Climate Change Implications & Recommendations for Security

Climate Change Implications & Recommendations for Security

Climate change is likely to have the greatest impact on security through its indirect effects on conflict and vulnerability. Many developing countries are unable to provide basic services and improvements, much less cope with repeated, sudden onset shocks and accumulating, slow onset stresses. These effects span the spectrum from the basic necessities of livelihood to social conflict, including protests, strikes, riots, inter-communal violence and conflict between nations. Climate change is more likely to be an exacerbating factor for failure to meet basic human needs and for conflict, rather than the root cause,” states the October 2011 Defense Science Board Report, Trends and Implications of Climate Change for National and International Security.

For the Department of Defense (DoD), climate change is a driving force behind its national, and international, security strategy not only because of climate’s ability to impact defense, diplomacy and economics but also because of its high level of uncertainty. In addition, the highest levels of uncertainty will be situated in the most vulnerable and conflict-ridden regions of the world. According to the Defense Science Board, “Failure to anticipate and mitigate [climate change] increases the threat of more failed states with instabilities and potential for conflict.”

Like all bottom-line, responsible organizations, DoD manages for specific, desired outcomes – short- and long-term – within a resource-constrained environment subject to an infinite number of variables. However, this organization is dealing with inadequate business intelligence in the form of “shortfalls in climate information, climate science and climate models.”1 Although current and past climate information is observable and measurable, future projections are less clear, and in many cases unknown, because of feedback effects and never before experienced or measured processes. This is why public and private researchers are advocating for “a comprehensive approach to space-based observational systems and systems operating in other domains” in order to acquire a “scientifically robust, sustained and actionable climate information system.”2

One generally known but critical piece of intelligence is the long life of certain greenhouse gases, which means effects will increase even without further emissions increases. According to the Defense Science Board, this challenge cannot be “solved.”

“It will require hundreds of years to see significant reductions in the level [of greenhouse gases] in the atmosphere. Current estimates are that if all of the measures currently recommended to reduce emissions from human activity are implemented, the predicted temperature rise will vary from a minimum of 2°C (3.6°F) to as much as 7°C (12.6°F) by the end of the 21st century. A rise of more than 2°C is likely to have serious consequences for the human habitat. Current projections explicitly exclude feedback cycles, such as those involving release of methane and nitrous oxide, which have the potential to further accelerate surface warming,” warns the Defense Science Board.

The Defense Science Board recommends defined roles throughout the U.S. government in order to “focus on climate-related action beneficial to national and international security, regardless of the rate of climate change.” The National Research Council concurs in their 2011 Report, National Security Implications of Climate Change for U.S. Naval Forces, requested by the Chief of Naval Operations, when they presented a list of action areas for U.S. naval forces (U.S. Navy, Marine Corps and Coast Guard).

Some of these action areas are listed below:

  • Action Area 1 – Support ratification of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. (According to the Report, this action area was related to disputes over boundaries and exclusive economic zones as a result of new maritime transits and competition for new resources related to the Arctic.)
  • Action Area 2 – Prepare for increased strain on capabilities due to greater humanitarian assistance/disaster relief (HA/DR)-related missions, as well as the opening of new international and territorial waters in the Arctic.
  • Action Area 3 – Address naval coastal installation vulnerabilities due to anticipated sea level rise and increased storm surge.
  • Action Area 4 – Address U.S., allied and/or international maritime partnership demands based on climate change scenarios.





The Defense Science Board also promotes DoD recommendations within its Report, commenting that they “must be part of a comprehensive multi-department approach and in coordination with international efforts.” They include:

  • the need for developing a robust climate information system;
  • instituting water security as a core element of DoD strategy;
  • roles of the national security community, including the intelligence community, the Department of State and the White House;
  • guidance and DoD organization to address the full range of international climate change-related issues and their impact on the evolution of DoD’s missions and
  • combatant command roles, responsibilities and capacities.


Specific recommendations for the National Security Community include:

  • project human security changes that could develop into national security issues;
  • produce an assessment of regional climate change “hotspots” that threaten human security and governmental legitimacy, and exacerbate existing tensions;
  • make conflict avoidance a priority in foreign assistance (including security assistance and foreign military sales), development and defense concept development and planning;
  • develop a strategic communications message that links water and food security and increased storm intensity to regional stability and U.S. national security.


Specific recommendations for DoD include:

  • compile and assess climate change effects information across the geographic combatant commands to identify implications for regional stability and development of global and regional foreign military assistance;
  • expand the authorities of the Operational Energy Plans and Programs Office to include operational climate change issues;
  • establish climate change adaption pilot projects in concert with related programs at the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID);
  • direct development of a DoD strategic roadmap for climate change-related efforts that builds on the framework laid out in the U.S. Navy Climate Change Roadmap;
  • direct combatant command missions to include non-combat support to address serious climate change-induced U.S. national security vulnerabilities;
  • require climate change and disaster risk reduction be integrated into training and exercises, and educational materials;
  • ensure climate change resilience in DoD project designs and construction by incorporating climate change risk into design standards for facilities and installations, with emphasis on elements related to energy intensive and water intensive uses;
  • assess the Services’ engineering organizations and cost-benefit of using them in assisting climate change adaption;
  • expand consideration of roles for the National Guard and Reserves;
  • create a demand signal by articulating the need to understand the implications of climate change and resource scarcities in combatant command regions to support their campaign plans;
  • include as a Tier 1 objective enhancing the capacity of host nation militaries and civil response readiness groups to plan for, and respond to, natural disasters (e.g., floods, coastal storm surges and droughts);
  • integrate into humanitarian assistance/disaster relief and other exercise plans additional climate change-related aspects;
  • promote the concept of coordinated management of shared natural resources like water.


In 2011 world climate change trends, according to the Defense Science Board, included the following: increasing land and sea-surface temperatures; changing ocean temperature; changing ocean chemistry; declining Greenland and Antarctic ice sheet mass; declining glaciers and snow cover; decreasing and thinning Arctic sea ice; more frequent and longer droughts; increased frequency of heavy precipitation events, flooding and landslides; increased cyclone intensity and rising sea level.

Earlier climate change research is consistent with this, as evidenced by the National Intelligence Council’s (NIC) 2009 effort “to explore in greater detail the national security implications of climate change in six countries/regions of the world: India, China, Russia, North Africa, Mexico and the Caribbean, and Southeast Asia and the Pacific Island States” with a targeted timeframe to 2030.

Bottom-Line NIC Findings

India is considered one of the most vulnerable countries in the world to projected climate change. The country is already experiencing water stress, heat waves and drought, severe storms and flooding, and associated negative consequences on health and livelihoods. Glaciers are receding at an average of 10 to 15 meters (32.8 to 49.2 feet) per year with an expected increase in warming throughout India of .5°C (.9°F) by 2030 and 2 to 4°C (3.6° to 7.2°F) by the 21st Century. India will experience fewer rainy days, but more days will consist of extreme rainfall with increasing amounts of rain in each event, thus leading to significant flooding. Earlier snowmelt will have a significant adverse effect on agricultural production.

Poor people in India will be hardest hit with migration, especially from Bangladesh, straining resources and India-Bangladesh relations. More severe storms are expected, especially cyclones, with damage to infrastructure and livelihoods in addition to increased salt water intrusion into drinking water. “The welfare of those who are affected by climate change and who have limited means to adapt may act as a force that can change governments, strain public budgets and foster unrest. About one-third of Indians are extremely poor, and 60 percent depend on agriculture for their livelihood,” states the NIC Report.3


©|Indian woman washes the dishes with ash, to avoid wasting water.

©|Indian woman washes the dishes with ash, to avoid wasting water.


China’s average temperature has risen throughout the past century by 1.1°C (2°F). Within the past 50 years, a drying trend has occurred in the Yellow River Basin and North China Plain. In the past 30 years, sea level has increased by 90 mm (3.54 inches) and sea surface temperature by 0.9°C (1.62°F). The country is experiencing the most extreme floods, droughts and storms in its history with losses totaling USD$25 to $37.5 billion per year.

“Scarcity of natural water resources, fast-growing urbanization and industrialization, severe water pollution, cheap water prices and adverse impacts of climate on water sources may lead to a water crisis . . . [which may] impact China’s social, economic and political stability to a great extent” states the NIC Report.

China’s coastal regions, the economic engine of the country, are vulnerable to storm, flood and sea level rise. The nation’s already underdeveloped social protection system and large unemployed population may pose social and political uncertainties as well. However, in 2007 the Chinese Government instituted its national climate change program followed in 2008 with its actions and policies on climate change. As a result, China is gaining capacity quickly compared to other countries and continues to rank high in food security, human health and human resources.4

Russia is already experiencing milder winters; melting permafrost; changing precipitation patterns; spread of disease and increased drought, flooding and other extreme weather events. Its petroleum infrastructure will experience structural subsidence, associated river crossing risks and construction problems as permafrost melts earlier and deeper. Increasing water shortages are predicted in the southern parts of European Russia – areas already impacted by socioeconomic and sociopolitical unrest. Agriculture will be more reliant on irrigation, which means increased vulnerability to droughts.

Russia, which is already the number two destination for immigrants in the world, may experience greater migration pressure from Central Asia, the Caucasus, Mongolia and northeastern China, adding to water shortages and economic stress. Russia’s longstanding crossborder tensions with China and other socioeconomic and sociopolitical “hot spots” may accelerate.5

North Africa (Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya and Egypt) is identified as a very responsive region to climate change (“hot spot”), and its impacts may be more marked in this region than anywhere in the world. All countries in this region are already experiencing water stress with “median decreases in average annual precipitation of 12 percent and 6 percent projected for the Mediterranean and Saharan regions, respectively,” according to the NIC Report.

Decreasing water levels may increase salinity in coastal areas with an increasing deterioration of water quality. Intensive agriculture may result in further salinity and desertification. Continuing migration into North African countries will create greater demands on infrastructure with possible increased ethnic, racial and religious conflict.

According to the Report, “The impacts of sea level rise in North Africa are expected to be stronger in terms of social, economic and ecological factors. Highly populated and agriculturally important coastal cities are the most vulnerable.” Increased water scarcity, sea level rise and increasing temperatures will likely negatively impact tourism, thus further decreasing the economy.6

Within the past one-half century, the renewable water resource per capita in Africa has decreased by a factor of three. The Defense Science Board maintains that “95 percent of agriculture is rain-fed with little or no capability for storing or transporting water to deal with the variability in rainfall. Systems to store and to transport water are a feature of wealthier nations.

“The objective in Africa and elsewhere should continue to be sustainable political stability where civilian governments, supported by defense cooperation among militaries capable of supporting civil authority, promote resilience to the effects of climate change. The bulk of effort and influence must come from the affected region.”7

©|Evaporated water has created a thick salt crust in the desert of Cuatro Ciénegas, north Mexico. Cuatro Ciénegas is a protected area and a national park.

©|Evaporated water has created a thick salt crust in the desert of Cuatro Ciénegas, north Mexico. Cuatro Ciénegas is a protected area and a national park.

Mexico, the countries of the Caribbean and Central America are already experiencing steady increases in extreme weather events, such as hurricanes, storms and droughts with resultant negative effects on infrastructure, public health, loss of human health and agriculture. The consensus is that climate change will create serious economic consequences making it more difficult to respond to challenges of poverty reduction, human development and environmental sustainability. Agriculture losses are projected to vary from 10 to 50 percent or more by the year 2030.

The majority of the population lives in coastal areas, which are the most vulnerable to climate change. “Increasing water extraction and rising sea levels are expected to have severe impacts on quantity and quality of available water, especially since many of the existing aquifers are open to ocean water and already experiencing salinity. Inability to cope with climate change impacts will promote migration to other countries, particularly the United States and Canada, facilitated by the past 20 to 25 years of immigration,” states the NIC Report.8

Southeast Asia and Pacific Islands (Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, Philippines, Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia) all face similar climate change threats due to their large and growing populations, long coastlines, low-lying areas, reliance on agriculture and natural resources. Annual surface temperatures have already increased by 0.5 to 1.1°C (0.9° to 1.98°F) from 1901 – 2005. The largest increases in sea level rise (15 to 25 mm per year or .59 to .98 inches) have occurred on the coasts of Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam with expected continual increases up to 30 to 40 cm (11.81 to 15.75 inches) by the end of the century. Temperatures are expected to increase by 1°C (1.8°F) through 2030.

Severe water stress is expected to increase due to salt water intrusion as well as fluctuations in precipitation, the main fresh water source. Mangroves and coral reefs are expected to be significantly impacted, especially since coastal areas are already degraded by pollution, sediment-laden runoff and destructive fishing practices.9
“The spreading desertification in the Darfur region has been compounding the tensions between Nomadic herders and agrarian farmers, providing the environmental backdrop for genocide. In Bangladesh, one of the most densely populated countries in the world, the risk of coastal flooding is growing and could leave some 30 million people searching for higher ground in a nation already plagued by political violence and a growing trend toward Islamist extremism. Neighboring India [has built a 4,000 km barrier, the ‘wall of death,’] along its border with Bangladesh.

“The scale of potential consequences associated with climate change makes it difficult to grasp the extent and magnitude of the possible changes ahead. . . . Global temperature increases of more than 3°C (5.4°F) and sea level rises measured in meters pose such a dramatically new global paradigm that it is virtually impossible to contemplate all the aspects of national and international life that would be inevitably affected.

“We are already living in an age of consequences when it comes to climate change and its impact on national security, both broadly and narrowly defined. . . . We already know enough to appreciate that the cascading consequences of unchecked climate change are to include a range of security problems that will have dire global consequences,” states the Center for Strategic & International Studies’ 2007 Report, The Age of Consequences: The Foreign Policy and National Security Consequences of Global Climate Change.