Sunsets started to tease the Arctic horizon as scientists on board the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Healy headed south in the Chukchi Sea during the final days collecting ocean data for the 2011 ICESCAPE mission. Photo Credit: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center
Climate change already devastates our environment, most visibly in the form of massive environmental shifts such as the melting of the Arctic, the destruction of the Amazon rainforest, and the rise in global temperatures. Each of these phenomena individually threatens the future stability of the global ecosystem, but disruptive weather events such as hurricanes, prolonged droughts, and rising sea levels do more than endanger our environment: they threaten the very stability of the global order. As a result, the most worrisome effect of climate change is its ability to act as a threat multiplier. Climate change will continue to both wreak havoc on fragile and vital ecosystems and, in doing so, aggravate more traditional security issues: namely, geopolitical competition, migration, and political instability. The threat that climate change poses is thus of utmost importance to the collective security of the global community.
To begin, the melting of the Arctic has given rise to a new sphere of regional competition. Access to previously unreachable waters will lead to an increase in tourism, resource extraction, shipping, and military activity. The promise of lucrative financial gains in the form of oil and gas reserves has piqued the interests of many states—it is estimated that the Arctic holds around 13 percent of the remaining untapped oil reserves on the planet. The many Arctic and near-Arctic states are developing Arctic strategies that emphasize the importance of multilateralism and diplomacy while also maintaining a commitment to protecting state interests. States have begun building or rebuilding their Arctic capabilities, signaling a willingness to compete should diplomatic efforts fail. Both Russia and China, the United States’ two near-peer competitors in the Arctic region, are increasing their Arctic capabilities, and all three states are continuously seeking to edge out the others. All of this occurs against the backdrop of a slowly melting and changing landscape. The Arctic is thus not only a theater of operation unto itself but a key indicator of how climate change can and will reshape geopolitics.
Additionally, food and water insecurity, scientifically linked to climate change, act as drivers of migration and conflict. Three notable cases of conflict have been sparked by climate change. First, the uprisings of the Arab Spring came about due to political frustrations throughout the Middle East caused by governments’ inability to adequately provide for their citizens in the face of desertification, drought, and food scarcity. Second, the Syrian civil war was preceded by a years-long drought that drove citizens from rural areas into cities ill-equipped to deal with the demands of its new population. The resulting revolts against the government can therefore be at least partially attributed to issues strained by the growing climate crisis. Third, the shrinking of Lake Chad, which provides water to the millions of people who live in the area surrounding it, has had severe ramifications for those dependent on the Lake for their livelihoods, food, and water security. The terrorist group Boko Haram has been able to establish itself as an alternative source of authority and protection by offering alternative livelihoods through their organization, leading to an uptick in recruitment and further destabilizing the region. In all three instances, climate change and food and water insecurity have been directly linked to unrest and conflict. As the climate crisis continues to impact other areas of the world outside the Global South, it follows that more political unrest will undoubtedly occur.
Migration also poses a related security risk to the international community. As more parts of the world become uninhabitable due to extreme weather events and rising temperatures, millions are expected to migrate in the next few decades. The World Bank’s Groundswell report states that more than 200 million people are expected to be internally displaced within their own country by 2050. This mass migration will undoubtedly strain the resource capacity of numerous countries and increase urbanization. The future of urbanization poses its own risks: most cities that are destinations for migrants are coastal, and the continued sea-level rise inevitably puts millions of people at risk. Large amounts of economically disadvantaged people crowding together in urban environments increases the risk for unrest, the spread of disease, and violent conflict. The global physical, economic, and human costs of the projected disaster cannot be overstated.
Furthermore, the threat of climate change is compounded by climate disinformation. The energy industry is one of the most profitable in the world; major fossil fuel companies with the aim of protecting their own interests are therefore threatened by the rising demand for climate action. By obscuring the facts about climate change and driving a partisan wedge into a universal issue, effective climate legislation is near-impossible to pass in the United States. Not only is climate disinformation worsening the climate crisis by delaying adequate action, but this level of disinformation coming from powerful private actors only serves to increase the damage done to the information ecosystem itself. This particular type of disinformation thus degrades democracy and the foundations of trust in conjunction with the environment. Climate scientists have warned that the window for the international community to significantly reduce the impending devastation of the climate crisis is rapidly coming to a close. The United States must prioritize climate action and set a global precedent, leading with action on renewable energy; multilateralism and renewal of global efforts must be a part of this goal. There is a firm consensus that renewable energies will yield a great return on investment and that emphasizing a transfer to green energy will aid in the process of incentivizing stakeholders to invest in a better climate future. Additionally, by taking lessons learned from the natural resource governance field and applying them to renewable energies, state actors can build networks between international and local organizations to optimize impact. The natural resource government field has an opportunity to engage new actors as the shift in resource expenditure continues. By building mitigative climate policies from the bottom-up, local actors will be able to support and regulate climate action from the highest levels of governance. A combined bottom-up and top-down approach must be integrated and applied effectively, in order for true climate action to come about.