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Is Climate Change a National Security Issue?

Posted by David Takashi Aptaker on

California recently instated new regulations concerning water consumption in an effort to counter the effects of a serious drought. Governor Jerry Brown ordered a 25 percent cut in water usage, and grassroots campaigns against certain agricultural products have begun, notably boycotts of burgers and almonds. In a 2014 report, NASA indicated that California’s water levels were 11 trillion gallons short of its seasonal average. California is not alone. China is experiencing drought in regions of their country. Ethiopia is in the midst of extreme drought as is Eritrea. Morocco faces water shortages, too. Climate change is here, and drought is only one symptom of this trend. Meanwhile, the ocean continues to acidify, the coral reef decays, water levels in the oceans are rising, mosquitos can access higher altitudes due to an increased global temperature, and extreme weather is becoming more frequent.

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These issues may appear benign, but their consequences can be destructive and fatal. Decreases in water supplies can increase interstate competition for resources, and lead to a shortage in agricultural yields per year. A decaying coral reef will lead to a waning fish supply, risking peoples’ health and jobs in fishing-dependent economies. Mosquitos migrating to higher altitudes could introduce diseases to new parts of the world, and extreme weather brings disaster with it. Hurricane Katrina comes to mind. In this paper, I posit that the symptoms of climate change, like the examples above, are a serious security concern. Despite its threat, climate change’s nature may pose obstacles in efficiently remedying it vis-à-vis securitization. Therefore, governments must reevaluate how they address national and international security.

Before discussing any policy proposals, I will argue why climate change is a security issue. For any skeptics of the weather’s potential to impact a nation’s security, one need only look back in history to see clear illustrations of climate’s effects on well-known empires. The Huns and German tribes experienced a cold streak, causing them to migrate across the Volga and Rhine [respectively] and sack Rome in the fourth and fifth centuries CE [respectively].   The Muslim expansion into Southern Europe and the Mediterranean was inspired by drought in the Near East. The Vikings died out in the fifteenth century due to the “Little Ice Age.” These occurrences reflect smaller-scale climate issues than the ones the world faces today. With a highly networked international community and growing global population, the human impact on the planet is exponentially larger than societies of the past, and thus, the security concerns this raises are significantly more intense in scope and possible effects.

Rising sea levels are creating an environmental refugee problem, notably in Oceania. Further, rising oceans could be particularly troubling for neighboring countries. Southeast Asian states like Malaysia and Indonesia may challenge Western states such as the U.S. as they are hotbeds for Al Qaeda and extremist organizations. A forced migration vis-à-vis climate change would pose problems for the countries that wish to map out these terror networks. A mass movement of refugees would certainly risk intelligence agencies losing track of key people of interest.

Meanwhile, drought and desertification are destroying agriculture-based economies, coral degradation is decreasing the global fish supply, and freshwater shortages are laying the groundwork for competition amongst states. Without highly institutionalized water treaties and regulations, competing states are at risk of conflict for control of rivers, lakes, and other freshwater sources. The increase in global temperature will negatively impact human health via reoriented disease vectors, food- and water-borne disease, and more intensive heat waves and wildfires, as well as a stressed economy.

To further exacerbate the security risks associated with climate change, the areas that will be most impacted are currently populated by the most disadvantaged people. Much of Africa will suffer drought, desertification, and water shortage, not to mention further spread of disease. The Middle East, too, will experience its share of climate change symptoms. China’s rural northern communities will be impacted by desertification as well. While most of the world will feel the impacts of climate change, these three regions, in particular, pose other troubling risks for international security. This is because they, in addition to experiencing climate-related symptoms, are also facing population increases,   youth bulges, and in some areas have severely imbalanced male-female ratios,   all of which are indicators of a higher likelihood of violent conflict.

Having discussed potential symptoms of climate change (desertification, sea level rise, etc.), and the implications of these symptoms (food shortages, water scarcity, conflict), the next question is whether this issue should be securitized. The answer is not simple. Securitization holds some advantages. To begin, it puts the issue deep in the psyche of citizens. That is, when the government of a country labels climate change as a security issue, it recognizes the reality of the threat, provokes feelings such as fear and insecurity amongst the population, and implicitly calls on the state to deal with the threat.   The state’s acknowledgment of the threat spurs the government to allocate resources needed to combat climate change. This is helpful because of the scope of climate change’s potential effects require a substantial amount of resources.

The problem that tends to emerge with securitization is that states respond militarily. This is valuable when the threat is a physical force like an army mobilizing at a state’s border. However, according to Wæver, security is a situation with a problem and a measurable response, versus insecurity, which is a problem with no response.   A response does not inherently point to military action. If the state securitizes climate change, they must ensure that the means to security are secondary to the ends.   Military apparatus might be the traditional means, and could be helpful in quarantining disease outbreaks, resolving natural resource conflicts, and aiding in natural disaster responses. Yet, the military is not the only means nor is it necessarily the most effective for countering a warming climate. States like the U.S. have many other resources for taking action against climate change—it's a matter of matching ends, ways, and means.

The securitization of climate change is an important step towards effectively combatting its negative effects and reversing the global climate trends. Compelling other states to securitize the issue is an entirely different task and requires navigating a plethora of interests and competing views.

States view climate change in a variety of ways, and the prerogatives of each state in their response varies accordingly; different states have different issues. For example, China has attempted to solve its drought by funneling water from the Tibetan plateau to regions in northern China that are water-deficient.   However, this causes concerns for India, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam, all of whom can feel the effects of the dams China is setting up on the Mekong and Ganges rivers.   These countries’ reactions, in turn, will shape Chinese policy, and the outcome is a security concern—India and China are nuclear powers, and a conflict over a resource as basic and essential as water could escalate if it is viewed as a dire existential necessity.

States like Tuvalu in the South Pacific are facing severe impacts on agriculture as water levels rise, kill crops, and engulf its islands. This has created food shortages and forced many people to migrate to new states like Australia and New Zealand.   The United States, a nation heavily dependent on oil and other fossil fuels, is looking for alternative energy sources and ways to minimize its carbon footprint. Electric and hybrid cars are becoming more popular, and they are being held to higher standards regarding environmental friendliness and clean energy.

Just like any global issue, the interests at stake are different based on factors such as political climate, domestic constraints, and regional environments. With that said, comprehensive integrated initiatives to combat climate change could actually be a hindrance to effective action.   It is difficult to find universal agreement on any given issue, but especially one as daunting as climate change. What is more effective is the proliferation of regime complexes with specific goals aimed at tackling the larger issue of the global climate. Robert Keohane and David Victor posit that in settings of high uncertainty and policy flux, regime complexes are politically more realistic and hold some significant advantages such as flexibility and adaptability.

One might argue that fragmented, piecemeal moves to counter climate change will not be as effective as an integrated, institutionalized effort. Though this may be true, we have seen such international efforts slowed by domestic politics and the lack the proper mechanisms to hold powerful states to their obligations. The Kyoto Protocol is a good example—despite the majority of states signing the document, the U.S. Senate never ratified it, and Canada withdrew its commitment. Furthermore, the binding measures of the protocol didn’t even enter effect for seven years following the signing. Although the Kyoto Protocol eventually rallied the international community of states to take action, it took seven years to begin, and those were seven years we could not afford to waste.

In contrast, a regime complex gives the space for states to align based on their most pressing interests. Participating states are motivated because they can make gains from linkages with fellow states within the regime, and with fewer actors involved, there is less uncertainty, creating an environment in which actors can more readily act in good faith without fear of free-riding or shirking. While three states acting in concert with one another might have fewer resources than 150 states acting on the same issue, the time saved coordinating among three states translates to more time working on the issue being addressed. While those three states tackle one problem, three other states could resolve an additional problem, and so on. Work will be accomplished, and time will not be wasted. Furthermore, a regime complex is more adaptable to any changes that occur over time, and are more flexible than a rigid, institutionalized effort.   The effectiveness of a regime complex should not deter integrated, multilateral initiatives against climate change—the point is that a full, integrated coalition should not be the end-all-be-all of the international strategy.

Below, I have included some policy recommendations for the international community and the United States. These are suggestions that focus primarily on the sustainability and efficiency of solutions to the problem:

1. Efforts to slow and reverse climate change should continue in the regime complex that has formed. Regimes include the Asia Pacific Partnership, Major Economies Meetings, G8, G20, Prototype Carbon Fund, and the European Union.

2. Simultaneously, efforts to uphold larger initiatives such as the Kyoto Protocols should continue. The U.S. signing the protocol could be a risky move—failure to uphold its commitment might damage U.S. credibility, image, and prestige. However, signing the protocol and following through on commitments could significantly boost U.S. prestige.

3. In the U.S., establish legislature that binds corporations to higher standards regarding the environment. Develop severe penalties for infractions to act as an effective deterrent.

4. States must make laws that target causes and not just symptoms. For example, a law that merely prohibits a certain amount of coal emissions might encourage corporations or states to seek out special coal combustion technologies rather than find an alternative that is better for the environment.   This law only goes to rectify the symptom (coal emission) rather than the cause (coal itself).

5. The U.S. and the international community must invest heavily in research and development. The fact is that we are rectifying the human causes of climate change too slowly to keep pace with the symptoms of climate change. Technology and research will play key roles in mitigating problems in the future. This means exploring everything, no matter how far-fetched it might seem. We have yet to find a solution, so until we have a concrete plan of action, we should be examining anything with promising scientific potential. For example, a mycologist named Paul Stamets believes the international community could save the entire world with a specific type of mushroom that has been shown to reverse environmental carbon levels.

6. Begin contingency planning in preparation for the next natural disaster.

Overall, climate change is a credible threat to the seven elements of human security laid out by the UNDP: economic, food, health, environmental, personal, communal, and political. Food shortages, water crises, and violent conflict are all symptoms of climate change’s impacts on the world. Regime complexes coupled with the securitization of climate change by states in the international community are positive steps toward countering its global effects. The world must respond now to make a difference in the long term.


Written by David Takashi Aptaker, a social and environmental advocate with a strong background in both international relations and political affairs. 


Sources

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