Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Warns of Serious Future Security Challenges

The latest report from the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change contains an extensive chapter on the implications of climate change for human security. The implications for defence and security planners are huge.

Last week, the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released the second of three reports that will constitute its Fifth Assessment Report (AR5), the first such assessment since 2007.[1] The findings were produced by Working Group II, and concern issues relating to ‘Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability’. Included in this assessment, for the first time, is an extensive chapter on the implications of climate change for human security. 

Importantly, the chapter on ‘Human Security’ considers more than just the human dimension. Noting that ‘human security will be progressively threatened as the climate changes’, the authors also found evidence that ‘climate change will lead to new challenges to states and increasingly shape both conditions of security and national security policies’. Far from being alarmist, these statements offer a sobering reflection of what researchers of climate change and security have been arguing since the early 2000s.

Of the eight issues raised relating to security broadly-defined it is the last three that demand immediate attention from the security community.

Violent Conflict and State Sensitivity to Climate Change

The authors argue that ‘low per capita incomes, economic contraction and inconsistent state institutions are associated with the incidence of violence’. The potential for climate change to further stress these conflict-factors is therefore a cause for concern. While the authors are careful not to suggest a causal link between climate and conflict (as some have tried to in the case of Darfur, for example), what they do draw attention to is the idea that climate change is a ‘threat multiplier’.

It is often the case that the poorest and most vulnerable sectors of society are those most directly dependent on the natural environment for their livelihoods (most notably agriculture). Extreme weather (floods and droughts) can quickly undermine the stability of the natural environment, and as such poses a significant risk to livelihoods. Where the state fails to intervene, resentment may build (particularly where loss of incomes or the unequal distribution of rents may be entwined with other political and historical grievances), raising the risk of social unrest (in the form of protests and riots) that in some circumstances may spiral into civil war.

Further evidence of these complex linkages is still needed. It is unfortunate that the recent research on the impacts climate change may have had on the underlying factors of the ‘Arab Spring’ appear to be absent from the assessment (likely because it was too late to be considered), particularly the recognition that record droughts around the world since 2006 appeared to have a discernable impact on food prices and incomes in this part of the world.

Violent Conflict And Vulnerability To Climate Change

The second issue of interest here is that the authors argue ‘people living in places affected by violent conflict are particularly vulnerable to conflict change’. Widespread violent conflict can cause serious damage to infrastructure, institutions, natural capital, social capital and livelihoods – essentially the lynchpins of a stable social, political and economic system.

The evidence presented by the IPCC suggests chronic political conflict has already exacerbated challenges related to the management of water resources, land use, and humanitarian crises in parts of the Balkans and the Middle East, including Iraq. The prospect of more extreme floods, droughts and other weather-related events in these ‘fragile’ regions therefore risks adding a further layer of stress to already vulnerable populations lacking the basic tools for adaptation. In short, planning for future interventions in conflict areas will need to be increasingly attentive to climate-related stress, particularly when it comes to post-conflict reconstruction.

Reshaping the Conditions of Security and National Security Policies

Lastly, the authors draw attention to the likely implications of climate change for national security policies. In particular, the potential for climate change to exacerbate the kinds of strains frequently associated with outbreaks of social unrest and conflict suggests that the monitoring of environmental stress in areas of strategic interest will need to be increased as part of a holistic approach to pre-empting and preparing for conflicts.

Moreover, the capacity of states to intervene in conflicts, as well as provide relief through post-conflict reconstruction and humanitarian assistance, are also expected to come under increasing pressure. More resources (finance, manpower and capabilities) will likely need to be set aside to deal with the increased pressure from environmental degradation in conflict zones. This in turn will have implications for broader defence planning, specifically as it relates to the allocation of limited resources and civilian-military relations.

In light of the Strategic Defence and Security Review due to take place in 2015, there is consequently much in the IPCC’s assessment for UK defence planners to reflect on.  


[1] The first report on ‘The Physical Science Basis’ was released in September 2013. The third report on ‘Mitigation of Climate Change’ is due to be published in April 2014. A final synthesis report will be released in October 2014.


Duncan Depledge

Associate Fellow

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