Climate Change as a Security Issue and How It Hinders Climate Action

Climate Change as a Security Issue and How It Hinders Climate Action

Laura Ningelgen

There should be no doubt that the anthropogenic climate change is real, that it is human-induced and that climate change can have fatal and disastrous consequences for all facets of this planet if the international community fails to decrease greenhouse gases. In recent years, climate change has gained more attention and awareness from the international community and one can be absolutely sure, climate change deserves the highest attention possible. What are the consequences of climate change entering the stage of high politics and its discussion as a security threat? This short article offers a critique of the established policies and key assumptions towards the new security challenge: climate change.

Since the end of the 1980s, scholars have brought climate change and security together. Yet, it was not until the mid-2000s that the debate about climate change as a security issue accelerated and the topic entered the stage of high politics. The shift to a nexus between climate change and security began in the mid-2000s and peaked in 2007 – many studies and reports were published and Albert Arnold Gore and his organisation IPCC won the Nobel Peace Prize.[1] This international prestigious award finally showed the connection between peace and climate change. Simultaneously, as insights from the IPCC about human-induced climate change became public, climate change advanced as a topic of security. Climate change became depicted as a security threat and was discussed in international debates even by the supranational institutions like the European Union and the United Nations (in 2007, the United Nations Security Council debated an environmental issue for the first time in history and further debates followed). Also, in recent years climate change became a central topic of security strategies within individual countries like the United Kingdom and the United States.

Constructed Crisis Narratives about Climate Change
But why is climate change debated as a security issue? The general assumption is that climate change will have negative impacts on settlement patterns, agriculture, natural disasters, and national economies. Therefore, it is assumed by many politicians, scholars, and think tanks alike that climate change will function as a threat multiplier for conflict, mass migration and even terrorism. It is argued that climate change was already a driving force in the recent conflicts of Darfur and Syria. In addition, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees writes that ‘21.5 million people have been forcibly displaced by weather-related sudden onset hazards each year since 2008’.

This causal relationship, I suggest, is wrong and problematic. First, there is too little evidence thus far to assume that climate change automatically leads to conflict and migration. Second, the securitisation and its created narratives fail to consider important further factors and ignore the context of conflicts and migration. Third, this relationship hampers climate action in general and exclude what could happen if appropriate counter-measures were to be established.

Sudan and Syria as the first climate-wars
Recent conflicts in Sudan (especially in Darfur) and Syria are depicted as the first climate wars. By creating oversimplified and depoliticized explanations for conflicts like Darfur and Syria – mostly on the part of western politicians and scholars – several problems occur. First, the fact that climate change is ultimately linked to conflict cannot be properly proven with existing evidence.[2] The assumption falls back on ethnic stereotypes of the populations in the global south. Second, the crucial fact that cooperation in times of environmental problems can occur is undermined. This cooperation exists even between hostile parties (for instance co-operations between Israel and Palestinians during episodes of water shortage). Third, when causes of conflicts are oversimplified, and it is automatically assumed that shortage of water and food leads to conflict over resources, measures for preventing conflict can be overlooked and ignored. Syria and Darfur exemplify the consequences of socio-economic grievances that have been neglected and wrongly attributed to the climate. In general, conflicts are always complex and involve social, religious, economic, and political factors – it would be naïve to assume climate might be the main driving factor of violent conflict.

The implications of crisis narratives
If the nexus between climate change, conflict, and migration is already wrongly assumed, it is questionable if this nexus is useful to tackle climate change appropriately. Of course, posing climate change as a security threat raises the general awareness of the international community, but we are not living in a win-win world. If climate change is portrayed as a danger to security, it supports those who address climate change through conventional security measures and the securitisation serves western security interests.

Accordingly, Michael Brzoska, who researches military forces and whether climate change leads to their increase, concludes that the ‘general perception of the importance of climate change seems to feed the expectation that climate change will amplify already existing priorities of armed forces’ [2015:187]. At the same time, the military costs are less sustainable. Military upgrade is expensive – this money could be used to invest in mitigation measures for climate change. In addition, if there is a lack of evidence proving the climate-conflict-nexus, more military is not needed for climate change reasons. Nonetheless, the narratives of climate change, combined with an increase of armed forces, help to justify armed interventions.

In relation to migration, the term ‘climate refugees’ is too simple. It overstates the ‘role of demographic pressure’ and as with climate-conflict – the reasons for migration are complex and context-sensitive. Furthermore, posing climate refugees as a threat, will in all likelihood lead to isolation policies. North African states, like Morocco and Libya, already cooperate with European states to limit migration to Europe. These narratives about climate refugees imply that ‘we’, the western world, depict ourselves as victims, while the ‘other’ is posed as a threat to ‘us’. This colonial thinking leads to the depiction of climate refugees as barbarians or future terrorists, instead of a political subject. Subsequently, the narratives around climate refugees has the potential for policies that effect migrants and not climate action.

In addition, the securitisation of climate change supports the marketization and militarization of nature. Climate change creates and transforms access to new markets for carbon, biodiversity, biofuels and climate-secure food. Climate security thus entails more than a concern for ‘hot weather’ but generates new climate commodities that produce climate conflicts. The emerging conflict occurs as political elites ‘grab’ these environmental markets – animated by the securitisation of climate threats.[3]

Even if the securitisation and the alarmism of climate change leads to a rising awareness in international politics, a causal relationship between conflict and warming, as is claimed in several studies, combined with the worst-case scenarios, raises yet another question: how shall the reduction of greenhouse gas be central to political decisions, if studies do not properly demonstrate that the negative effects of climate change can be avoided through an appropriate installation of measures? The impacts of climate change are convincing and fearsome without the inadequate depiction of climate wars and climate refugees. These dystopian narratives and the increase of armed forces fail to lead to a higher degree of cooperation between states and fail to limit the emissions of greenhouse gases. Framing climate change as a security threat runs into the danger of doing too little and distract attention from the real issue: limiting the causes of climate change. The dramatizing tone could lead to a militarization, the neo-liberalisation of the nature, and the enforcement of western interests.

Securitisation further leads to a stereotypical depiction of ‘othered’ Africans and to isolation policies of western countries. Already hot continents like South America or Africa are the first that suffer from climate change – even though their carbon-footprint is considerably smaller than that of western, industrialised countries. In the future, we should focus on a more fact-driven and expedient discourse around climate change with measures and mitigations at its core.

Notes and References:
[1] For example, see the influential studies ‘National Security and the Threat of Climate Change’ by the US Center for Naval Analyses (CNA), ‘The Age of Consequences: The Foreign Policy and National Security Implications of Global Climate Change’ by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) and the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), and ‘A Climate of Conflict’ by International Alert.
[2] See especially Jan Selby, Professor at the University of Sussex for International Relations, who demonstrates that the assumption is wrongly assumed, especially because other factors as economic grievances are violated.
[3] That the neo-liberalisation of the nature fuels conflicts is for instance already well-documented and described in cases like Indonesia and Kenya during the PES programme UN-REDD+ by the United Nations.
Brzoska, M. (2009). ‘The securitization of climate change and the power of conceptions of security’, Security and Peace, 27, 137-145.
Brzoska, M. (2015). Climate change and military planning, International Journal of Climate Change Strategies and Management, 7 (2), 172-190.
Dunlap A. and Fairhead, J. (2014). ‘The Militarisation and Marketisation of Nature: An Alternative Lens to ‘Climate-Conflict’’, Geopolitics, 19 (4), 937-961.
Hartmann, B. (2010). ‘Rethinking Climate Refugees and Climate Conflict: Rhetoric, Reality and the Politics of Policy Discourse’, Journal of International Development, 22 (2),  233-46.
Hartmann, B. (2014). ‘Converging on Disaster: Climate Security and the Malthusian Anticipatory Regime for Africa, Geopolitics, 19 (4), 757-783.
Selby, J. (2014). ‘Positivist Climate Conflict Research: A Critique’, Geopolitics, 19 (4), 829-856.
Selby, J. and Hoffmann, C. (2014). ‘Rethinking Climate Change, Conflict and Security’, Geopolitics, 19 (4), 747-756.


Laura Ningelgen is studying for an MA in Conflict, Security and Development at the University of Sussex. In her undergraduate, she studied Political Science and German Studies at the Johannes-Gutenberg University of Mainz. Her dissertation will deal with human right violations in Libya and Turkey as consequences of the EU-deals with these countries. After her graduation, she wants to continue research in the field of International Relations.