7 Risks That Are Making Climate Change Into One of the Biggest Security Threats of the 21st Century

Climate change is advancing. Its effects can be felt already today and will increase significantly in the coming decades even if the global community sets ambitious targets for reducing emissions at the end-of-year climate change negotiations in Paris.
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Climate change is advancing. Its effects can be felt already today and will increase significantly in the coming decades even if the global community sets ambitious targets for reducing emissions at the end-of-year climate change negotiations in Paris.

On behalf of the G7 foreign ministries, an international research consortium from Germany, France, Great Britain and the USA, led by the Berlin-based think tank adelphi, analysed what this means for global security and the fragility of states and communities. The findings were published in the report "A New Climate for Peace -- Taking Action on Climate and Fragility Risks."

Climate impacts are intensifying crises and conflicts around the world

One central finding is that there are no "climate wars," as some experts claim. Not today and, as far as we know, not tomorrow. Instead of wars directly caused by climate change, we are increasingly being confronted with crises and conflicts that are intensified by climate change.

In particular, states that lack legitimacy and are struggling with weak government institutions will find it difficult to manage the combined and increasing pressure of climate change, population growth, uncontrolled urbanisation, increasing resource consumption, unequal economic development, and environmental degradation.

These combined stressors and pressures can lead to political instability and conflicts. The breakdown of states and societies threatens to cause a downward spiral of increasing fragility. Although the exact strength of the current effects of climate change is a hotly debated topic, the following examples give an indication of what the future could look like:

Syria: Between 2006 and 2011 Syria suffered a serious drought destroying many people's livelihood, especially in rural areas: Almost 75 percent of Syria's farmers lost their harvest. Many fled to the cities and the government failed to respond to the resulting humanitarian crisis. Pressures bubbled over as a result of the influence of the Arab Spring, combined with grievances towards the authoritarian regime that had built up over the years.

Thailand: Heavy monsoon rains in 2011 led to flooding in 26 provinces, which affected two million people. The political landscape was already fragile after violent protests between 2008 and 2010. Many considered the government's attempts at managing the disaster to be misguided and inequitable. Hundreds of people protested the unfair distribution of aid supplies and the protests continued until a military coup occurred in 2013.

At the foundation of these and many similar examples are seven compound risks. These risks have been expounded on in detail in the report and are meant to bring future crises into sharper focus for foreign policy makers:

  1. Local resource competition: As the pressure on natural resources increases, competition can lead to instability and even violent conflict in the absence of effective dispute resolution.
  2. Livelihood insecurity and migration: Climate changes will increase the human insecurity of people who depend on natural resources for their livelihoods, which could push them to migrate or turn to illegal sources of income.
  3. Extreme weather events and disasters will exacerbate fragility challenges and can increase people's vulnerability and grievances, especially in conflict-affected situations.
  4. Volatile food prices and provision: Climate change is highly likely to disrupt food production in many regions, increasing prices and market volatility, and heightening the risk of protests, rioting, and civil conflict.
  5. Transboundary water management: Transboundary waters are frequently a source of tension; as demand grows and climate impacts affect availability and quality, competition over water use will likely ncrease the pressure on existing governance structures.
  6. Sea-level rise and coastal degradation: Rising sea levels will threaten the viability of low-lying areas even before they are submerged, leading to social disruption, displacement, and migration, while disagreements over maritime boundaries and ocean resources may increase.
  7. Unintended effects of climate policies: As climate adaptation and mitigation policies are more broadly implemented, the risks of unintended negative effects - particularly in fragile contexts - will also increase.

These seven compound risk factors interact in complex ways and extend across borders: for example transboundary water conflicts can disrupt local livelihoods and extreme weather events in the USA and Russia can lead to food insecurity in Egypt. It is therefore not sufficient to address these risks separately.

Moreover, when policies and problem-solving approaches ignore the interdependent and systemic nature of climate-fragility risks, they can even exacerbate these risks. Interdependent risks require cross-sectoral and integrated answers that break out of the silos of climate, development and peace policy.