Climate Change and Global Security Risks

Most public alarm over climate change stems from the specter of environmental damage. Warming temperatures, melting ice, and rising sea levels are the most frequently cited risks of global warming. Increasing severity of natural disasters and increasing frequency of severe weather also receive extensive coverage.

However, in the coming decades these effects of climate change will be mostly an abstraction to affluent Westerners. How can policymakers and analysts motivate Westerners, particularly Americans, to raise the salience of the climate change issue? New York Magazine tried the shock-and-awe approach recently, and came under fire from those who acknowledge the risks of human-caused climate change.

Social science, like climate science, does better when it makes empirically verifiable claims and lays out the theoretical story behind such claims. Climate change skeptics may be more persuaded by arguments which appeal to their moral sensibilities rather than in the language and principles of the already-converted. With that in mind, I revisit some well-established connections between climate change and global security.

Volatile weather patterns, especially the lack of or excess rainfall, are generators of unorganized social conflict. Competition over resources, economic deprivation from famine or flooding, and domestic migration pose risks to state authority. Individuals who have diminished potential income are more likely to accept the risks of participation in criminal activity. As Theda Skocpol’s classic States and Social Revolutions observes, the Communist Revolution in China had its roots in disorganized rural banditry.

Low-grade social conflict can quickly trigger inter-group tensions. As the loss of economic capacity saps revenue flows to the state, institutions weaken. State institutions provide credible commitments across social divides, whether economic classes or ethnic groups. As states weaken and economic crises escalate, conflicts between groups become more likely. At the extremes, states fail and devastating civil war results. South Sudan’s short, troubled history illustrates a worst-case outcome.

The positive relationship between extreme weather and social conflict reveals the security risks within states most affected by climate change. However, deprivation and social conflict also create refugee and migrant crises, spurring thousands to leave their home countries and seek security and wages in developed economies. “Push” and “pull” factors shape migration, but so do political conditions. Strict citizenship laws and nativist political parties in destination countries deters migration.

Yet in the increasing migrant flows from Africa to Europe migrants often do not choose their destination. Rather, they arrive at the first place where they can seek protection under international law. The Greek Isles offered a natural experiment in the effects of migrant landings, revealing increased support for nativist parties in islands with more landings. Changes in political preferences are only one side of the coin. Radicalization and terrorist sympathies are more likely in areas with greater nativist activity, suggesting a spiral of conflict between nativism and terrorism.

Climate change poses grave long-term threats to the global environment through rising sea levels and natural disasters. Yet the risks are greater in the short-to-medium-term. Increased conflict in weak states, North-South migration flows, and political violence in the West all intensify with a changing climate.

National security, a broadly bipartisan concern, depends on the ability of states to address climate change.

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