right.’ We can pound on the table harder and say, ‘This is real,’ ” said Richard Alley, a Penn State University geophysicist and expert on ice cores who was not involved with the analysis. (Los Angeles Times, 11-25-05)
    Security Implications of Global Warming
    The profound climate change that these and other important studies document confronts us with both direct threats and threat-enhancing factors:
    Severe Weather: Hurricanes and typhoons will increase in strength, length of duration and frequency, so will drought, floods and heat waves.
    Infrastructure Failures: Most national infrastructures are already under duress. As extremes of heat and cold impact densely populated regions, massive blackouts (such as those that plunged 50 million North Americans and 50 million Italians into prolonged darkness in 2003) and other forms of infrastructure failure, will increase.
    Food Security: Unmitigated climate change due to global warming will significantly impact grain yields, particularly in developing countries and low-latitude regions. Lower yield will result in tens of millions (if not hundreds of millions) more hungry human beings, as well as escalating food prices globally. These factors will aggravate the chasm between rich and poor countries (as well as the chasm between rich and poor within the rich countries) and also impact globalization by decimating emerging trading partners. (NOTE: The World Bank defines “Food Security” as Food security as “access by all people at all times to enough food for an active, healthy life.”)
    Collapse of Governments and Disintegration of Societies: Climate change will stress some governments and societies to the breaking point. Several African nations and Afghanistan offer painful examples of what happens when governments collapse and societies disintegrate. The security threats that arise in such chaos not only subsume all life within the borders of the self-immolated country, but can also reach far beyond the borders, inflicting suffering on many human beings, both near and far.
    Migrations: Societies, which are either not directly impacted, or only marginally impacted, in the early stages of global climate change could nevertheless encounter serious difficulties in coping with mass influxes of human beings fleeing drought, famine, rising sea levels, mega-storms that will snuff out the life of whole cities (New Orleans was the first of how many?) or the anarchy that any combination of these factors could cause.
    Energy Security: The issues of global warming and renewable energy resources are inextricably intertwined. But not simply because human burning of fossil fuels is accelerating and aggravating global warming. They are also interconnected because ironically this next two decades, in which human burning of fossil fuels is cooking our atmosphere, is also marked by both a voracious and ever-spiraling demand for more energy and the end of peak oil production. The twin stresses of climate change due to global warming and a drop-off in global oil production will create unprecedented geopolitical and economic tensions. The irony is a bitter one. The solution to both of this great problem is the same: the political will to commit nations and the community of nations as a whole to the technological development and industrial adaptation of renewable energy resources.
    Economic Security: The economic impact of coping with climate change, in regard to food security, energy security, disaster recovery and relief, etc., will itself become a powerful threat-enhancing factor.
    Diseases and Pests: Climate change is both increasing the threat from tropical diseases (e.g. dengue fever and malaria) at lower latitudes and spreading them to higher latitudes. Pests that threaten human agriculture, the planet’s forests and whole animal species are growing stronger.
    Travel Security: Both business travel and holiday travel will be profoundly impacted both by the deteriorating security situation and environmental conditions in many countries. Traveling to, and operating in, some countries that already pose a heightened security risk will almost certainly become even more problematical. And, indeed, one aspect of climate change that, at least to my knowledge, has not been explored publicly at all is the impact on the overall safety of air travel, e.g., will established flight paths have to be reconsidered due to new or increased turbulence?
    Submersion of Islands: In the long-term, the fates of whole nations (for example, the Seychelles and the Maldives) hang in the balance, as well as the fates of great cities, in particular London and New York.
    Pentagon Study Highlights Global Warming As A Profound Security Issue
    While the Bush administration played its ludicrous game of pretend, acting as if the consensus of scientific opinion was still undecided on global warming, the Pentagon was studying what global warming meant to national security.
    “Climate change over the next 20 years could result in a global catastrophe costing millions of lives in wars and natural disasters.. A secret report, suppressed by US defence chiefs and obtained by The Observer, warns that major European cities will be sunk beneath rising seas as Britain is plunged into a ‘Siberian’ climate by 2020. Nuclear conflict, mega-droughts, famine and widespread rioting will erupt across the world. The document predicts that abrupt climate change could bring the planet to the edge of anarchy as countries develop a nuclear threat to defend and secure dwindling food, water and energy supplies. The threat to global stability vastly eclipses that of terrorism, say the few experts privy to its contents. ‘Disruption and conflict will be endemic features of life,’ concludes the Pentagon analysis. ‘Once again, warfare would define human life.’…Climate change ‘should be elevated beyond a scientific debate to a US national security concern’, say the authors, Peter Schwartz, CIA consultant and former head of planning at Royal Dutch/Shell Group, and Doug Randall of the California-based Global Business Network. An imminent scenario of catastrophic climate change is ‘plausible and would challenge United States national security in ways that should be considered immediately’, they conclude. As early as next year widespread flooding by a rise in sea levels will create major upheaval for millions.” (The Observer, 2-22-04)
    How does one resolve the contradiction between the White House position and the Pentagon study? Well, perhaps there is no contradiction. It may not be as simple as seeing only what you want to see, as with the cherry-picking and “sexing up” of pre-war intelligence about Iraq; it may be that after gaming it out, the Neo-Cons have concluded, in their warped view, that global climate change crisis is one that may, at least in the initial decades, favor the North American continent, or more perhaps more importantly, their own economic and military agendas. Remember, the Neo-Con world-view leads them to welcome instability in the Middle East as a transformative factor, discern a silver-lining in the destruction of New Orleans (rebuilding contracts, real estate, electoral college edge, etc.) and even caused them to wax poetically (pre-9/11) of their need for “a new Pearl Harbor” to promote their “Plan for A New American Century.”
    Abdication of Responsibility by US News Media and Political Opposition
    But the Bush administration, with its Neo-Con world-view, is not solely to blame for the U.S.’s abdication of responsibility on this most crucial global security issue.
    Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting (F.A.I.R.) performed an analysis of the U.S. mainstream news media and found its approach misleading and contrived:
    Consider a study done by Fairness & Accuracy In Media (F.A.I.R.).
    “Despite the consistent assertions of the United Nations-sponsored Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) that human activities have had a “discernible” influence on the global climate and that global warming is a serious problem that must be addressed immediately, “he said/she said” reporting has allowed a small group of global warming skeptics to have their views greatly amplified…Using the search term “global warming,” we collected articles from this time period and focused on what is considered “hard news,” excluding editorials, opinion columns, letters to the editor and book reviews. Approximately 41 percent of articles came from the New York Times, 29 percent from the Washington Post, 25 percent from the Los Angeles Times, and 5 percent from the Wall Street Journal. From a total of 3,543 articles, we examined a random sample of 636 articles. Our results showed that the majority of these stories were, in fact, structured on the journalistic norm of balanced reporting, giving the impression that the scientific community was embroiled in a rip-roaring debate on whether or not humans were contributing to global warming…Through statistical analyses, we found that coverage significantly diverged from the IPCC consensus on human contributions to global warming from 1990 through 2002. In other words, through adherence to the norm of balance, the U.S. press systematically proliferated an informational bias.” (Journalistic Balance as Global Warming Bias: Creating controversy where science finds consensus, F.A.I.R., November/December 2004)
    During the 2004 U.S. presidential election campaign, the opposition candidate, Sen. John F. Kerry (D-MA) had an opportunity to make the looming global warming crisis, and the Pentagon study, into a major national security issue in his campaign:
    “If he’s smart enough to use it, the Democratic nominee may have just been handed the perfect cudgel with which to pummel President Bush – and cripple Karl Rove’s attempts to position his man as America’s go-to guy on national security. The weapon in question is a new report on the grave and gathering threat posed by global climate change – and the potentially cataclysmic consequences of the Bush administration’s obstinately ignorant approach to global warming…Dryly entitled “An Abrupt Climate Change Scenario and Its Implications for United States National Security,” the report reads like the plot summary of the upcoming Dennis Quaid doomsday flick, “The Day After Tomorrow,” in which global warming pushes the planet to the edge of anarchy and annihilation. But this scenario is not science fiction. According to the Pentagon study, the question is not if abrupt climate change will happen, but when. It could be, according to the report’s authors, as soon as the next three years, with the most devastating fallout potentially occurring between 2010 and 2020. At that point, we could find ourselves in the midst of a new ice age in which mega-droughts devastate the world’s food supply, drinkable water becomes a luxury worth going nuclear over, 400 million people are forced to migrate from uninhabitable areas, and riots and wars for survival become commonplace…One of the defining traits of leadership is the ability to see not just the crisis right in front of you, but the one lurking around the next corner. Bush’s steadfast refusal to act upon the potential desolation that awaits us if we do nothing to confront global warming makes him a major national security liability.” (Ariana Huffington,, 2-25-04)
    But, sadly, the leaders of the Democratic Party, with the noble exception of former Vice President Al Gore, even now, fail to prioritize their national agenda to adequately reflect the gravity of the global crisis that climate change and the end of peak oil is bringing upon us all. Why do the US mainstream news media and the political opposition do little more than pay lip surface to the greatest global security threat of all? Well, complicity with the energy lobby is one element, and the other is cowardice. Remember, messengers who bring bad news sometimes don’t survive the telling of it.
    What Does This Threat Mean to Your Family and Your Business
    Here are some recommendations for both organizations and individuals, culled from recent GS(3) Intelligence Briefings.
    Organizations, in all regions, should already be factoring the security and crisis management implications of global warming and climate change into their programs.
    For example, in the near-term, the impact of severe weather conditions (e.g., major storms, serious flooding, prolonged, intense heat waves, etc.) on already inadequate and out-dated power grids in Europe and North America will be significant. Likewise, the security situations in already marginal social structures in Africa will deteriorate even further as climate conditions grow extreme.
    Your organization should implement security programs, including business continuity and crisis management plans, for all facilities and all information systems. If your organization already has such plans, they should be revised to address short-term, near-term and long-term security implications of global warming and climate change. In particular, organizations should regularly review, revise and test business continuity and disaster recovery plans. If your organization does not already have such a plan, it is imperative that you develop one and implement it ASAP.
    Your organization should also perform a risk analysis, concerning the potential impact of global warming and climate change, including its security implications. This risk analysis should incorporate the threat and threat-enhancing factors we have enumerated, and be tailored to the regions in which you operate and the nature of your operations.
    Your organization should incorporate relevant information and suggestions about climate change, in general, and specific regional issues (e.g., floods or fires), in particular, into existing security awareness and education programs for its workforce. If your organization does not already have a security awareness and education program, you should develop or acquire one ASAP, and incorporate common sense security recommendations for the home as well as the office.
    On the personal level, all families and circles of friends should have their own disaster preparedness plans. If you do not already have such a plan in place, GS(3) recommends starting with practical answers to three simple, but sweeping questions:
    What would you do if you had to leave your home in 15 minutes?
    What would you do if you had to stay inside your home, without utilities, for five days?
    How would you communicate with your loved ones if your day-to-day forms of communication, e.g. cell phones, instant messaging, etc., were inaccessible?
    The full text is available at
    Here is another relevant posting…
    Words of Power #20: Cusco, Kyoto and The Yellow Sand Storm


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