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Climate change poses security risks, US agencies warn

Wesley Dockery
October 22, 2021

The US government has predicted that climate change will exacerbate geopolitical tensions around the world in a series of new reports. The assessments also highlight how global warming will drive mass migration.

Wildfires destroy homes in California
The US government wants to respond more efficiently to climate-related crises, such as devastating wildfires in CaliforniaImage: Josh Edelson/AFP/Getty Images

US President Joe Biden's administration sounded the alarm about the worsening climate and its impact on national security this week. 

Reports from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI), the Pentagon, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the White House on Thursday highlighted the ties between climate change, geopolitical conflict, and migration. 

What did the reports say?   

In a summary of the intelligence assessments, the White House said future extreme weather events "will increasingly exacerbate a number of risks to US national security interests, from physical impacts that could cascade into security challenges, to how countries respond to the climate challenge." 

The ODNI report said 11 countries, including Haiti and Afghanistan, are "especially are likely to face warming temperatures, more extreme weather and disruption to ocean patterns that will threaten their energy, food, water, and health security."

The Department of Defense (DoD), in its climate risk analysis, said it will now "consider the effects of climate change at every level of the DoD enterprise."  

The DHS report aimed to put together a strategy to "safeguard the homeland from current and projected climate change-driven disasters." This year alone, the US witnessed extreme heatwaves, multiple hurricanes and blazing wildfires, which experts say are a result of climate change.  

The reports were also the first time the US government officially recognized that climate change is driving migration.

The assessment from the White House suggested that the executive and legislative branches could work together to make climate-related reasons a consideration when granting refugee status. It also highlighted how existing US foreign aid programs could be best used to "reduce the risk of forced migration."

Which geopolitical conflicts will climate change exacerbate?

Nina von Uexkull, an associate professor at the Department of Peace and Conflict Research at Uppsala University in Sweden, told DW  where she believes geopolitical tensions will escalate the most due to climate change.

"When assessing the security implications of climate change we rely on observations of the past. How do states react to increasing scarcity or new resources becoming available? Generally, we do not see that armed conflicts between states are fought over resources that are directly affected by climate change such as freshwater," von Uexkull said.

"It is, however, plausible and in line with existing evidence that increasing, not necessarily violent, tensions and disputes will arise from an increasingly ice-free Arctic and the resources and transport routes that become available in that region and changes in water availability in transboundary waters such as the Nile in coming decades," she added.

The ODNI report also suggested that "climate change is likely to increase the risk of instability in countries in Central Africa and small island states in the Pacific." 

UN Peacekeeper Omar Aboud in Goma

Von Uexkull agreed with the assessment that Central Africa is a region that will see "increased humanitarian and development challenges" due to climate change-related conflicts, citing countries such as the Democratic Republic of Congo.    

"The challenges to small island states in the Pacific are different," von Uexkull said. "They are currently not affected by large-scale armed conflict but unmitigated climate change and resulting sea-level rise will threaten local populations' livelihood. This is no doubt very challenging and existentially threatening in the long term, but this does not necessarily mean that violence or instability will result from slow-moving changes like sea-level rise."

Dire forecasts come ahead of UN climate summit

The reports were released ahead of the UN climate change conference in Glasgow, Scotland, which will take place from October 31 to November 12. Biden will attend the talks, with the US delegation expected to urge other nations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. 

Biden's advocacy of climate change mitigation is a stark contrast from his predecessor, Donald Trump. During his tenure as president, Trump downplayed climate change and pulled the US out of the 2015 Paris Accords.

The US later moved to rejoin the Paris Agreement on January 20, hours after Biden was sworn in as president. 

US-German cooperation 'critical'   

Florian Krampe, the director of the Climate Change and Risk Programme at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) in Sweden, believes the US should work closely with European allies such as Germany to tackle climate-related security risks.

"Climate and security become inextricably linked — but the solutions aren't solely, or even primarily, military. Climate action, development and peacebuilding have to go hand in hand," Krampe told DW. 

"Climate change is the defining security challenge of our time today – in the West and beyond," he said when asked whether climate change poses a greater security risk to the West than terrorism. 

He cited the recent catastrophic flooding in Germany as one example, and noted that in countries such as Somalia, Mali and Afghanistan, "climate-related impacts on people's livelihoods are one of the many complex drivers that push people into joining extremist groups."