Climate Change is Undeniably Intertwined with Security, and We Are Running Out of Time

Sarah Jeffrey discusses the status of climate change as a threat multiplier, looking at how environmental stress fuels and exacerbates threats to human and state security.

This article was first published in our 2018 print edition.

Climate change is the defining issue of our time. Key effects of climate change – altered weather patterns and more extreme natural disasters – are direct threats to both lives and livelihoods. As a result, human desperation, fuelled by environmental stress, can result in security breakdowns both within and across state borders. It is clear (to most, that is) that we require real action on climate change and we require it now; we can’t let our politicians keep kicking the can down the road.

For those whose political careers aren’t dependent on kowtowing to the resources industry, climate change is recognised as a ‘threat multiplier’; that is, something that can and does exacerbate other threats to security. In this piece, I will focus on three key threats to global security: worsened drought in the Middle East, hampered food production in sub-Saharan Africa and the increase in climate-based migration in South East Asia.

Water scarcity in the Middle East is highly likely to be exacerbated by climate change, thus further destabilising an already-unstable region. An increase in the magnitude and regularity of drought in the arid and semi-arid region will intensify the stresses on naturally limited water sources. The resulting insecurity of human populations has the potential to lead to violent conflict.

In fact, it already has. A 2007-2010 drought in the Euphrates Basin had severe impacts on Syria, due to both the environmental stresses of drought and the Assad regime’s policies7. Some 85% of the flow of Syria’s rivers comes from the Euphrates, making the country’s agriculture industry highly dependent on this water source.

In 2008, Syria’s recorded wheat and barley yields dropped 47% and 67% respectively, from the previous year. The Assad regime’s response was to import large quantities of grain; the impact of this, however, was that grain prices then increased more than twofold.

As many as three million people from Iraq and Syria7 emigrated from the drought-affected regions into Syria’s urban areas, largely due to crop failure, lost livestock, and resultant food insecurity6. Many of these migrants were forced to settle in squalid illegal camps with limited access to infrastructure, employment and aid. Consequently, these settlements “became the centre of developing unrest and the seedbeds of the Syrian civil war.”7

That civil war has since killed at least 400,000 people2 and seen millions more flee their homes, most seeking refuge in Lebanon and Turkey8. Of course, climate change cannot take sole responsibility for what has happened in Syria, but it would be naïve to suggest that it wasn’t an important factor.

Sub-Saharan Africa faces similar risks to food security as a result of climate change, made worse by the fact that a significant proportion of African economies are highly dependent on climate-sensitive agriculture industries. The semi-arid Sahel region, made up of 14 countries including Sudan and parts of Nigeria, is at particular risk7.

To gain an idea of how food insecurity affects state security, we can look at the impact of the 2008 food crisis in Africa. Reduced agricultural productivity, combined with policy failure and global economic factors, severely affected developing nations, and saw several African countries riot in response10. The riots in Sahel countries such as Cameroon and Senegal were particularly severe, with dozens killed across the region during the unrest.

Economic welfare is the single factor that has been most consistently associated with conflict, whether inter-state or intra-state; as such, ongoing disruptions to the agriculture industries of Africa as a result of climate change are likely to result in conflict5.

It is also important to note that while the number of democratic states has grown over the last half-century, so too have the number of fragile states with weak institutions9. Armed conflicts of the late-20th and early-21st centuries have been overwhelmingly concentrated in poor developing states with illiberal, weak and/or corrupt political institutions4. Therefore, as the effects of climate change become more pronounced in the future, we can expect political grievances caused by a lack of socio-economic welfare in the face of crisis to intensify.

Moving into our own backyard, the Asia-Pacific region is poised to face intensified impacts of climate change and, amongst other security issues, this is likely to result in dramatic increases in climate-induced migration. The poorest people in the region continue to suffer higher rates of death, displacement and damage due to severe climate events; this is because they are more likely to inhabit high-risk areas, such as degraded urban environments or low-lying coastal deltas3.

The impact of mass migration is largely dependent on the extent of destabilising factors, including food shortages and population tensions. In cases where host areas are unable to meet increased demands for essential resources such as fresh water, food and shelter, conflict becomes more likely. The threatening and cyclical effect of this is summed up well by Campbell et al 2007: “Water shortages can lead to food shortages, which can lead to conflict over remaining resources, which can drive human migration, which, in turn, can create new food shortages in new regions.”1

Climate change is typically not defined as a security threat in and of itself; it simply makes other security threats more likely to occur and, when they do, be far more serious in impact.

The crippling winter-time drought in eastern Australia earlier this year notwithstanding, most of the more extreme impacts of climate change have so far been felt in less developed regions of the world; in other words, those who have contributed the least to anthropogenic climate change are those who are feeling its worst impacts.

But it won’t remain this way for long. The combination of food and water shortages, mass migration, and internally displaced people can very quickly rescind public confidence in governments. This lost confidence creates the potential for political unrest and the growth of radical fundamentalism1, a critical threat to state security with clear spill-over effects on the global stage.

This means that even wealthier nations who are able to shield themselves to some of the effects of climate change now, will not be able to do this forever. The status of climate change as a threat multiplier means that its threat to human security goes far beyond a raised global temperature; the stability of the natural environment is deeply intertwined with the foundations of our societies and economies.

And so, we have a choice. We can take real steps to ensure that we, and other industrialised nations, are taking effective action to implement the Paris Agreement, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and mitigate the effects of climate change. Or, we can continue to live in denial and be entirely unprepared when worse comes to worst.

1Adams et al 2009, Climate Change and Energy Insecurity.

2Al Jazeera 2016, ‘Syria death toll: UN envoy estimates 400,000 killed’, 24 April.

3Asian Development Bank 2012, Addressing Climate Change and Migration in Asia and the Pacific.

4Buhaung & Theisen 2012, ‘On environmental change and armed conflict’ in Climate Change, Human Security and Violent Conflict, pp. 43-55.

5Burke et al 2009, ‘Warming increases the risk of civil war in Africa’, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States, vol. 106, no. 49, pp. 20670-74.

6Center for Climate and Security 2012, Syria: Climate Change, Drought and Social Unrest at

7Feitelson & Tubi 2017, ‘A main driver or an intermediate variable? Climate change, water and security in the Middle East’, Global Environmental Change, vol. 44, pp. 39-48.

8New York Times 2013 (Archive), ‘Syrian Refugees in Lebanon’, 5 September.

9Scheffran et al 2012, ‘Climate change and violent conflict’, Science, vol. 336, no. 6083, pp. 869-71.

10Wheeler & von Braun 2013, ‘Climate change impacts on global food security’, Science, vol. 341, no. 6145, pp. 508.


Cover image from Rita Hogan (via Flickr).

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