Over the past three decades, the primary paradigm of security discourse has been an extraordinary focus on “non-traditional security threats”. This connotes a change of perspective on what constitutes the security of states. In the Cold war era, security was primarily measured in hard power terms, in that protection of sovereignty, borders and people through hard power elements such as capable militaries, weapons procurement and spheres of influence was the focus of a country’s search for security.
In the 21st century, however, the concept of National Security cannot be restricted merely too hard power considerations. In real terms, most countries face a host of ‘non-traditional security challenges’ such as terrorism, water insecurity, irregular migration, trans-national and cyber-crimes and infectious diseases. But perhaps the greatest threat, in the sense that it compounds and accentuates the effects of the aforementioned threats in addition to its own harm, is Climate Change.
The world has largely been slow to recognize the potential harms that climate change may bring about, however, many states have now grown to realize the consequences of inaction and are attempting to mitigate the damage that this crisis is sure to cause. Rising global temperatures, melting sea ice and more extreme weather patterns are all increasing by the year. But if the ecological disaster wasn’t enough reason to act on climate change, there are now national security factors that must be considered. This piece considers several ways in which climate change may become a threat to national and global security.
The Pentagon, in its Quadrennial Defense Review of 2014, concluded that climate change acts as a catalyst to already existing social problems such as poverty, environmental degradation and instability. Through changing weather patterns, the likelihood and intensity of natural disasters increases which places burdens on economies and governing institutions, thus taking away resources from welfare and social services onto disaster management. Such situations are likely to generate conditions of poverty, instability and resource competition. As history has shown, such conditions are most conducive to extremism that can thus enable terrorist activities and ethnic and religious strife. This proliferation of violence to achieve resources is likely to be a massive threat to ethnically diverse countries such as India and Pakistan where civil unrest and social strife may ensue.
Another way in which climate change threatens security paradigms of states is through water insecurity. Rising temperatures due to global warming have resulted in increased melting of glaciers and snowcaps which has severely impacted water security. States such as India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, that depend upon snow-melt fed river basins, are likely to suffer acute water insecurity as their storage capacity significantly decreases due to higher snowcap melting. What is more, quicker melting of glaciers due to temperature increases has led to stronger and more extreme water releases that make it difficult for current infrastructure to contain. This incurs increased costs upon governments to rebuild, renovate and construct new infrastructure which ends up putting massive strains on limited resources. In the language of economics, such additional unnecessary costs brought about by avoidable situations are known as “negative externality costs”.
This is incredibly significant in the context of existing ‘water-rivalries’ in South Asia, the Middle East and North Africa. The rivalries between Syria, Iraq and Turkey over the Tigris and the Euphrates and the disputes between India and Pakistan over the Indus river are very likely to be exacerbated as States consider weaponizing water resources in order to gain advantages in future conflicts. One way in which we are already witnessing this is Narendra Modi’s populist rhetoric whereby he continuously threatens Pakistan with cutting off the supply of water to Pakistan. Modi’s popular statements of “blood and water cannot flow together” to stoke resentment against Pakistan is a reflection of the various ways in which the weaponization of water on such a massive scale is a geopolitical reality. Such situations may be further aggravated as rising sea levels instigate migrations from low-lying countries. The world is set to face another refugee crisis as experts estimate that climate change will cause 143 million people to be displaced by 2050, and if we have learned anything from the EU Refugee Crisis of 2015, it is that xenophobia and racism still permeate all communities around the world. Ethnic tensions, social disorder and civil unrest are likely to ensue in the coming years.
To that end, an even more interesting geopolitical phenomenon of glacial melting is the competition for the arctic. As the world will face the brunt of the climate disaster, it is considered that Russia will likely be insulated from it. In fact, Russia stands to benefit from climate change and may look at it as its ticket to resurgence. Russia’s main population centres are far away from oceans which means rising sea levels are unlikely to worry them too much. According to the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the volume of the Arctic’s thickest ice has decreased by ninety-five percent! This opens up massive opportunities for Russia as the Arctic is reported to contain 43% of the world’s hydro-carbon reserves.
Exploration there could provide Russia’s economy with the boom that it needs to become a resurgent superpower. The process has already begun as Russia deploys its military assets there and the Pentagon prepares to counter such measures on its own account. Last year, President Trump offered to buy Greenland from Denmark for “strategic” reasons. A geopolitical rivalry of epic proportions is thus brewing in the Arctic, and climate change is aggravating it. If the effects of climate change are not drastically dealt with, the world’s most protected region is likely to become the new battleground of two superpowers.
The arguments above have hopefully shown that the world needs to act in haste to save the world from not an only ecological disaster, but also to prevent national security dilemmas that promise to wreck social orders around the world. However, with the US withdrawal from the Paris Agreement 2015 and the disappointing results of the Conference of Parties 25 (2019), the picture at the moment seems to be bleak. The world community must rise above politics to implement a plan to control climate change, otherwise, the future of humanity is at risk.