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Updated: Security Experts Warn of ‘High to Catastrophic’ Threats from Climate Change

In a comprehensive report released on February 24 by the National Security, Military and Intelligence Panel of the Center for Climate and Security (CCS), experts warn of high-to-catastrophic threats to security from plausible climate change trajectories – the avoidance of which will require “quickly reducing and phasing out global greenhouse gas emissions.” 

The panel, made up of national security, military and intelligence experts, analyzed the globe through the lens of the U.S. Geographic Combatant Commands, and concluded that “Even at scenarios of low warming, each region of the world will face severe risks to national and global security in the next three decades. Higher levels of warming will pose catastrophic, and likely irreversible, global security risks over the course of the 21st century.”

The report, A Security Threat Assessment of Global Climate Change: How Likely Warming Scenarios Indicate a Catastrophic Security Future, brings together a panel of security professionals for the first time to analyze the security implications of two future warming scenarios. It identifies major threats, including heightened social and political instability, and risks to U.S. military missions and infrastructure, as well as security institutions, at both warming scenarios and across all regions of the world. Key findings include:

A near-term scenario of climate change, in which the world warms 1-2°C/1.8-3.6°F over pre-industrial levels by mid-century, would pose ‘High’ to ‘Very High’ security threats. A medium-to-long term scenario in which the world warms as high as 2-4+°C/3.6-7.2°F would pose a ‘Very High’ to ‘Catastrophic’ threat to global and national security. The world has already warmed to slightly below 1°C compared to pre-industrial temperatures.

At all levels of warming (1-4+°C/1.8-7.2+°F), climate change will pose significant and evolving threats to global security environments, infrastructure, and institutions.

While at lower warming thresholds, the most fragile parts of the world are the most at risk, all regions of the world will face serious implications. High warming scenarios could bring about catastrophic security impacts across the globe.

These threats could come about rapidly, destabilizing the regions and relationships on which U.S. and international security depend.

Climate change will present significant threats to U.S. military missions across all of its geographic areas of responsibility (AORs), as well as to regional security institutions and infrastructure that are critical for maintaining global security.

Mitigating these risks requires quickly reducing and phasing out global greenhouse gas emissions, and the panel therefore calls for the world to achieve net-zero global emissions as soon as possible in a manner that is ambitious, safe, equitable, and well-governed, in order to avoid severe and catastrophic security futures.

The CCS report says the world must also “climate-proof” environments, infrastructure, institutions, and systems on which human security depends. To do so, the panel recommends rapidly building resilience to current and expected impacts of climate change, with future-oriented investments in adaptation, disaster response, and peacebuilding

In the United States, the panel wants to see renewed efforts to prioritize, communicate, and respond to climate security threats, and to integrate these considerations across all security planning.

“It’s the job of the U.S. intelligence community to anticipate risks to national security, and provide strategic warning to appropriate policymakers,” said Dr. Rod Schoonover, Advisory Board Member, CCS; Founder and CEO, Ecological Futures Group; Former Senior Analyst and Senior Scientist, Bureau of Intelligence and Research, U.S. Department of State and Former Director of Environment and Natural Resources at the National Intelligence Council. “The science has long been clear, and the security community is adding compelling analysis of the threats climate change pose to people and nations. It’s long past time for vigorous action to address them.”

John Conger, Director, CCS; Former Principal Deputy Under Secretary of Defense, spoke of the work done and yet to be done. “During my time at the Department of Defense, I saw the U.S. military take the threats posed by climate change seriously, in both its planning and operations. But there is so much more to be done. If we don’t come together to mitigate this threat, soon, American interests and security are on the line.”  

And Christine Parthemore, CEO of the Council on Strategic Risks summarized the situation perfectly. “We don’t always have the benefit of seeing clearly the security challenges that are coming our way. As this report shows, we know that the global risks of climate change will be serious—possibly catastrophic. We have a responsibility to act with urgency to address these threats.”

The CCS report is potentially a game-changing document that could have a significant positive impact. This isn’t the first comprehensive report released by a non-partisan institution that sounds the alarm on the climate crisis. What makes this one special is its focus on the security risks emerging from a rapidly warming planet.

The report outlines many possible risks for every region of the world, each facing a different set of often extreme security challenges. While contemplating the global climate decades into the future might be hard to grasp, the security threats resulting from the warming climate are concrete and far easier to visualize. For example, hearing that there will be “.52-.98m of sea-level rise by the end of the century” is one thing, but learning that “the climate’s effects on nuclear infrastructure could have lasting consequences for world health and security provokes a visceral reaction. That’s normal, we all understand that some threats are just too dangerous to ignore. We may flee from a flood or hide from a storm, but we can’t escape ionizing radiation. When it comes to the safety and security of our loved ones we all share the same goals.

Nobody wants to live in a world where many nuclear power-plants and nuclear waste sites are going to be threatened during their lifetime. The fact that these warnings don’t come from an environmental organization, but from a national securitymilitary and intelligence panel contributes to the depoliticization of the conversation surrounding climate science.

The security community understands that conveying our collective understanding of this issue to the largest number of people is an essential step towards any type of successful individual or political solutions to these crises.

Even the short term scenario of 1.8-3.6°F of global average warming until 2050 involves serious security risks for every continent. The warming expected in the second half of the century will likely result in catastrophic levels of security threats, described as potentially unmanageable”.

The report states all regions will be exposed to potentially catastrophic levels of climate security threats, the consequences of which could lead to a breakdown of security and civilian infrastructure, economic and resource stability, and political institutions at a large scaleThe security threats described are alarming, and in some cases, already unavoidable. And while each of these security threats is severe enough, the real trouble comes at the intersection of multiple crises fueled by the disruption of the climate. For example, an economy weakened by infrastructure damage and crop failures will have a hard time dealing with a migration crisis, political instability, a pandemic, or territorial disputes for dwindling resources.

Despite the worrisome prognosis, the CCS is sending a message of hope, which can be summarized in a single word: urgency. The authors of the report make it abundantly clear that implementing climate solutions as fast as possible is absolutely essential and that mitigating these risks requires quickly reducing and phasing out global greenhouse gas emissions“.

We find ourselves in a position where we can’t avoid all the negative consequences, but we can greatly reduce the risks that we’re going to be facing further down the road. There are huge differences in the severity level of the security threats we are going to be facing depending on the amount of warming. Half a degree difference in average global temperature may sound insignificant, but in reality, it will likely result in the life or death of millions. The challenge remains colossal since the report points out that even if we would fulfil the current pledges of the Paris Climate Agreement, we would still see up to 5°F increase by the end of the century. It’s hard to sugarcoat this information especially considering how bumpy the implementation of the Paris Accord has been so far. How could we ever go beyond these pledges? What should we do concretely?

The authors chose to not recommend a solution: “as there are numerous policy options for doing so, we refrain from recommending a single course of action”. Instead they provide a framework based on four values that give us a good general idea of the way they believe this crisis should be handled: “We call for the world to achieve net-zero global emissions in a manner that is ambitious, safe, equitable, and well-governed.”

There are different possible solutions and debate is needed globally on the course of action, but ignoring this crisis is clearly not an option anymore. The report outlines two main types of strategies aimed at reducing the security risks presented by climate change that need to be implemented in parallel: reduction and adaptation. Adaptation alone can’t solve our problems, if we allow our emissions to skyrocket we are inevitably going to create a world that is too unstable for modern human civilization. But at the same time, we can’t ignore adaptation and focus exclusively on the mitigation of further warming. If we are unprepared to deal with the security threats that we are already experiencing, the damage and the disruption will destabilize our nations and institutions, slowing down or preventing any mitigation efforts.

Protecting and moving sensitive civilian and military infrastructure from endangered coastal areas is an example of the adaptation strategies that could be put in place. Unlike most security issues where the sources of a threat are clear and there is a relatively small set of solutions that can be applied to resolve it, in the case of climate change there is no silver bullet.

The good news is that every solution focused on mitigating further warming is simultaneously contributing to the alleviation of numerous security risks on every continent. Mitigation also reduces the likelihood of the implementation of unsafe, untested geoengineering technologies, the security risks associated with which are underlined in the report.

The warming of the planet is directly related to our energy, agriculture and transportation sectors. Changing these will require a rapid restructuring of the biggest parts of all of the world’s economies, which would, in turn, require the implementation of countless treaties and regulations throughout the world, the shift of consumer habits and production patterns towards sustainability, as well as massive changes to energy production, consumption and much more. We can’t go back in time and undo the damage, but we can feel the need to act urgently and do whatever we can, individually and collectively, to prepare for the future.

Read the full report at the Center for Climate and Security

This story was updated on March 18 to include analysis from HSToday’s new climate change specialist, Aleks Evtimov.

author avatar
Aleks Evtimov
Aleks Evtimov is a freelancer blogger and social media manager. In 2013 he decided to put his legal background and tech skills at the service of the environment. He manages English and French online communities and blogs focused on disseminating information about the various facets of the ongoing ecological crises. He writes primarily on the subjects of deforestation, climate change and international environmental law.
Aleks Evtimov
Aleks Evtimov
Aleks Evtimov is a freelancer blogger and social media manager. In 2013 he decided to put his legal background and tech skills at the service of the environment. He manages English and French online communities and blogs focused on disseminating information about the various facets of the ongoing ecological crises. He writes primarily on the subjects of deforestation, climate change and international environmental law.

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