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Coronavirus shows we are not at all prepared for the security threat of climate change

21 April, 2020
Kate Guy, University of Oxford/Center for Climate & Security

Water shortage at IDP camp, peacekeeping, South Sudan

Water shortage at IDP camp, peacekeeping, South Sudan
Water shortage in Internal Displaced Persons camp in South Sudan, UNMISS compound, in 2014. Women must often leave the protection of the camp to fetch water | © UN Photo/Isaac Alebe Avoro Lu'uba

How might a single threat, even one deemed unlikely, spiral into an evolving global crisis which challenges the foundations of global security, economic stability and democratic governance, all in the matter of a few weeks?

[This article originally appeared on theconversation.com]

My research on threats to national security, governance and geopolitics has focused on exactly this question, albeit with a focus on the disruptive potential of climate change, rather than a novel coronavirus. In recent work alongside intelligence and defence experts at the think-tank Center for Climate and Security, I analysed how future warming scenarios could disrupt security and governance worldwide throughout the 21st century. Our culminating report, A Security Threat Assessment of Global Climate Change, was launched in Washington just as the first coronavirus cases were spreading undetected across the US.

The analysis uses future scenarios to imagine how and where regions might be increasingly vulnerable to the resource, weather and economic shocks brought about by an increasingly destabilised climate. In it, we warn:

Even at scenarios of low warming, each region of the world will face severe risks to national and global security in the next three decades. Higher levels of warming will pose catastrophic, and likely irreversible, global security risks over the course of the 21st century.

Little did we know when writing these words and imagining the rapidly evolving shocks to come, that a very similar test of our global system was already brewing as governments sputtered to contain the damage of COVID-19.

Over the first few crucial weeks of this crisis, we’ve seen world leaders take a number of actions that indicate how climate shocks could destabilise the world order. With climate change disasters, as with infectious diseases, rapid response time and global coordination are of the essence. At this stage in the COVID-19 situation, there are three primary lessons for a climate-changing future: the immense challenge of global coordination during a crisis, the potential for authoritarian emergency responses, and the spiralling danger of compounding shocks.

 

An uncoordinated response

First, while the COVID-19 crisis has engendered a massive public response, governments have been largely uncoordinated in their efforts to manage the virus’s spread. According to Oxford’s COVID-19 Government Response Tracker, countries vary widely in the stringency of their policies, with no two countries implementing a synchronised course of action.

While traditionally a great power like the US might step forward to direct a collective international response, instead the Trump administration has repeatedly chosen to blindside its allies with the introduction of new limitations on trade and movement of peoples. This mismanagement has led to each nation going on its own, despite the fact that working together would net greater gains for all. As the New York Times’s Mark Landler put it, the voices of world leaders are forming “less a choir than a cacophony”, leading to mixed global messages, undetected spread, and ongoing fights over limited resources.

In the face of climate change, such a lack of coordination could be be highly destabilising to world social and economic order. The mass displacement of people, the devaluation of assets, rising seas and natural disasters will call for shared practices and common decency in the face of continued tragedy. Many climate impacts will raise new questions the world has yet to answer. What do we do with nation-states that can no longer reside in their homeland? How do we compensate sectors for ceasing harmful practices such as fossil fuel extraction and deforestation, especially where national economies may depend on them?

Frequently asked questions on climate change and security

We also face new global governance questions around the use of risky geoengineering technologies, which can be deployed unilaterally to alter local climates, but with the potential for vast unintended regional or even global consequences. These are challenges which, like climate change itself, can only be solved collectively through coordinated policies and clear communication. The sort of wayward responses and lack of leadership in response to COVID-19 would only lead to further destruction of livelihoods and order in the decades to come.

Authoritarian agendas

This historic moment is also offering new opportunities for leaders to further dangerous, illiberal agendas. Authoritarians have long used emergency situations as a pretext to further curtail individual rights and consolidate personal power against backdrops of real or imagined public danger. We’ve seen these actions spiral worldwide in the past month in autocracies and backsliding democracies, alike.

President Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines has given security services the directive to open fire on protestors while Vladimir Putin is deploying mass surveillance technologies and new criminal penalties to monitor the Russian population. Hungary’s prime minister Viktor Orbán has forced new emergency powers through parliament that muzzle political opposition and allow for his indefinite rule. Even the supposed democratic bastions of the US and the UK are seeing worrying signs of autocratic policies, as surveillance drones are deployed to monitor citizens, scientific expertise is undermined, and open-ended emergency powers are granted to police forces for undetermined time frames.

A warming world will only result in more disaster-related events for power-hungry leaders to take advantage of in the years ahead. From the nationalisation of resources to the deployment of militaries in response to climate shocks, it can be all-too-easy for public safety needs to bleed into personal political opportunities. The second-order effects of climate change, from supply chain instability to the migration of peoples, will also provide authoritarian leaders more fodder for their ethno-nationalist ideologies, which inflame divisions in society and could help broaden their personal appeal. Without clear and sturdy limits on executive power, the disruptive impacts of climate change will be used to further chip away at democratic freedoms across the world.

Overlapping shocks are the new normal

Finally, this situation is teaching the globalised world new lessons on the devastating consequences of compounding shocks. Managing a deadly global pandemic is bad enough, even before you layer on the massive unemployment, trade disruptions and economic shutdown that its mitigation sets in motion.

The months ahead will bring about additional crises – some related to the pandemic, like a massive uptick in public debt used to bail out national economies. But other near-term shocks may themselves be climate change-induced, from new forecasts for large-scale floods this spring in the central US, to a prospective repeat of 2019’s severe summer heat waves across Europe. 

These disasters have the potential to strike just at the time when people are being advised to shelter inside, many in at-risk areas and without adequate indoor cooling. Overlapping, historic shocks like this are becoming the new normal in our climate-changed era. As public disaster response budgets spiral and loss of life mounts each year, governments will continue to struggle to contain their compounding damage.

Scientists and security professionals alike have long warned about the devastating potential of climate change, alluding to how it might rattle our global governance systems to breaking point. But few could have expected that the fissures in our institutions would be revealed so soon, let alone on such a disturbingly large scale.

We can treat the current global crisis as a sort of “stress test” on these institutions, exposing their vulnerabilities but also providing the urgent impetus to build new resilience. In that light, we could successfully rebound from this moment with more solid global security and cooperation than we knew going into it. Decision-makers should take a hard look at their current responses, problem-solving methods, and institutional design with future climate forecasts like our Threat Assessment in mind.

We know that even steeper and more frequent global shocks are in store, particularly without serious climate change mitigation efforts. What we don’t yet know is whether we’ll repeat current patterns of mismanagement and abuse, or if we’ll chart a more proactive and resilient course through the risks that lie ahead.

ArticleClimate Diplomacy
Source
Topic
Security

Region
Global Issues

Topics

Adaptation & Resilience

All countries will need to adapt to some of the environmental, social and economic impacts of climate change that are already unavoidable. Food security, livelihoods, water resource availability and public health are some affected areas. People living in poverty are more vulnerable, having a lower capacity to adapt. Thus, it is essential to promote resilience building. The adaptation and resilience aspects need to be mainstreamed into planning by policy makers and the private sector as well as integrated into development strategies.

Biodiversity & Livelihoods

Nature protection is most sustainable if it essentially contributes to the long-term stability of human needs. Today many regions around the world are confronted with increasing destruction of the natural foundations of life. The consequences of wide-ranging resource destruction are no longer regionally limited, but rather represent a global threat. Those affected are mainly rural populations, who find the sources of their income and the foundations of their way of life swept away. The depletion and destruction of natural resources goes hand in hand with decreasing agricultural yields and increasing poverty, which in turn forces the affected populations to deplete the remaining resources.

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Capacity Building

On the one hand, conflicts are caused by structural factors, such as economic and social inequality or environmental destruction. On the other hand, conflicts are fuelled by a lack of democratic structures, deficient mechanisms of non-violent conflict settlement, inadequate rule of law, the destruction of social and cultural identity and the disregard of human rights. Against this backdrop, development policies have been dedicated to a broad concept of security, which comprises political, economic, ecological and social stability. As a consequence, development cooperation agencies and actors have developed a broad spectrum of approaches for conflict prevention and transformation as well as for sustainable use of natural resources.

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Cities

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Civil Society

Civil society is the first victim of environmental pollution, under-development and conflicts. Economically disadvantaged and politically marginalized population groups are particularly affected by violent conflicts as well as increasing resource degradation. Simultaneously, civil society is a fundamental pillar for implementing sustainable development. It contributes in many ways to strengthening conflict prevention and plays a significant role in the peaceful and democratic development of states. It must be supported to strengthen civil rights, adherence to human rights in general and democratic participation.

Climate Change

Climate change resulting from the emission of greenhouse gases represents one of the vital challenges for international environmental policy. Flooding, droughts, shifting of climate zones and increasingly frequent and intense extreme weather events will have serious economic and social consequences for entire regions. The climate problem is also directly linked to the question of future energy generation.

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Climate Diplomacy

To address the challenges posed by climate change, a new profile of climate diplomacy is evolving. This utilises a full range of policies, including development cooperation, conflict prevention efforts, and humanitarian assistance, in addition to more traditional measures of climate change adaptation and mitigation. Moving from a risk analysis of climate-related threats to well-timed preventive action requires a greater commitment to integrating climate change concerns into development, foreign, and security policies. Examples include strengthening diplomatic networks, building new alliances with partners, and raising awareness – not only of potentially negative climate change impacts, but also of opportunities to embark on a sustainable transformation of our societies.

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Co-Benefits

Climate action entails an array of economic, social, political and environmental co-benefits. It provides an opportunity for economic growth and new jobs. Many investments can take into account climate considerations without becoming more costly. Further important co-benefits include: improved energy security, less local air and water pollution, health benefits as well as ecosystem and biodiversity protection.

Conflict Transformation

In order to overcome the structural causes of violent conflicts and thus bring about an improvement in the framework conditions for peaceful and fair development, it is essential to have long term and broadly planned peace development and peace advancement. Various governmental and non-governmental, national and international actors and groups are involved in these processes.

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Development

Climate change and development are inextricably linked. Climate change endangers the development agenda and has the potential to reverse development goals. Furthermore, successful mitigation of climate change heavily depends on development choices around the world. Therefore, development strategies need to be climate-compatible to provide long-term success, and there are viable policy options that support this compatibility. Many mitigation and adaptation activities can present development opportunities to developing countries and avoid the lock-in to environmentally damaging technologies.

Early Warning & Risk Analysis

The reasons for the development and escalation of conflicts and the incidence of risks are multifaceted and complex. Simultaneously, the assessment of the specific causes in the form of risk and conflict analyses can contribute to a better understanding of these processes and make it possible to provide warning of negative developments, or ideally help prevent them. In the context of natural resource use, risks and conflicts have gained increasing attention in the past years. The debate on possible future water wars is merely one example.

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Energy

The well-being of individuals, communities and nations depends on the availability of energy resources. The gap between energy supply and demand appears to be growing, making the world vulnerable to serious economic shocks. At the same time, the burning of fossil fuels causing climate change is one of the vital challenges of international environmental policy. So far, only rudimentary approaches exist for shaping climate and energy security in a sustainable way. The components of a strategy that can contribute to reducing vulnerabilities related to climate change and energy policy include a greater role for renewable energies, the improvement of energy efficiency and a stronger decentralisation of energy supply.

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Environment & Migration

The economic, social and environmental consequences of climate change aggravate the breakdown of eco-system-dependent livelihoods and are likely to become dominant drivers of long-term migration. Natural disasters already cause massive shorter-term displacement and the number of temporarily displaced people is likely to further increase with climate change. For vulnerable populations in vulnerable regions, such as the Sahel zone or the Ganges delta, migration often becomes the sole survival strategy. In order to address climate-related displacement and migration successfully, knowledge of effective adaptation and an improved understanding of how environmental change affects human mobility is essential. 

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Finance

Climate finance, from all sources, plays a key role in supporting and enabling adaptation and mitigation action as well as climate and energy innovation. The Paris Agreement ensured that the Green Climate Fund and the Global Environment Facility are at the core of climate finance architecture as entities entrusted with the operation of the Financial Mechanism of the UNFCCC. Increasing climate finance from all relevant public and private sources is crucial. Furthermore, much needs to be done to redirect finance flows to sustainable paths, e.g. reducing fossil fuel subsidies, introducing maritime and air transportation taxes. The conditions for green investment in developing countries should also be improved.

Forests

Forests are disappearing at an alarming rate. Competition for forest resources triggers, exacerbates, or finances numerous crises and conflicts in tropical developing countries. Illegal logging and timber trade foster instability and sometimes violent conflict by strengthening illegal and armed groups, increasing corruption and exacerbating use and claim conflicts among local communities, the state and the business sector. Forests are a vital resource to poor people but they can also become areas of conflict. Sustainable management of forest resources is therefore key to preventing violent conflict over and within forests.

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Gender

Gender plays an important role as a category of conflict for many reasons. The interlinkages between gender, environment and conflicts are complex and much research is still needed. Existing insights suggest that conflicts may worsen gender inequalities that existed before the outbreak of violence. The unequal distribution of land property rights in many parts of the world serves as an example. Moreover, women (and children) are among those most affected by both violent conflict and natural disasters. At the same time, women carry much of the burden of trying to implement rehabilitation measures after crisis events.

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Land & Food

Increasing water scarcity, desertification and crop failures due to extreme weather events are becoming more and more of a threat to global food production. While the world’s population continues to grow rapidly, food production is unable to keep pace. Due to the global food crisis in 2008, the number of hungry people reached the symbolic one billion threshold for the first time – corresponding to about 16 percent of world population. Food insecurity may be a consequence or cause of conflicts. Violent conflicts often lead to the destruction of agricultural infrastructure and means of production, as well as to the displacement of local communities.

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Minerals & Mining

In the past, the discovery and tapping of valuable or strategic resources like valuable minerals, oil and natural gas, particularly in developing and emerging countries, has often led to large scale environmental contamination and negative development. The "resource curse" of some countries shows that the wealth from resource yields is frequently unfairly distributed; instead of serving development it advanced the formation of corrupt elites and in some cases even led to conflicts and civil wars. Measures in various sectors and at all levels are important in order to use the potential of these natural resources in a manner that is sustainable and prevents conflicts.

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Private Sector

The spread of violent conflict not only affects people but also companies located in such regions. Destruction of investments and infrastructure, collapse of markets and trade partnerships, flight and expulsion of employees are phenomena of conflicts and environment-induced crises that directly affect companies in unstable regions. Almost all branches of the economy thus have a clear interest in a stable and peaceful environment for their activities. Conversely, the business sector plays an important role in the interaction of economic growth, social development and a healthy environment, all of which can advance peace and sustainable development. 

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Security

Environmental issues have a significant security dimension. Access to, and overuse of, natural resources often play a key role in civil wars or other forms of internal domestic conflict. This is compounded by climate change and environmental degradation. Climate change is now widely recognised as a non-traditional, risk-multiplying threat that will have increasing security impacts. Key risks with possible implications for human and national security include water scarcity, food crises, natural disasters, and displacement. More preventive diplomacy and advocacy is needed to address the strategic implications of climate and environmental change.

Sustainable Transformation

Sustainable Transformation allows societies to profit from a growing, environmentally sustainable and socially inclusive economy – especially in emerging and developing countries. This requires a higher up-front investment, but the benefits of a sustainable transformation in the medium and long term are significant. For instance, energy cost savings and reducing the impact of price volatility offer major incentives for deploying renewable energies and promoting energy efficiency. Such benefits exist in all key sectors of the economy.

Technology & Innovation

Innovations and technologies are already readily available and affordable but their global diffusion and uptake remains a challenge. Innovation and technology are crucial to achieving ambitious climate change mitigation and adaptation targets. However, research and development often do not receive appropriate public support. Developing countries can leapfrog high-carbon industrialisation phases by adopting, deploying and improving existing innovations and technologies. For this, it is essential to minimise financial, administrative and political barriers.

Water

The availability of freshwater resources in sufficient quantity and quality is essential for the preservation of human health and sound ecosystems. The use of water resources is also vital, however, for economic development: whether for agriculture, industrial production or for electricity generation. The world's freshwater resources are distributed very unevenly in terms of geography and seasons. In addition, water shortage is becoming more prevalent in several regions due to population growth, economic development, urbanisation and increasing environmental pollution. Thus, water resources can hold potential for conflicts between parties who have different interests and needs.

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Regions

Asia

The environment in Asia is already under tremendous pressure as a result of the unsustainable use of land, forests, water and even air in many regions. Climate change will only exacerbate these challenges. Rising sea levels will likely endanger densely populated areas, changes in the monsoon patterns can strongly impact agriculture, melting glaciers will increase long-term water scarcity, and extreme weather events such as heavy rainfall and cyclones can pose further hazards.

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Central America & Caribbean

Natural disasters and water scarcity are key challenges for most of Central America and the Caribbean. These challenges will become even more pronounced as the climate changes. Weak resource and disaster risk management and land disputes pose additional security challenges for large parts of the region. Several countries of Central America and the Caribbean have limited adaptive capacities as they face political instability caused by high social inequality, crime, corruption, and intra-state conflicts.

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Europe

As one of the most developed and most densely populated regions in the world, Europe makes heavy use of its resources, resulting in difficult trade-offs and negative consequences for the environment and ecosystems. Land is used for settlements, agriculture and dense infrastructure, creating problems of soil degradation. Water resources are stressed due to unsustainable agricultural practices. Despite nature protection policies, Europe continues to lose biodiversity at an alarming pace. Some of these trends are exacerbated by climate change, which is expected, for instance, to lead to shifts in water availability.

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Global Issues

Resource scarcities, environmental pollution and climate change are not limited by national borders, but often have a transboundary or even global impact. These issues interact with political stability, governance structures and economic performance, and can trigger or worsen disputes and violent conflicts. Exacerbating some of these trends, climate change is likely to lead to the degradation of freshwater resources, declines in food production, increases in storm and flood disasters and environmentally induced migration. All these developments pose potential for conflict.

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Middle East & North Africa

The geopolitical position of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), its fossil fuel resources, high population growth and the political changes spurred by the Arab Spring all make the region one of the most dynamic in the world. Nevertheless, it is also one of the most arid and environmentally stressed. Dwindling water resources, limited arable and grazing land, high pollution from household and industrial waste, remnants of conflicts and increasing desertification are key environmental challenges.

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North America

Climate change has various impacts on the three North American countries of Canada, Mexico and the US. Canada and the US have well-developed adaptive capacities and foster the strengthening of capacities in other regions as well. With high per capita emissions, these two countries also bear a greater responsibility for a changing climate. Mexico has a sound national strategy for climate change adaptation, yet fewer capacities than Canada and the US. The poorer and rural populations of Mexico are especially vulnerable to climate change, due to an increased sensitivity and a lower adaptive capacity.

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Oceania & Pacific

In Oceania, population growth and economic development trends put a strain on oceanic and island ecosystems. Freshwater scarcity, overexploitation of fisheries, loss of land biodiversity, forests and trees, invasive species, soil degradation, increasing levels of settlement, poor management of solid and hazardous waste and disproportionate use of coastal areas are some of the problems. Climate change exacerbates most of these trends, while also raising questions about the future sovereignty of some island states.

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South America

South America has diverse and unique ecosystems and is very rich in biodiversity. Weak natural resource management, land disputes and extreme weather events bring about significant challenges for the region. While South America accounts for relatively few CO2 emissions, the changing climate will alter its ecosystems and greater climate variability will lead to more hurricanes, landslides, and droughts.

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Sub-Saharan Africa

In many African states, environmental security issues rank high on the political agenda. Throughout the continent, countries suffer from water scarcity, food insecurity and energy poverty. These chronic and worsening resource scarcities have severe livelihood implications and are exacerbated by political conflicts over access to and control over these resources. Climate change may seriously threaten political and economic stability in Africa. It may also put a severe strain on the capacities of states and societies to co-ordinate activities, to communicate and to organize.

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