On climate and security

Eman Ragab , Monday 7 Nov 2022

Eman Ragab considers the connection between two vital topics

climate change
climate change


The relationship between climate change and security has garnered increasing attention in political circles around the world. From an analysis of the relevant discussions, it appears that there are two basic points of view there. 

One holds that the adverse effects of climate change directly affect conventional security, especially in developing countries due to their prevailing socioeconomic conditions. Accordingly, climate change should be considered a security issue. 

The other view holds that climate change is an exclusively environmental issue and has no bearing on security policy. To add a security dimension to climate change will do nothing to achieve more security.

The debate foregrounds conflicting paths to climate action. Discussions in the UN, for example, favour treating the subject as a predominantly environmental issue, and so UN efforts tend to focus on the technical aspects of reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Attempts by those developing nations that are most vulnerable to the impact of climate change to push the UN to develop international frameworks to address the security-related impacts of climate change have met with little success. 

One such attempt was the draft resolution that Ireland and Nigeria sponsored on 13 December 2021, calling for climate change to be recognised as a threat to international peace and security. The resolution failed to gain support at the Security Council. Russia, China and India opposed it on the grounds that there was no direct relation between climate change and security threats and that, therefore, there was no justification for including it among the Security Council’s concerns. They said climate change was better left to other frameworks in which all UN members would have input, in contrast to the Security Council where decision-making is exclusive to permanent members. 

Russia further argued that to rank climate change as a threat to international peace and security would divert attention from the root causes of ongoing conflict and the main issues that need to be addressed to resolve them. It also held that instability in many countries stems from factors that have nothing to do with climate change. 

Yet the fact remains that, while UN frameworks remain focused on technical aspects of climate mitigation, developing nations and African nations above all face grave security challenges as a consequence of climate change. Factual evidence supports the claim that climate change affects these countries’ security both directly and indirectly. Testifying to the former are armed conflicts over resources that are dwindling due to climate change, such as water, energy and land suited to agriculture or grazing. Indirectly, the adverse effects of climate change act as a multiplier. They aggravate social, economic and political conditions conducive to environments that weaken a country’s national security immune system. 

To take an example, the Lake Chad Basin has suffered years of desertification due to a 90 per cent decrease in the lake’s water level. This phenomenon has devastated agriculture, fishing and other sources of livelihood for the peoples living in the basin, in Niger, Chad, Nigeria and Cameroon. While the governments of these countries were unable to provide alternative sources of livelihood, Boko Haram filled the gap, increasing its ability to recruit new members. In 2017, this realisation induced the UN Security Council to recognise the role of climate change in instability in the Lake Chad region. 

This acknowledgement is still a long way from accepting the general truth that climate change affects security, however. As long as the gap persists between the UN’s approach and the realities experienced by developing nations, these governments will need to develop their outlooks on the impacts of climate change on national security using the available scientific work that demonstrates how climate change affects citizens in concrete and quantifiable ways and on prevailing perceptions regarding the effects of climate change on the governments’ ability to perform their functions in national defence, providing public services, promoting sustainable development and conducting foreign relations.

* The writer is head of the Security Research Unit at Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies and a visiting professor of political science at Cairo University.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 3 November, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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