Primer on climate security | Transnational Institute


1. What is climate security?

Climate security is a political and policy framework that analyses the impact of climate change on security. It anticipates that the extreme weather events and climate instability resulting from rising greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) will cause disruption to economic, social and environmental systems – and therefore undermine security. The questions are: whose and what kind of security is this about?


The dominant drive and demand for ‘climate security’ comes from a powerful national security and military apparatus, in particular that of the wealthier nations. This means that security is perceived in terms of the ‘threats’ it poses to their military operations and ‘national security’, an all-encompassing term that basically refers to a country’s economic and political power.


In this framework, climate security examines the perceived direct threats to a nation’s security, such as the impact on military operations – for example, the rise in sea level affects military bases or extreme heat impedes army operations. It also looks at the indirect threats, or the ways climate change may exacerbate existing tensions, conflicts and violence that could spill into or overwhelm other nations. This includes the emergence of new ‘theatres’ of war, such as the Arctic where melting ice is opening up new mineral resources and a major jostling for control among major powers. Climate change is defined as a ‘threat multiplier’ or a ‘catalyst to conflict’. Narratives on climate security typically anticipate, in the words of a US Department of Defense strategy, ‘an era of persistent conflict … a security environment much more ambiguous and unpredictable than that faced during the Cold War’. 


Climate security has been increasingly integrated into national security strategies, and been embraced more widely by international organisations such as the United Nations and its specialised agencies, as well as civil society, academia and the media. In 2021 alone, President Biden declared climate change a national security priority, NATO drew up an action plan on climate and security, the UK declared it was moving to a system of ‘climate-prepared defence’, the United Nations Security Council held a high-level debate on climate and security, and climate security is expected to be a major agenda item at the COP26 conference in November. 


As this primer explores, framing the climate crisis as a security issue is deeply problematic as it ultimately reinforces a militarised approach to climate change that is likely to deepen the injustices for those most affected by the unfolding crisis. The danger of security solutions is that, by definition, they seek to secure what exists – an unjust status quo. A security response views as ‘threats’ anyone who might unsettle the status quo, such as refugees, or who oppose it outright, such as climate activists. It also precludes other, collaborative solutions to instability. Climate justice, by contrast requires us to overturn and transform the economic systems that caused climate change, prioritising communities at the frontlines of the crisis and putting their solutions first.


2. How has climate security emerged as a political priority?

Climate security draws on a longer history of environmental security discourse in academic and policy-making circles, which since the 1970s and 1980s has examined the interlinkages of environment and conflict and at times pushed for decision-makers to integrate environmental concerns into security strategies. 


Climate security entered the policy – and national security – arena in 2003, with a Pentagon-commissioned study by Peter Schwartz, a former Royal Dutch Shell planner, and Doug Randall of the California-based Global Business Network. They warned that climate change could lead to a new Dark Ages: ‘As famine, disease, and weather-related disasters strike due to the abrupt climate change, many countries’ needs will exceed their carrying capacity. This will create a sense of desperation, which is likely to lead to offensive aggression in order to reclaim balance … Disruption and conflict will be endemic features of life’. The same year, in less hyperbolic language, the European Union (EU) ‘European Security Strategy’ flagged up climate change as a security issue. 


Since then climate security has been increasingly integrated into defence planning, intelligence assessments, and military operational plans of a growing number of wealthy countries including the US, the UK, Australia, Canada, Germany, New Zealand and Sweden as well as the EU. It differs from countries’ climate action plans with their focus on military and national security considerations.


For military and national security entities, the focus on climate change reflects the belief that any rational planner can see that it is worsening and will affect their sector. The military is one of the few institutions that engage in long-term planning, to ensure its continued capacity to engage in conflict, and to be ready for the changing contexts in which they do so. They also are inclined to examine worst-case scenarios in a way that social planners do not – which may be an advantage on the issue of climate change.


US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin summed up US military consensus on climate change in 2021: ‘We face a grave and growing climate crisis that is threatening our missions, plans, and capabilities. From increasing competition in the Arctic to mass migration in Africa and Central America, climate change is contributing to instability and driving us to new missions’.


Indeed, climate change is already directly affecting the armed forces. A 2018 Pentagon report revealed that half of 3,500 military sites were suffering the effects of six key categories of extreme weather events, such as storm surge, wildfires and droughts.


This experience of the impacts of climate change and a long-term planning cycle has sealed off national security forces from many of the ideological debates and denialism concerning climate change. It meant that even during Trump’s presidency, the military continued with its climate security plans while downplaying these in public, to avoid becoming a lightning rod for denialists.


The focus of national security regarding climate change is also driven by its determination to achieve ever more control of all potential risks and threats, which means it seeks to integrate all aspects of state security to do this. This has led to increases in funding to every coercive arm of the state in for several decades. Security scholar Paul Rogers, Emeritus Professor of Peace Studies at the University of Bradford, calls the strategy ‘liddism’ (that is, keeping the lid on things) – a strategy that is ‘both pervasive and accumulative, involving an intense effort to develop new tactics and technologies that can avert problems and suppress them’. The trend has accelerated since 9/11 and with the emergence of algorithmic technologies, has encouraged national security agencies to seek to monitor, anticipate and where possible control all eventualities.


While national security agencies lead the discussion and set the agenda on climate security, there is also a growing number of non-military and civil society organisations (CSOs) advocating for greater attention to climate security. These include foreign policy thinktanks such as the Brookings Institute and the Council on Foreign Relations (US), the International Institute for Strategic Studies and Chatham House (UK), Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, Clingendael (Netherlands), French Institute for International and Strategic Affairs, Adelphi (Germany) and the Australian Strategic Policy Institute. A leading advocate for climate security worldwide is the US-based Center for Climate and Security (CCS), a research institute with close ties to the military and security sector and the Democratic party establishment. A number of these institutes joined forces with senior military figures to form the International Military Council on Climate and Security in 2019. 



Timeline of Key Climate Security Strategies