- Human security depends on climate action.
- Climate change does not cause conflict; rather, it exacerbates existing vulnerabilities in human security (caused by governance and socioeconomic conditions), which can lead to violent conflict.
- By increasing vulnerabilities and instability, the human security impacts of climate change become national security concerns.
- Effective and timely mitigation and adaptation strategies are required to strengthen human security and, by extension, national security. These must be pursued in parallel with concerted efforts to provide for human security to reduce the risks of increasing violent conflict and promote peace.
- The Russian invasion of Ukraine has revealed significant problems in terms of food supply and stable access to energy at local, national and international scales that arise from a dependence on fossil fuels. These vulnerabilities erode human security.
Human security and climate change interact in insidious “vicious circles” that drive short- and long-term action and impacts. In some contexts, this can exacerbate tensions or amplify existing violent conflicts. A variety of global governance bodies, including the UN Security Council, have recognised that climate and security are linked in complex ways, and that the impacts of this interaction vary widely within and among countries. Ice loss in the Arctic due to climate change, for example, has led to increased international security concerns with countries developing their military capacity there, and availing themselves of expanded maritime transportation channels and natural resource extraction opportunities.
Climate change is inextricably linked with history and societal structures. Its origins, as well as the extent and distribution of impacts on human security, are connected with governance, socioeconomic conditions and human activities, including colonial legacies. Today, the impacts of anthropogenic climate change are undermining fundamental aspects of human security. Access to food, water and energy are threatened, as well as non-material aspects of culture such as traditional knowledge and practices, which are key to successful adaptation and resilience building.
It is a complex picture. The latest IPCC assessment report (AR6) stated that at higher global warming levels, by increasing vulnerability, impacts of weather and climate extremes – particularly drought – “will increasingly affect violent intrastate conflict”. On the other hand, the overall risk of conflict is projected to decline in the long term in contexts where non-climatic drivers are reduced (such as access to water, food, energy and a sustainable livelihood).
Human insecurity, propelled by resource scarcity and decreased productivity of agricultural lands, can increase tensions within and across communities, in some instances contributing to violent conflict. The UN Environment Programme recently reported that “since the mid-twentieth century, at least 40% of all intrastate conflicts have been linked to the exploitation of natural resources”.
Within these vicious circles, insecurity can also fuel climate change. Scarcity of water or food may lead to additional and predatory exploitation of natural resources for survival or short-term monetary gain. Environmental crimes, such as illegal deforestation, illegal fishing, illegal logging and illegal mining, can increase. These activities precipitate environmental destruction, both directly and indirectly yielding GHG emissions, for instance through land-use changes (see Insight 6).
To prepare better for security threats requires a deeper understanding of how climate factors interact with socioeconomic vulnerabilities. These relationships are magnified when water, energy and/or social systems are severely degraded or decimated by armed conflicts (e.g. from the various chemicals contained in the explosives and the disturbance of radioactive soils), as witnessed, for example, in the recent wars in Ethiopia, Gaza, Sudan, Syria and Yemen, as well as the military invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. Parties to the conflicts have targeted crops, farms, roads, fishing vessels, irrigation and agricultural infrastructure, and services that are essential to civilian life. The cumulative impact of these incidents over time damages human security, increases vulnerability and limits adaptation to a changing climate.
Action is required across multiple scales to strengthen human security: by local and national policymakers, as well as regional and international institutions. Effective and timely mitigation and adaptation are essential to reduce the contribution of climate change to amplifying the drivers of conflict. Yet, unless mitigation and adaptation efforts are paired with concerted efforts to provide for human security, such action will be insufficient to reduce the risks of increasing violent conflict and promote peace.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine
The recent invasion of Ukraine has demonstrated the reverberating effects of a regional war on global food (wheat, cooking oil) and energy (gas, oil) supply chains. It has also raised visibility of the use of dams and environmental resources as military tools and targets by state and non-state actors in armed conflicts and other direct impacts of wars. Some countries resorted to ramping up the use of coal to replace natural gas, initiating new fossil fuel extraction projects previously sidelined by climate goals, or increasing subsidies on oil to compensate for surging oil prices. Although a few countries accelerated their renewable energy share, the trend in the first few months of this conflict indicated a regression of decarbonisation efforts. These short-term responses to human security crises caused by violent armed conflict will have deleterious long-term ramifications for climate change, and its detrimental contribution to human security.
Implications & Recommendations
At a global level:
- Recognition that human security requires climate security further highlights the urgency of effective and timely climate action and a targeted approach to resilience-building.
- The intrinsic relevance of security challenges to meeting climate goals must be incorporated into international climate negotiations (e.g. at COP27), as in, for example, the attention and resources deferred from climate action to address security, or the negative implications of landscapes and farmlands degraded in conflict or on account of human insecurity and additional climate-warming emissions from military action.
- The inverse is also true: an evidence-based approach to international security planning and action (such as through the UN Security Council) would incorporate climate change as integral to their calculations of risk and their approach to the future (including awareness that military resource use, waste and emissions must be reined in significantly in support of climate goals).
- Key powers must be engaged in cross-cutting solutions, rooted in the reality that addressing climate change is essential to reduce the drivers of human insecurity and mitigating its impacts is mutually beneficial.
- Climate change is a catalyst for international cooperation.
At a national and local level:
- Addressing the underlying socioeconomic conditions that can propel communities through “vicious circles” created between conflicts and climate stressors is a vital element of a policy toolbox.
- Recognising that dependence on fossil fuels entails major vulnerabilities, notably for energy security, is an essential early step to developing “win-win” alternatives that are aligned with climate goals.
- The urgent transformation required for the race to net-zero emissions may negatively impact human security in some contexts, making attention to existing injustices, areas of resource scarcity, and vulnerability to climate change even more important to mitigating conflict.