By Shiloh Fetzek, Research Analyst for Climate Change and Security
Last year, when asked what the biggest threat to long-term security in the Pacific was, the Commander of US Pacific Command, Admiral Samuel Locklear, gave an unexpected answer. He replied ‘climate change’, reflecting the increasingly mainstream view within the security community that climate change is a ‘threat multiplier’ for instability.
With the US expanding its presence in the Asia–Pacific, there may have been other reasons for Locklear to emphasise a threat with no national character. Irrespective, the implications of climate change for the Asia–Pacific are significant. Climate impacts will amplify existing stressors to the region's security dynamics, and will affect the strategic interests of global actors whose economic futures are tied to growth and security in the region. Climate change will bring increasingly frequent and severe natural disasters, as well as changing precipitation patterns, with consequences for food security, water stress and energy availability.
The Asia–Pacific is densely populated, with settlements and infrastructure concentrated in coastal regions. The 26-82cm of sea-level rise expected by the end of the century will amplify the impact of storm and flood disasters, which in turn could impact livelihoods and social stability. Globally, crop yields are projected to decline 2% per decade because of climate change, while demand is projected to increase. This, in combination with other market dynamics, will push prices up significantly, particularly in countries dependent on food imports. Food insecurity has an impact on public health and social stability domestically, and affects geopolitical dynamics around agricultural commodities markets.
Climate change also threatens the Asia–Pacific’s economic growth. It will increase costs associated with disaster response and post-disaster reconstruction, deplete the natural resource base that underpins economic activity, and reduce revenues from export activities. Social and political systems face increased strain as impacts on infrastructure (including infrastructure critical to international trade) as well as impacts on sustainable development (and therefore on long-term economic security) can intensify strains on social and political systems.
How these challenges interact with the drivers of instability depends on how they are managed by governance institutions and the security community. In situations where multiple stressors already exist, particularly in fragile or post-conflict states, climate impacts can exacerbate trends toward humanitarian crises, state failure and internal conflict.
There has been some resistance to framing climate change as a security issue from countries including China and India, particularly on the occasions of it being raised in the UN Security Council. However, geophysical changes on the scale and at the pace projected by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change will involve the security community via the increased demand for Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Response operations. This has already been seen in the aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan, an extreme-weather event consistent with climate projections for the Asia–Pacific.
Climate scientists also warn that beyond 2°C of warming, their ability to project future impacts declines, in large part because the current man-made changes are unprecedented in their speed and magnitude. In order to have a reasonable (66%) chance of staying below this 2°C threshold – which governments somewhat arbitrarily define as 'dangerous' climate change – emissions would need to peak before 2020 with dramatic year-on-year reductions thereafter. Warming beyond this threshold would create conditions unprecedented in human history and lead to severe, pervasive and irreversible impacts.
According to the IPCC, climate change impacts are evident now and will accelerate in the future. A risk analysis of these changes and the responses necessary to minimise climate-driven security risks puts climate change onto the security agenda for the Asia–Pacific in the near-term as well as the long-term. The more prepared regional governments are in terms of assessing climate impacts and how these will have bearing on their operations, the stronger their position will be in terms of limiting the security consequences as climate impacts accelerate.