“Is Climate Change the Biggest Security Threat?” Is Still A Bad Question

World Map, showing Failed States according to the "Failed States Index 2013" (by Ithinkhelikesit)


What is the biggest national security threat?

Is climate change the biggest national security threat? We, and the current U.S. presidential candidates, get these questions quite a bit. They are not good questions. These questions confuse the nature of today’s security threats, and more specifically, obscure the complex way in which climate change affects the broader security landscape. Climate change is not an exogenous threat, hermetically sealed from other risks. It is, as the CNA Corporation first stated in 2007, a “threat multiplier.” The impacts of climate change interact with other factors to make existing security risks – whether it’s state fragility in the Middle East, or territorial disputes in the South China Sea – worse. Furthermore, there’s a tendency to think of the security implications of climate change in a conflict context only. But this is far too narrow. Climate change intensifies natural resource stresses in a way that can increase the likelihood of livelihood devastation, state fragility, human displacement, and mass death. These dynamics do not always result in conflict, but they certainly represent a threat to human, national, regional, and in the right context, international security. So if we narrow the discourse too much, and focus only on conflict, we run the risk of being unprepared for a range of possible scenarios.

In this context, asking better questions is critical, and not just for enhancing the political discussion. It’s important because if we don’t start asking better questions, we are not going to get good answers. And if we don’t get good answers, we run the risk of failing to put policies in place that address climate risks for what they are.

In short, we need to move away from both “ranking” threats to national security, or focusing on just one element of the risk landscape that’s easily understood. We need to take a closer look at how security risks are connected, and then build from there.

For example: What will a rapidly melting Arctic mean for U.S.- Russia relations?  Will increased water scarcity in North Korea or Iran have implications for higher-order security issues? Will competition over migrating fish stocks increase interstate tensions in a warming South China Sea? In other words, the question is not; “Do we deal with climate change, or deal with Russia, ISIS, and Iran?” because they can’t be so easily delinked. The better questions are: “How does climate change affect our relations with Russia? How does it exacerbate instability in the Middle East? How might it help create stressed environments that non-state actors can more easily exploit?

To be fair, there are a growing number of people who are asking the right questions about climate and security. For example, Brad Plumer does a great job of asking the right questions in a recent article. But more good questions (and questioners) are needed.

In this vein, below is an FAQ (with answers provided) drawn from our Climate Security 101 Project. Hopefully, this helps.

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