Security Consequences of Climate Change
A look at global and national dimensions
Aftab H. Wahla
Throughout the eons, climate change has been an integral part of our atmospheric conditions, but the pace at which it affected our planet was slow and imperceptible and it offered ample time for adaptation to the flora and fauna of the Earth. However, the current situation is altogether different. The rate of change in global atmosphere and ecology is so abrupt and sudden today that 7.6 billion humans, as well as all other species, find it harder to adapt to the precipitously changing weather patterns, increasingly erratic rainfall and unprecedentedly-rising global temperature. Though climate change is causing grim consequences for humanity, e.g. increasing temperatures, melting glaciers, desertification, weather change, disturbance in atmospheric circulation and ocean currents, rising sea level and seawater intrusion, its most serious impact that is still underreported, unnoticed and underestimated will be on global peace and security.
Before we dwell upon the impact of climate change on security, it seems pertinent to look at what national security is from the perspective of International Relations.
Harold Brown, US Secretary of Defense from 1977 to 1981 in the Carter administration, describes national security as “the ability to preserve the nation’s physical integrity and territory; to maintain its economic relations with the rest of the world on reasonable terms; to preserve its nature, institution, and governance from disruption from outside; and to control its borders.” Succinctly speaking, national security is the protection of a state’s sovereignty and territorial integrity as well as institutional capacity of safeguarding its subjects from various military and non-military threats like military attacks; terrorism; crime control; economic, human, energy, food and cyber insecurity. Global security or international security is the mutual survival and safety of humans on the face of the Earth as a result of multilateral, bilateral or unilateral endeavours on the part of the United Nations and its member states. Both international security and national security of climatically-vulnerable countries are facing serious challenges from the precipitous changes being brought about through anthropological activities.
Though the world is slow to recognize the grave risks associated with climate change, there is now a growing realization in major capitals and international organizations that this phenomenon can act as an accelerant to instability and a catalyst to conflagrate the conflicts. It attempts to compound the existing security and economic irritants and can potentially endanger the security of humans as well as that of ecosystems, societies, economies and governing institutions. In a study published in 2007, David D. Zhang et al. found that long-term fluctuation of war frequency and population changes followed the cycles of temperature change. They also found that a cooler period impacted agriculture production that, in return, caused serious social issues like price inflation, war, famines and population decline. Moreover, in its Quadrennial Defense Review 2014, Pentagon concluded that the various impacts created by climate change are “threat multipliers” that will exacerbate stresses abroad like poverty, environmental degradation and political instability. “The pressures caused by climate change will influence resource competition while placing additional burdens on economies, societies, and governance institutions around the world. These effects are threat multipliers that will aggravate stressors abroad such as poverty, environmental degradation, political instability, and social tensions – conditions that can enable terrorist activity and other forms of violence,” it said. These assessments make it vividly clear that unaddressed climate change would create serious consequences and implications for global peace and security.
A brief discussion has been made in following paragraphs on various factors linked with climate change that pose serious threats to international security.
First of all, there is a well-established link between climate change and water insecurity. Rising temperature, glacial meltdown and changing rainfall patterns will invariably impact water security across the globe. There is a strong likelihood that climate change-driven water insecurity will cause sub-national and trans-national conflicts. These conflicts can further be compounded by pre-existing social issues like poverty, national disintegration, social tensions, etc. Globally, the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia are three regions that are hotspots for water insecurity-linked threats. The poor trans-national coordination, dilapidated institutional arrangements, poor leadership and unplanned demand-and-supply mechanism are making these regions extremely vulnerable to active hostilities and standoffs. The gravity of the situation can be gauged from the fact that out of seven river basins in these regions, five have been termed as awfully inadequate and limited to avoid and manage future crises. The Nile, Euphrates-Tigris and Indus basin systems are worth mentioning here as they are facing serious issues due to climate change-driven fluctuations and uncertainties.
Weaponization of water is another closely linked issue. Various countries and terrorist outfits are using threats emanating from water insecurity as means to achieve their tactical, strategic and coercive ends. For instance, ISIS attempted to use water as strategic and tactical weapon when it threatened to destroy Mosul Dam to stop the advancement of Iraqi Army. India’s Hindu nationalist prime minister, Narenda Modi, has frequently threatened to stop the flow of water of western rivers into Pakistan to prevent the ‘infiltration of militants’ in Occupied Jammu and Kashmir. Al-Shabab, the terrorist organization in East Africa, cut off water supplies to some localities in Somalia to show its coercive power. Since water is integral for food and energy security, continued and unaddressed climate change-caused water scarcity poses grave threats to these regions which are already volatile and restive due to various politico-strategic conflicts.
The Northwest Passage is one such place that best illustrates how change in natural environment is inevitably linked with geostrategic competition. This passage can offer shorter Euro-Asia marine route but the deep ice has long prevented the exploitation of this passage as per its true potential. Now climate change is impacting it. The average temperature has been hovering 1.35 degree Fahrenheit since the start of the 20th century. This mercurial rise is causing ice-meltdown at an unprecedented rate. As per various reports, the ice is melting at 13.5% per decade. In 2018, the minimum sea ice extent in the Arctic was 25% below the 30-year average from 1980 to 2010.
This continued ice-melt in the Northwest Passage will open new maritime routes and trade opportunities. The US Geological Survey has estimated that 30% of the world’s undiscovered natural gas and 13% of undiscovered oil can possibly be located in Arctic Circle and Northern waters. The likelihood of untapped opportunities of oil, gas and mineral exploration in this region can cause disputes over territorial claims and sea route. The continued lingering of this dispute, coupled with other unresolved political conflicts, can act as an agent of destabilization and can prove a serious threat to global peace and security. There are already indications that Russia is deploying its military assets here and the United States is contemplating counteraction. Obviously, this is worrisome development for international stability.
Climate change-induced population displacement and climate refugees make another burning issue that is posing grave threats to international peace and security. Different climate scenarios estimate that 150-200 million people worldwide will face displacement due to rise in sea level, sea surge, sea intrusion, heat waves and prolonged droughts. This situation becomes grimmer when we find that there is no international treaty or convention covering the rights of climate refugees. As EU Refugee Crisis 2015 has made it clear that influx of a massive number of immigrants causes serious stress on the humanitarian and economic capabilities of destination countries, the looming threat of climate refugees has potential to trigger fractures among the international community. Competition over scarce resource would lead towards social strife, political instability, civil war and armed conflicts among countries. The climate displacement is more serious in the sense that the displacement will likely be permanent as losses brought on by floods, sea intrusion, surge in heat waves and sea storms have long-term socioeconomic ramifications and affected population will never be able to return to the pre-disaster level. Therefore, climate refugees will continue to put a perpetual strain on the destination countries, thereby creating a constant source of conflict among the countries.
Now we look at what climate change-induced security threats are evolving for Pakistan. It is worth discussing these threats as Pakistan’s security policymakers have shown little realization to the security implications of climate change and have disproportionately mobilized state resources to neutralize the conventional threats to the country’s national security.
First and foremost, downstream status of Pakistan is a threat to its security. Pakistan’s food and energy security is contingent on the uninterrupted and uninterruptible supply of water from upstream India. Both India and Pakistan are facing acute water shortage due to ineffective agriculture practices, poor management of water resources and burgeoning populations. This regional water insecurity has further been compounded by the rise of Hindu-nationalist and fascist Narendra Modi to power in New Delhi. His populist approach towards Pakistan vis-à-vis downstream water of Western rivers has become one of the most serious threats to national security of Pakistan. In the aftermath of the Uri attack back in 2016, Modi attempted to soothe the popular resentments against Pakistan and warned that blood and water cannot flow together, thereby threatening a closure of waters flowing downstream to Pakistan. On its part, Pakistan responded promptly with Sartaj Aziz, then PM Foreign Policy Advisor, giving the policy statement that any violation of Indus Waters Treaty by India would be considered “an act of war”. This episode makes it clear that volatile bilateral Indo-Pak ties can easily spiral out of control and climate change-driven water insecurity can play a decisive role in the derailment of relationships. Another worrisome aspect of this threat is that the Indus Waters Treaty of 1960, an institutional mechanism to amicably resolve the dispute, did not anticipate climate change at that time, ergo no clause covering climate change-caused disruption in the supply of water. This worsening per head availability, coupled with other bilateral irritants, has become one of the most serious threat multipliers for peace and security of South Asia.
Prolonged droughts, super floods and famines can cause severe unrest. The situation gets worse in the presence of unresolved political issues. The 2003 Darfur Civil War in Sudan that resulted in more than 100,000 fatalities and displacement of over 300,000 people was in part triggered by prolonged drought that had caused fatal competition over scarce resources. Syria is another example where climate change-precipitated, historically-worst drought caused migration, civil unrest and ultimately armed conflict. Pakistan also sits on the time bomb of national disintegration due to various factors; water distribution being the most important of them. Population explosion, industrial development, unplanned urbanization, absence of horizontal and vertical collaboration, incoherent implementation of ecological policies, inability to construct any major water reservoir and ineffective supply and demand management have made Water Apportionment Accord of 1991 awfully obsolete and inadequate to resolve inter-provincial water disputes. In addition, the Accord does not include any water-distribution mechanism if there is any major disruption in water availability owing to emergencies. It is now increasingly becoming evident that climate change is impacting the normal flow of water and inability of the 1991 Accord to proactively tackle this issue is bound to create serious politico-economic ramifications that will cause serious threat to the internal security of Pakistan.
Population displacement is another issue that can easily create an insurmountable challenge for internal security of Pakistan. As per various climate models, the thermal threshold of major staple crops like wheat and rice can shift towards the northern areas depending upon the rise in temperature. If temperature rises by 3 to 4 degree Celsius by the end of the ongoing century, the entire lower Sindh may be left unsuitable for wheat cultivation. Obviously, the unsuitability of the lands for staple food would cause population displacement and migration to the urban centres. Thus, already overcrowded cities will find it even harder to cope with the challenges of ethnic tensions, ghettoization of communities, crime infestation and political instability. The climate change-driven water shortage would further worsen the situation and there will always be serious threats of outbreak of gang wars and civil strife in the major urban centres of Pakistan, thereby putting internal security under great stress.
The ongoing crisis of locust infestation is another example that illustrates the capability of climate change to disrupt the food supplies. The increased frequency of cyclones in Indian Ocean—eight cyclones in 2019 alone—and longer-than-normal monsoon last year helped the three generations of locusts in Pakistan and Iran. Now this threat is set to devastate the Kharif and Rabi crops of Pakistan. Losses to agriculture could reach Rs. 353 billion for Rabi crops and Rs.464 billions for Kharif crops. Most worryingly, the locust crisis is set to further cripple the surveillance and control response of the government that is already fighting the once-in-a-century medico-economic crisis of Covid-19.
Given the gravity of the situation, drastic changes at global and national levels have become a pressing urgency. Globally, the very domain of the UN Security Council must be broadened. Article 39 of the UN Charter that deals with jurisdiction of UNSC to act in case of any threat to peace, breach of peace or act of aggression must also cover climate change-driven security threats in addition to the conventional military aggressions. The diplomatic squabbling and bickering witnessed during COP25 has made it clear that voluntary international climate agreements would not help humanity contain mercurial rise; these agreements must be binding in nature and any breach should also be the domain of the International Court of Justice. In addition, the institutional jurisdiction of International Criminal Court should also be expanded to include climate aggression along with ethnic cleansing, genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes. Nationally, a paradigm shift is required in strategic thinking of military establishment. The National Security Committee must also consider the security implications of climate change in its policymaking and execution and our military top brass should also deliberate it in its Corps Commanders Meetings to devise coordinated civil-military response to this security threat.
The traditional understanding of national and global security has undergone fundamental transformation. The narrow definition of protecting sovereignty and territorial integrity has become obsolete owing to emergence of a lot of non-conventional security threats that, if left unaddressed and unresolved, can prove as devastating as military aggression or terrorism. Now it has become amply evident that management of national security is no longer the exclusive domains of military or other law-enforcement agencies; it warrants a multidisciplinary, holistic approach to remove the proverbial sword of Damocles in order to give a healthy, hospitable, peaceful and secure environment with fully functional state institutions to the next generations. One of the major takeaways of Covid-19 is that we cannot defeat nature; if we go on with our ecologically disturbing activities, nature has deadliest weapons in its arsenal to teach us a lesson. We must learn the art of peaceful coexistence with the nature, which is strict adherence to climate-friendly socio-economic policies and activities.