Climate Change as a Security Risk

Dr. Karin Boschert, research analyst, Political Science at the secretariat of The German Advisory Council on Global Change (WBGU)

The core message of WBGU's risk analysis is that without resolute counteraction, climate change will overstretch many societies' adaptive capacities within the coming decades. This could result in destabilization and violence, jeopardizing national and international security to a new degree. In order to avoid these developments, an ambitious global climate policy must be put into operation within the next 10-15 years. This major international policy challenge arises parallel to a far-reaching shift in the centres of power of the political world order, which will be dominated by the rise of new powers such as China and India. This transition could be accompanied by turbulence in the international system, which may make it more difficult to achieve the necessary breakthroughs in multilateral climate policy.

Climate-induced risks for international stability and security
WBGU shows that climate change could exacerbate existing environmental crises such as drought, water scarcity and soil degradation, intensify land-use conflicts and trigger further environmentally-induced migration. Rising global temperatures will jeopardize the bases of many people's livelihoods, especially in the developing regions, increase vulnerability to poverty and social deprivation. Even significant and adverse effects on the global economy are plausible. Particularly in weak and fragile states with poorly performing institutions and systems of government, climate change is also likely to overwhelm local capacities to adapt to changing environmental conditions and will thus reinforce the trend towards general instability that already exists in many societies and regions. This could result in the erosion of social order and state failure impossible to manage with traditional security policy. Climate change will draw ever-deeper lines of division and conflict in international relations, triggering numerous conflicts between and within countries over the distribution of resources, especially water and land, over the management of migration, or over compensation payments between the countries mainly responsible for climate change and those countries most affected by its destructive effects. These dynamics threaten to overstretch the established global governance system, and to aggravate existing problems in international security.

Climate policy as security policy I:
Preventing conflict by avoiding dangerous climate change
In WBGU's view, climate policy thus becomes preventive security policy, for if climate policy is successful in limiting the rise in globally averaged surface temperatures to no more than 2°C relative to the pre-industrial value, the climate-induced threat to international security would likely be averted. To this end, WBGU recommends the adoption of a global temperature guard rail limiting the rise in near-surface air temperature to a maximum of 2°C relative to the pre-industrial value. This will require a 50% reduction in global greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 compared with a 1990 baseline. In addition, the Kyoto Protocol should be further developed and preserving natural carbon stocks should become a key goal of future climate policy. In order to be a credible negotiating partner the European Union should play a leading role in the climate process.

Climate policy as security policy II:

Preventing conflict by implementing adaptation strategies
Climate change will hit developing countries particularly hard. Timely adaptation measures should therefore be an integral element of their national policies. Especially national and international water resource management needs to be adapted to the impacts of climate chance in order to avoid water crises. In agricultural development strategies and food security policy, a new qualitative focus is required in light of changing climate conditions. Sea-level rise and an increase in storm and flood disasters pose a great challenge for disaster prevention and management. Overall, international cooperation must be intensified and research on adaptation strategies, most of all in developing countries, be expanded.

Strengthening overall risk prevention
Crisis prevention costs far less than crisis management at a later stage. Hence national and international mechanisms for crisis prevention and peace consolidation should clearly grow in importance against traditional security policy, especially in the sphere of developmental, environmental and foreign policy. In general, WBGU is in favour of better coordinating the efforts of the relevant UN organizations and programmes and significantly enhancing their role in the interests of prevention. The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) should be upgraded by granting it the status of a UN specialized agency and the role of the Security Council be reflected in light of the new security threats.

Intensifying multilateral cooperation
In order to ensure the acceptance and, above all, the constructive participation of the ascendant new world powers China and India, a multilateral order is needed which is regarded as fair by all the world's countries. One option could be to initiate and institutionalize a theme-specific process, modelled on the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe (CSCE) and aimed at confidence-building worldwide. In order to peacefully and effectively manage environmentally-induced migration, vigorous collective efforts are needed to establish a cross-sectoral multilateral Convention. International cooperation is further needed to expand global information and early warning systems.

Climate change and climate impacts as research challenges
How climate change will impact on societal, political and economic institutions and processes and which dynamics will influence cooperation and conflict or stability and instability has to date not been the focus of extensive research. In this respect, WBGU recommends, for instance, to systematically integrate various social science research strands, such as the study on the causes of (environmental) conflicts and war, research into disaster management as well as governance and public policy studies. In close cooperation with natural scientists this will allow to more accurately reconstruct the impacts of climate change on social order.

Dr. Karin Boschert is research analyst in Political Science at the secretariat of The German Advisory Council on Global Change (WBGU). Contact: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

The flagship report "World in Transition – Climate Change as a Security Risk" and the summary for policy-makers can be downloaded at


Published in: ECC-Newsletter, August 2007


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