Climate Change is a Direct Threat to Security, not Merely a “Threat Multiplier”

The Leaders of the Pacific Small Island Developing States (PSIDS) have issued a statement calling for the UN to take action on climate change as a security matter.

Following a recent Climate Action Partnership event in Suva, Fiji, the PSIDS Leaders have asked UN Secretary-General António Guterres to appoint a Special Representative on Climate Change and Security.

The PSIDS Leaders also called for the UN Security Council to have climate change and security as a permanent agenda item.

This is long overdue.

marshall_islands_flooding - cropped

Marshall Islands resident is surrounded by a high tide energised by a storm surge that damaged a number of homes across Majuro, the capital city, on 3 March 2015. [Source: Al Jazeera]

Rather than simply describing the security implications of climate change simply as a “threat”, it is generally referred to as a “threat multiplier“.[1]

Although the UN and the Security Council can look at “any questions relating to…security”, the dampening effect of the qualifying term, multiplier, is problematic.

The rationale is that “the risk emanates not from climate change per se, but from how climate change interacts with other environmental, economic, social and political factors”.[2]

It has already been shown that climate change has exacerbated pre-existing problems in certain conflict situations.[3] For such reasons, the Security Council President has said that the “possible adverse effects of climate change may, in the long run, aggravate certain existing threats to international peace and security”.[4]

There are two problems with this assessment.

First, risks to human security do not arise solely from conflict, but also from other dangers, including pandemics and environmental degradation.

Secondly, the Security Council President is wrong in their use of qualifiers – “possible”, “may”, and “in the long run” – in the general sense in which they are stated. There are and will be adverse effects, now and in the short- and long-term, and they will aggravate many existing threats to human security and will create new threats.

The reality is that, if there are no security risks arising from political, economic or other factors, then climate change is the threat per se.

Similarly, if there are suboptimal conditions that would be stable or improving except for climate change, then it is again a threat per se.

The low-lying States are the paradigmatic exemplar of climate change as a direct threat to security, not merely a threat multiplier.

Although the low-lying States are all developing States with other domestic challenges, those challenges are not existential threats, unlike the physical, environmental changes being wrought by climate change. It is too simplistic to suggest that climate change only exacerbates existing issues when the unprecedented phenomenon creates unprecedented threats to humans and human systems, and to essential natural systems.

Thus, for low-lying States and their nations, climate change is a direct threat to human security per se; not merely a threat multiplier. Their issues should not be clouded by looking at climate change as a generalised phenomenon, or by limiting the issue to conflict-related security situations.

The calls by the Leaders of the PSIDS are right, and the Secretary-General and Security Council should respond accordingly.


[1] Climate change and its possible security implications; Report of the Secretary-General A/74/350 (2009); Michael B Gerrard The Role of Climate Change as a Threat Multiplier for Global Security (Security Council Open Arria Formula Meeting, 30 June 2015); and Briefing Book for a New Administration: Recommended Policies and Practices for Addressing the Security Risks of a Changing Climate (The Climate and Security Advisory Group, Washington DC, 14 September 2016).

[2] Caitlin E Werrell and Francesco Femia Climate Change as Threat Multiplier: Understanding the Broader Nature of the Risk (The Center for Climate & Security, Briefer no. 25, 12 February 2015) at 2.

[3] Carl-Friedrich Schleussner and others “Armed-conflict risks enhanced by climate-related disasters in ethnically fractionalized countries” (2016) 113(33) PNAS 9216; and Peter H Gleick “Water, Drought, Climate Change, and Conflict in Syria” (2014) 6 Weather, Climate and Security 331.

[4] Statement by the President of the Security Council S/PRST/2011/15* (2011).