Just before COP26, a handful of new US reports all warn about the security risks of the climate crisis.

While President Biden's climate agenda is facing extreme weather in Congress, he can at least show in Glasgow that his administration is aware of the risks of climate change.

The intensifying effects of climate change will worsen geopolitical tensions; key countries and regions will face increasing risks of instability and need for humanitarian assistance, particularly after 2030. This is one of the conclusions of a new US national intelligence report that the US government presented on Thursday, one of four publications on the impact of climate change on security that were all delivered on the same day.

When the relationship between climate change and security was discussed for the first time in the UN Security Council in 2007, many delegations found it still difficult to imagine that such a fringe issue would move center stage on the international security agenda within 15 years. The main point of discussion was not this relationship, but whether they should even discuss this issue in the Security Council. 

I remember the same lack of interest amongst many delegations to the OSCE in Vienna, where I was posted in the same year, and the initial lukewarm reactions when I tried to put the issue higher on the international agenda around 2014.

Four reports

But just before the start of COP26 in Glasgow, four reports were presented in one day by the Homeland Security and Defense departments, the National Security Council, and the director of national intelligence. And although the US has already, since the 1990s, been a leader in recognizing the security risks of climate change, it is the first time that the nation's security agencies collectively presented their assessments.

This increased attention for climate security, or planetary security, was also notable during the NATO summit in June, where leaders endorsed the NATO 2030 agenda, which recognizes climate change as one of the new and unpredictable threats it will have to deal with in an increasingly competitive world.

Three key judgments

The National Intelligence Estimate summarises three key judgments, I quote:

Key Judgment 1: Geopolitical tensions are likely to grow as countries increasingly argue about how to accelerate the reductions in net greenhouse gas emissions that will be needed to meet the Paris Agreement goals. Debate will center on who bears more responsibility to act and to pay—and how quickly—and countries will compete to control resources and dominate new technologies needed for the clean energy transition. Most countries will face difficult economic choices and probably will count on technological breakthroughs to rapidly reduce their net emissions later. China and India will play critical roles in determining the trajectory of temperature rise.

Key Judgment 2: The increasing physical effects of climate change are likely to exacerbate cross-border geopolitical flashpoints as states take steps to secure their interests. The reduction in sea ice already is amplifying strategic competition in the Arctic over access to its natural resources. Elsewhere, as temperatures rise and more extreme effects manifest, there is a growing risk of conflict over water and migration, particularly after 2030, and an increasing chance that countries will unilaterally test and deploy large-scale solar geoengineering—creating a new area of disputes.

Key Judgment 3: Scientific forecasts indicate that intensifying physical effects of climate change out to 2040 and beyond will be most acutely felt in developing countries, which we assess are also the least able to adapt to such changes. These physical effects will increase the potential for instability and possibly internal conflict in these countries, in some cases creating additional demands on US diplomatic, economic, humanitarian, and military resources. Despite geographic and financial resource advantages, the United States and partners face costly challenges that will become more difficult to manage without concerted effort to reduce emissions and cap warming.

Cascading crises

Another one of the four reports was presented by the Defense Department, and it states: "Without adaptation and resilience measures, climate hazards, particularly when combined with other stressors, are likely to contribute to political, economic, and social instability around the world. In many cases, the physical and social impacts of climate change transcend political boundaries, increasing the risk that crises cascade beyond any one country or region".

The report mentions the impact of extreme weather events, exacerbated by climate change, that have caused hardships for millions of Americans and have the long-term potential to undermine training capability and readiness. In addition, these events have cost the United States billions of dollars in damages at military bases in recent years.

Climate change is dramatically altering the natural environment in the Arctic and creating a new frontier of geostrategic competition.

And in the Indo-Pacific, sea-level rise and more extreme weather events complicate the security environment. The report warns that competitors such as China may try to take advantage of climate change impacts to gain influence.

Climate refugees

The third report is from the US Department of Homeland Security, which released its first Strategic Framework for Addressing Climate Change to govern the Department's efforts to combat the climate crisis. And the last of the four reports is a White House report on the impact of climate change on migration which is interesting for those that follow the climate refugee debate. It states that individuals citing climate change "may, in limited instances, have valid claims for refugee status" in the United States.

And if those four reports were not enough warnings for one day, there was a fifth report released on Thursday. Although the Financial Stability Oversight Council report is not about climate and security, I mention it here since it warns that climate change poses an emerging threat to the financial system. The economy's stability is often a factor to take into account when discussing security issues.

While President Biden's climate agenda is facing extreme weather in Congress, he can at least show in Glasgow that his administration is aware of the risks of climate change. Admittedly, it is a significant difference compared to the previous administration, but only recognizing that the house is on fire doesn't change anything for the outcome until the fire brigades get to work. 

Future historians

I spoke in earlier posts about historians who will look back at our decisions a hundred years from now. They will struggle to understand why the world didn't stop climate change when it was still possible. They will read the five tell-all reports released just ten days before the summit in Glasgow that was supposed to save the planet. And they will talk about a long-forgotten man named Joe Manchin, who earned in 2020 $174,000 as a US senator and made $492,000 from one of the most polluting coal power plants in the same year West Virginia. 

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