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Beyond a “Threat Multiplier”: Exploring Links Between Climate Change and Security

By Farah Hegazi, Elise Remling, Kyungmee Kim & Simone Bunse





Ever since the CNA’s Military Advisory Board—composed of former U.S. military personnel—named climate change as a “threat multiplier” in a 2007 report, the term has gained widespread currency both in environmental and national security circles. It also has propelled the need to assess and address climate-related security risks higher up overall policy agendas.


The idea implicit in the term “threat multiplier” is straightforward: climate change can exacerbate security threats. Yet this formulation puts the emphasis squarely on climate change, rather than exploring the complex social, economic and political conditions—as well as a variety of indirect pathways—that come into confluence to determine whether (and how) the impacts of climate change affect security.


The fifteen years since the CAN report have revealed a greater complexity to the links between climate and security. Existing local vulnerabilities must also be addressed, including social, political and economic grievances. This is particularly the case in conflict contexts that are highly exposed to climate change. It is also clear that we need to deepen our understanding of the conditions under which climate change is more (or less) likely to influence conflict dynamics.


As policymakers and analysts search for entry points to manage climate-related security risks, they must re-evaluate the concept of “threat multiplication”—and think more broadly about what “multiplying threats” actually means.


Links and Limitations: An Evolved Understanding

The CNA’s report argued that the effects of climate change add pressure on people’s existing vulnerabilities within populations, both increasing the likelihood of conflict and posing a threat to national and international security. It depicted climate change as a “hard” security problem that should be integrated into national security and defense strategies.


At the time, this strong message about climate change as a “threat multiplier” served two important purposes. First, it anchored climate change in foreign and defense policy agendas. Second, it generated political pressure to step up climate action. Climate change was thrust more prominently into the spotlight in new venues, including the U.S. Department of Defense, the North-Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the European Union.


Yet in the years since the report was issued, both academic researchers and policymakers alike are realizing that climate change mitigation and adaptation alone are not enough to reduce climate-related security risks. This overly narrow interpretation of “threat multiplier” has had important policy implications, as well as limitations that have only become more readily apparent in recent years.


One is that the effects of climate change do not automatically multiply existing threats. How individuals, people, communities or governments respond to the impacts of climate change also influences the outcome. Actions, reactions, and inaction at different levels of governance can all be critical.


Despite nearly 50 years of recurrent drought in Kenya, for instance, conflict over shared water and other natural resources has been limited because farmers and pastoralists have drawn on their social networks and relationships to resolve disputes.


Talking about climate change as a threat multiplier also suggests that the way to reduce the security risk is by addressing climate change. While climate change mitigation is clearly needed, however, simply reducing emissions will not help avoid current and near-term security risks because of the time lag between reducing emissions and ameliorating the effects of climate change.


Indeed, climate change adaptation programs tend to focus on technological approaches to manage the impacts of climate change. This, once again, can help to reduce climate-related security risks, but is not enough.


Identifying Diverse Responses for Complex Climate-Related Security Risks

Moving beyond a narrow threat multiplier concept to include the interplay between the potential pathways connecting the effects of climate change with insecurity is essential.

A key step will be considering the role of governance beyond mitigation and adaptation. Effective responses combine climate change-appropriate economic diversification, building robust and functioning social safety nets, rooting out corruption, reducing marginalization and increasing the accountability of government. Examples gleaned from responses from Mali and the Democratic Republic of the Congo illustrate this well.

In Mali, changing rainfall patterns have affected water availability and pastureland. Yet traditional mechanisms become less effective at keeping the peace. Why? One powerful factor is that the nation’s local non-religious leaders traditionally enforced social norms and natural resource management arrangements— and also were responsible for resolving disputes. Yet these norms have changed as young people—empowered through their involvement with non-state armed groups—have increasingly usurped this role.


Reducing insecurity in this context clearly goes beyond adapting to and mitigating the effects of climate change on Mali’s rainfall. It also may involve restoring the role of traditional leaders in managing natural resources and resolving conflict. Such a move would also mean addressing the reasons why young people join armed groups— which extend well beyond the negative impacts of climate change on their livelihoods.

North Kivu in the Democratic Republic of the Congo offers another case study in complexity, with communities that suffer from food insecurity for a number of reasons. The region’s land is both not easily accessible and limited in its productivity, and existing insecurity makes its markets dysfunctional. These factors, in combination with changes to rainfall patterns linked to climate change, have placed more pressure on already strained relationships between communities there.


In such a scenario, a multidimensional approach that extends beyond simply addressing climate change is required. The steps might include making access to land and business advice more equitable, decreasing conflict between communities, and improving socioeconomic conditions as well as food security. Only these measures, taken in concert, offer the best prospect of improving resilience in North Kivu.


Writer Audre Lorde once stated that “there is no such thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives.” These words point to a truth about the current state of play in navigating the relationship between climate change and national security.

Expanding our understanding of climate security reveals multiple—and much-needed—entry points for addressing vulnerabilities, grievances, sources of fragility and political instability. Addressing the complex interaction between climate change and insecurity requires a multidimensional approach that offers the surest means to decrease the likelihood of climate change contributing to insecurity.


Farah Hegazi is a Researcher in SIPRI’s Climate Change and Risk Programme. Her research focuses on how international organizations respond to climate-related security risks, and how interventions to address the effects of climate change can be used to build peace.  Elise Remling is an Associate Researcher with SIPRI’s Climate Change and Risk Programme. Her work focuses on how climate and environmental change impact on human security, and on how international organizations are thinking about and responding to climate-related security risks. Kyungmee Kim is a Researcher in SIPRI’s Climate Change and Risk Programme. Her work focuses on climate change and conflict, and environmental peacebuilding.  Simone Bunse is a Content Manager for the Stockholm Forum on Peace and Development and Researcher at SIPRI. Her work focuses on EU institutions and policymaking. Sources: CNA; SIPRI; World Development; Journal of Conflict Resolution; Mercy Corps; Black Past Photo Credit: A group of women pump water in a drought-hit area of Ethiopia, courtesy of Flickr user UNICEF Ethiopia/2021/Demissew Bizuwerk


This post first appeared on New Security Beat.

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