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The Threat of Climate Change and National Security: Part I

Geo-strategic Implications of Climate Change

When climates change significantly or environmental conditions deteriorate to the point that necessary resources are not available, societies can become stressed, sometimes to the point of collapse.

By The CNA Corporation




 [Editors Note]


To better inform U.S. policymakers and the public as well as the worlds leaders and people about the threats to national security from global climate change, the CNA Corporation, a nonprofit national security analysis organization, convened a panel of retired U.S. senior military officers and national security experts and conducted an assessment of the national security implications of global climate change.  The effort resulted in a report, "National Security and the Threat of Climate Change," which explores ways projected climate change is a "threat multiplier" in already fragile regions of the world, exacerbating conditions that lead to failed states -- the breeding grounds for extremism and terrorism.

SecurityWorld INTL will share with you this previously underresearched but increasingly concerning issue of global climate change and its potentially devastating effects on national security, by presenting some contents of the study in three articles.

This is the first in a series of three articles and discusses the geo-strategic implications of climate change in the general sense that is, how climate change can foster instability and affect international security.  This background is then applied to address specific regional security challenges in Africa, Asia, the Middle East, Europe, and the Americas.  The second article, scheduled to be published in the July issue, looks at the challenges from climate change that can have a direct impact on military systems and operations.  The final article, available in the August issue, concludes with a set of findings and recommendations related to mitigation, adaptation, and preparation-specific actions governments around the world should take in response to the challenges presented by climate change.




One reason human civilizations have grown and flourished over the last five millennia is that the world’s climate has been relatively stable.  However, when climates change significantly or environmental conditions deteriorate to the point that necessary resources are not available, societies can become stressed, sometimes to the point of collapse1).

For those concerned about national security, stability is a primary goal.  Maintaining stability within and among nations is often a means of avoiding full-scale military conflicts.  Conversely, instability in key areas can threaten security.  For these reasons, a great deal of America’s security efforts in the post-World War II era have been focused on protecting stability where it exists and trying to instill it where it does not.

This brings us to the connection between climate change and national security. 

Climate change involves much more than temperature increases.  It can bring with it many of the kinds of changes in natural systems that have introduced instability among nations throughout the centuries.

In this article, we consider some of the ways climate change can be expected to introduce the conditions for social destabilization.  The sources of tension and conflict we discuss here are certainly not solely due to climate change; they have been discussed by the national security community for many years.  However, climate change can exacerbate many of them2).  For example:


·Some nations may have impaired access to food and water.

·Violent weather, and perhaps land loss due to rising sea levels and increased storm surges, can damage infrastructure and uproot large numbers of people.

·These changes, and others, may create large number of migrants.  When people cross borders in search of resources, tensions can arise.

·Many governments, even some that look stable today, may be unable to deal with these new stresses.  When governments are ineffective, extremism can gain a foothold.

·While the developed world will be far better equipped to deal with the effects of climate change, some of the poorest regions may be affected most.  This gap can potentially provide an avenue for extremist ideologies and create the conditions for terrorism.




Reduced Access to Fresh Water

Adequate supplies of fresh water for drinking, irrigation, and sanitation are the most basic prerequisite for human habitation.  Changes in rainfall, snowfall, snowmelt, and glacial melt have significant effects on fresh water supplies, and climate change is likely to affect all of those things.  In some areas of the Middle East, tensions over water already exist.

Mountain glaciers are an especially threatened source of fresh water3).  A modest rise in temperature of about 2° to 4° F in mountainous regions can dramatically alter the precipitation mix by increasing the share falling as rain while decreasing the share falling as snow.  The result is more flooding during the rainy season, a shrinking snow/ice mass, and less snowmelt to feed rivers during the dry season4).  Forty percent of the world’s population derives at least half of its drinking water from the summer melt of mountain glaciers, but these glaciers are shrinking and some could disappear within decades.  Several of Asia’s major rivers the Indus, Ganges, Mekong, Yangtze, and Yellow originate in the Himalayas4).  If the massive snow/ice sheet in the Himalayas -- the third-largest ice sheet in the world, after those in Antarctic and Greenland -- continues to melt, it will dramatically reduce the water supply of much of Asia.  Most countries in the Middle East and northern Africa are already considered water scarce, and the International Water Resource Management Institute projects that by 2025, Pakistan, South Africa, and large parts of India and China will also be water scarce5).  To put this in perspective: the U.S. would have to suffer a decrease in water supply that produces an 80 percent decrease in per capita water consumption to reach the United Nations definition of “water scarce. These projections do not factor in climate change, which is expected to exacerbate water problems in many areas.


Impaired Food Production

Access to vital resources, primarily food and water, can be an additional causative factor of conflicts, a number of which are playing out today in Africa.  Probably the best known is the conflict in Darfur between herders and farmers.  Long periods of drought resulted in the loss of both farmland and grazing land to the desert.  The failure of their grazing lands compelled the nomads to migrate southward in search of water and herding ground, and that in turn led to conflict with the farming tribes occupying those lands.  Coupled with population growth, tribal, ethnic, and religious differences, the competition for land turned violent.  Probably more than any other recent conflict, Darfur provides a case study of how existing marginal situations can be exacerbated beyond the tipping point by climate-related factors.  It also shows how lack of essential resources threatens not only individuals and their communities but also the region and the international community at large.

Worldwide food production will be affected by climate change in a variety of ways.  Crop ecologists estimate that for every 1.8° F rise in temperature above historical norms, grain production will drop 10 percent6).

Most of the world’s growth in food demand is occurring on the Indian subcontinent and in sub-Saharan Africa, areas already facing food shortages6).  Over the coming decades, these areas are expected to become hotter and drier7).


Health Catastrophes

Climate change is likely to have major implications for human health.  While some impacts, such as reduced deaths from cold temperatures in some areas, will be positive, the World Health Organization estimates that the overall impact will be negative8).

The major concern is significant spreading of the conditions for vector-borne diseases, such as dengue fever and malaria, and food-borne diseases, such as salmonellosis8).  The decline in available fresh water in some regions will also have an impact, as good health and adequate supplies of clean water are inextricably linked.

A health emergency involving large numbers of casualties and deaths from disease can quickly expand into a major regional or global security challenge that may require military support, ranging from distribution of vaccines to full-scale stability operations9).


Land Loss and Flooding: Displacement of Major Populations

About two-thirds of the world’s population lives near coastlines10), where critically important facilities and infrastructure, such as transportation routes, industrial facilities, port facilities, and energy production and distribution facilities are located.  A rise in sea level means potential loss of land and displacement of large numbers of people.  Even in the United States, Hurricane Katrina showed the social upheaval and tensions that can result from land loss and displaced populations.  But while the impact of inundation from one-time occurrences such as Hurricane Katrina is temporary, even as it is devastating, inundation from climate change is likely to be permanent on the scale of human lifetimes.  Rising sea levels will also make coastal areas more vulnerable to flooding and land loss through erosion.

Storm surges will also take a greater toll on coastal communities and infrastructure as sea levels rise.  According to a Pacific Institute study, a six-inch rise in the water level of San Francisco Bay would mean a fairly routine one-in-ten-year storm would wreak as much damage as a far more serious “hundred-year storm” would have caused before the sea level rise11). 

Most of the economically important major rivers and river deltas in the world -- the Niger, the Mekong, the Yangtze, the Ganges, the Nile, the Rhine, and the Mississippi -- are densely populated along their banks.  As sea levels rise and storm surges increase, saline water can contaminate groundwater, inundate river deltas and valleys, and destroy croplands.




Greater Potential for Failed States and the Growth of Terrorism

Many developing countries do not have the government and social infrastructures in place to cope with the types of stressors that could be brought on by global climate change.

When a government can no longer deliver services to its people, ensure domestic order, and protect the nations borders from invasion, conditions are ripe for turmoil, extremism and terrorism to fill the vacuum.  Lebanons experience with the terrorist group Hezbollah and the Brazilian governments attempts to reign in the slum gang First Capital Command12) are both examples of how the central governments inability to provide basic services has led to strengthening of these extra-governmental entities.


Mass Migrations Add to Global Tensions

The reasons for mass migrations are very complex.  However, when water or food supplies shift or when conditions otherwise deteriorate (as from sea level rise, for example), people will likely move to find more favorable conditions13).  Although climate change may force migrations of workers due to economic conditions, the greatest concern will be movement of asylum seekers and refugees who due to ecological devastation become settlers:


·By 2025, 40 percent of the world’s population will be living in countries experiencing significant water shortages14).

·Over the course of this century, sea level rise could potentially cause the displacement of tens of millions of people from low-lying areas such as Bangladesh15).


Migrations in themselves do not necessarily have negative effects, although taken in the context of global climate change a net benefit is highly unlikely.  Three types of migration patterns occur.

Some migrations take place within countries, adding to a nation’s political stress, causing economic upheaval -- positive and negative -- and distracting from other issues.  As a developed nation, the U.S. was able to absorb the displacement of people from the Gulf Coast in the wake of Hurricane Katrina without suffering economic or political collapse, but not without considerable turmoil.

Some migrations cross international borders.  Environmental degradation can fuel migrations in less developed countries, and these migrations can lead to international political conflict.  For example, the large migration from Bangladesh to India in the second half of the last century was due largely to loss of arable land, among other environmental factors.  This affected the economy and political situation in the regions of India that absorbed most of this population shift and resulted in violence between natives and migrants16).

A third form of migration involves not only crossing international borders but moving across vast regions while doing so.  Since the 1960s, Europe has experienced this kind of "south to north" migration, with an influx of immigrants from Africa and Asia.  The shift in demographics has created racial and religious tensions in many European countries, as evidenced in the 2005 civil unrest in France.


Potential Escalation of Conflicts over Resources

To live in stability, human societies need access to certain fundamental resources, the most important of which are water and food.  The lack, or mismanagement, of these resources can undercut the stability of local populations; it can affect regions on a national or international scale.

Disputes over key resources such as water do not automatically trigger violent outcomes, and no recent wars have been waged solely over water resources.  In areas with a strong government and societal cohesiveness, even tense disputes and resource crises can be peacefully overcome.  In fact, in recent years, arguments have been made that multinational cooperation over precious water resources has been more an instrument of regional peace than of war17). 

Nevertheless, resource scarcity always has the potential to be a contributing factor to conflict and instability in areas with weak and weakly supported governments18).  In addition, there is always the potential for regional fighting to spread to a national or international scale. 

Some recent examples include: the 1994 genocide in Rwanda that was furthered by violence over agricultural resources; the situation in Darfur, Sudan, which had land resources at its root and which is increasingly spilling over into neighboring Chad; the 1970s downfall of Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie through his government’s inability to respond to food shortages; and the 1974 Nigerian coup that resulted largely from an insufficient response to famine19).

Whether resource scarcity proves to be the impetus for peaceful cooperation or an instigator of conflict in the future remains to be seen. 

Regions that are already water scarce (such as Kuwait, Jordan, Israel, Rwanda, Somalia, Algeria, and Kenya) may be forced to confront this choice as climate change exacerbates their water scarcity.




National security implications of climate change can have impacts on stability for the regions of the world.



Tensions may rise as immigration from Africa and the Middle East-exacerbated by climate change-places additional social and economic pressures on countries.  Some of Americas strongest allies may be distracted as they struggle to protect their own borders. 

Such an inward focus may make it more difficult to build international coalitions, or engage in exercises to ensure readiness. 

“Europe will be focused on its own borders,” said retired Admiral Donald L. Pilling, vice chief of naval operations.  “There is potential for fracturing some very strong alliances based on migrations and the lack of control over borders.”



Climate change can contribute to shortages of food, drinking water and farmland, adding strain in a region that is already the source of 30 percent of the worlds refugees.   Such changes will add significantly to existing tensions and can facilitate weakened governance, economic collapses, massive human migrations, and potential conflicts.

As deputy commander of the United States European Command, retired Air Force General Charles F. “Chuck” Wald was responsible for U.S. forces in Africa.  (Supervision of American forces in that continent was recently moved from EUCOM into a new “AFRICOM” command.)  He said, “We have a humanitarian character; it’s one of our great strengths, and we shouldn’t deny it. 

Some may be tempted to avert their eyes, but I would hope we instead see the very real human suffering taking place there.  We should be moved by it, challenged by it.  Even in the context of security discussions, I think these reasons matter, because part of our security depends on remaining true to our values.

“We import more oil from Africa than the Middle East -- probably a shock to a lot of people -- and that share will grow.  We’ll be drawn into the politics of Africa, to a much greater extent.”


Middle East

As the region of the world is where the U.S. is most engaged militarily, water resources are a critical issue and will become even more critical.  Competition for increasingly scarce resources may exacerbate the level of conflict.

“The existing situation [in the Middle East] makes this place more susceptible to problems,” said General Zinni, the former CENTCOM commander.  “Even small changes may have a greater impact here than they may have elsewhere.  You already have great tension over water.  These are cultures often built around a single source of water.

“It’s not hard to make the connection between climate change and instability, or climate change and terrorism,” General Zinni added.


Latin America

Rising sea levels will threaten all coastal nations.  Caribbean nations are especially vulnerable in this regard, with the combination of rising sea levels and increased hurricane activity potentially devastating to some island nations and a likely increase in immigration from neighbor states. 

In addition, loss of glaciers will strain water supply in several areas, particularly Peru and Venezuela.



Many factors may affect the continent.  Potential sea level rise would have a severe impact with almost 40 percent of Asia’s population of nearly 4 billion living within forty-five miles of coastlines.  

In addition, the reduced availability of farmland and drinking water and the increased spread of infectious disease would destabilize the region.

One Military Advisory Board member, retired Navy Admiral Joseph W. Prueher, views Asia from two perspectives, having been commander of all U.S. forces in the Pacific and later U.S. ambassador to China.  He suggested that the U.S. should work with key international partners, including China, one of the leading emitters of atmospheric carbon.

“On the issue of carbon emissions, it doesn’t help us to solve our problem if China doesn’t solve theirs.  And that means we need to engage with them on many fronts,” said Admiral Prueher.  “Not talking to the Chinese is not an option.”


The CNA Corporation is a nonprofit institution that conducts in-depth, independent research and analysis.  For more than 60 years the firm has helped bring creative solutions to a vast array of complex public-interest challenges.  For more information, please visit




1) Diamond, Jared. 2004. Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. New York: Viking Adult.

2) Zinni, General Tony and Tony Koltz. 2006. The Battle for Peace: A Frontline Vision of Americas Power and Purpose. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

3) Janetos, Anthony. Climate Change Impacts. Briefing to the Military Advisory Board, September 8, 2006

4) Robert Marquand, Glaciers in the Himalayas Melting at Rapid Rate," Christian Science Monitor, November 5, 1999, as reported in Lester R. Browns Eco-Economy: Building an Economy for the Earth. 2001. New York: W.W. Norton & Co.

5) International Water Management Institute, Projected Water Scarcity in 2025.

6) Brown, Lester R. 2006. World Grain Stocks Fall to 57 Days of Consumption. Earth Policy Institute, June.

7) Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Fourth Assessment Report, 2007

8) World Health Organization, Global Climate Change and Health: An Old Story Writ Large. 2003, ISBN 9241590815. /climate/summary/en/

9) Shope, R. E. 1992. Impacts of Global Climate Change on Human Health: Spread of Infectious Disease. Chapter 25 of Global Climate Change: Implications, Challenges and Mitigation Measures, ed. S. K. Majumdar, L. S. Kalkstein, B. Yarnal, E. W. Miller, and L. M. Rosenfeld, 363-70. Easton, PA: The Pennsylvania Academy of Science.

10) Hinrichsen, D. 1995. Coasts in Crisis: Coasts and the Population Bomb. American Association for the Advancement of Science, September 1995

11) Gleick, P. and E. Maurer. 1990. Assessing the Costs of Adapting to Sea Level Rise: A Case Study of San Francisco Bay. April 18, 1990. Pacific Institute for Studies in Development, Environment, and Security.

12) Hanson, Stephanie, 2006. Brazils Powerful Prison Gang. Council on Foreign Relations, September 26, 2006. _powerful_prison_gang.html?breadcrumb=%2Fissue%2F104%2Frule_of_law#7

13) Ernest George Ravenstein: The Laws of Migration, 1885. By John Corbett in Center for Spacially Integrated Social Science Classics.

14) World Resources Institute, United Nations Environment Programme, Tomorrows Markets, Global Trends, and Their Implications for Business. 2000. Paris

15) Hansen, J. 2006. Climate Science Overview: The Threat Posed by Global Warming. Briefing to the Military Advisory Board of the Study of the Impacts of Global Climate Change on National Security.

16) Reuveny, R. Environmental Change, Migration and Conflict: Theoretical Analysis and Empirical Explorations. International Workshop on Human Security and Climate Change, Oslo, June 21-23, 2005.

17) Wolf, A. T., and A. Kramer, A. Carius, G. Dabelko. July 2006. Water Can Be a Pathway to Peace, Not War. Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, No. 1.

18) Conca, K. November 2006. The New Face of Water Conflict. Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars, No. 3.

19) Messer, Ellen, and M. Cohen and T. Marchione. ECSP Report (7): 1-16.



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