How Copenhagen will affect international security

The United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen has been billed as 'the most important gathering in human history'. Without binding commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and stabilise expectations, climate change will have a huge impact on future security considerations.

By Duncan Depledge for

Despite the large quantity of academic research carried out on environment-security linkages since the early 1980s, the potential for climate change to influence security considerations has only recently emerged as a serious concern for the international community. The United Nations Security Council held its first ever debate on climate change in 2007. It proved to be a contentious issue, particularly for developing states.

In the same year, reports from the CNA Corporation (prepared by a panel of retired three- and four-star generals) and the German Advisory Council on Global Change (WBGU) were important for advancing climate change and security issues within the mainstream security community. The following year, RUSI contributed to the debate by publishing an influential Whitehall Paper titled Delivering Climate Security.

Climate change is increasingly referred to as a 'threat multiplier'; the danger to international security is seen as arising from the potential for climate change to exacerbate the political, economic and social conditions that underpin the security of both people and states. The security dimensions of climate change are complex, but could potentially affect a plethora of issues concerning mitigation and adaptation strategies, energy security, nuclear proliferation, social justice and accountability, changing territorial boundaries, sovereignty claims, government legitimacy and the emergence of ungovernable spaces where non-state actors can operate with impunity.

The links between climate change and security are now receiving much greater attention from governments in all parts of the world. This is demonstrated by recent pronouncements in the US, Europe, South America, Africa, the South Pacific, China, Indonesia and Japan. Although there is recognition that climate change could create opportunities for greater collaboration between states, there is clearly growing concern about the potential for conflict, even violent conflict. A changing climate threatens to push already tense situations relating to migration, food security, water security and energy security far beyond breaking point.

Many of these issues were captured in a recent report prepared by the UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-Moon for the UN General Assembly. The Secretary General warned that the impacts of climate change have the potential to 'challenge the existing system of international security governance' with 'serious consequences for the future security architecture of the planet'.

 Why the conference in Copenhagen matters

According to Yvo de Boer, the executive secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change , an agreement is essential if Copenhagen is to be regarded as a success.

Copenhagen Agenda

  • How much are industrialised countries willing to reduce their emissions of greenhouse gases?
  • To what extent are major developing countries such as China and India willing to limit the growth of their emissions?
  • What level of financing will the developed world provide for developing countries needing to pursue emissions reductions and adaptation programmes?
  • How will that money be managed?


Key security considerations in Copenhagen

  • Climate change has the potential to exacerbate the conditions that contribute to conflict.
  • Failure to act could undermine the current multilateral system.
  • The outcome in Copenhagen will influence the extent to which climate change can be managed peacefully.



 A successful outcome in Copenhagen could limit the extent of dangerous climate change and, in turn, reduce the potential for climate change to exacerbate conditions that could cause conflict both within and between states. Moreover, success could strengthen confidence in the ability of the current multilateral system to protect vital interests in the states and communities most likely to be worst affected by climate change. This could have knock-on benefits for other multilateral negotiations - for example, over nuclear proliferation.

By contrast, failure in Copenhagen could undermine the entire multilateral system, threatening the legitimacy of the UN and putting pressure on governments to act unilaterally in defence of their interests. More specifically, industrialised states may fear the impacts of climate change will spill over into areas of strategic importance, threaten borders, generate massive refugee flows and restrict access to key resources. Their own environmental transgressions are likely to be downplayed as they adopt aggressive or even interventionist stances towards the environmental transgressions of other states that are perceived as threatening security through their responses (or lack of responses) to climate change. Meanwhile, in the developing world, failure to get a commitment from industrialised states to restrict emissions and provide finance could breed distrust, making it more difficult to pursue agreements on other major international issues such as international terrorism and nuclear proliferation.

Despite their apparent impact on  international security, it is unclear as to the extent to which climate security issues are informing the decisions of policymakers and their negotiating teams in Copenhagen. The draft currently circulating among negotiators preparing for the conference makes no reference to the security implications of climate change. Moreover, at the time of writing, it appears unlikely that a binding agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions will be signed this year.

However, the significance of finding such agreement cannot be overstated, even if we have to wait a few more years to see it emerge. Ambitious emissions cuts will be central to ensuring that the international community can manage climate change peacefully.

The role of the security community in Copenhagen

A recent roundtable discussion in Washington involving security and climate experts from the US and Europe highlighted how, from a security perspective, it is essential that those party to negotiations in Copenhagen are well-informed about the impacts that a changing climate can have on international security. Moreover, both the negotiating teams and the security community need to be aware that decisions taken in Copenhagen will have a big impact on the future of security planning, particularly in terms of resilience and defence infrastructure, aid distribution and the possibility of military deployments in more volatile regions. 

As Nick Mabey, author of the RUSI publication Delivering Climate Security, has pointed out, there is now an urgent need for the security community to further develop its position on what the conference must produce if it is to help guide the negotiations in Copenhagen.




The views expressed above are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI.





Duncan Depledge

Associate Fellow

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