Climate Change: A national security threat multiplier

The author examines how climate change’s adverse interaction with insurgencies, critical infrastructure and public health could potentially create or exacerbate national security threats.

Environmental risks arising from climate change are now considered to be powerful threat multipliers. The World Economic Forum’s Global Risk Report 2020 identifies five of the top ten global risks as being of an environmental nature, owing to the confluence of climate change and ecological degradation. Recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports point to extensive impacts of climate change despite prevailing mitigation efforts, particularly for countries like India.

Even if one considers the IPCC’s middle ground predictions for temperature and rainfall variations, India will be highly vulnerable to droughts, heat stress, sea level rises, and extreme weather events including cyclones, floods etc. Furthermore, factors such as the enormous population size, socio-economic inequality, extreme poverty, agricultural dependency and high density of population along coastal areas would compound physical threats. What then would the domino effect of climate change on national security be, particularly arising from potential interactions with: a) insurgencies; b) critical infrastructure, especially nuclear installations; and c) public health? As these three domains are relevant to traditional security, infrastructure, and overall human security, they are useful case studies to gain insights on the multifaceted security implications that climate change could pose.

Environmental stress has the potential to exacerbate ongoing insurgencies. Northeast India and areas in Central India affected by left wing extremism (LWE) are ecologically sensitive regions experiencing protracted insurgencies. Climatic stress combined with weak state capacity leads to deterioration in people’s livelihoods. For example, water stress and land degradation in dry land agrarian regions impacts small farmers in central India. Armed groups tactically exploit this situation for recruitment to their cadres and to exert and maintain local control, as was seen in the case of LWE actors in Central India. Meanwhile, Northeast India’s vulnerability to extreme weather events and natural disasters such as cloudbursts, floods etc could result in livelihood stress, displacement etc—all of which are phenomena the multiple ongoing insurgencies in the region could potentially exploit to their benefit.

International instances where the climate change-insurgency link has been identified include the case of Boko Haram. Climate change around Lake Chad leading to water scarcity and land degradation was a factor that contributed to local support for and recruitment to Boko Haram. Studies have also shown how increased aridity and droughts in Syria resulted in large-scale rural to urban migration and contributed to socio-economic conditions becoming conducive for domestic instability. This in turn culminated in a civil war with devastating effects. Additionally, climate change induced natural disasters could also exacerbate organised crime, whose relationship with insurgencies are well established. To accurately understand and predict potential future trajectories of insurgencies in India, climate change must be factored in.

Critical Infrastructure
Critical infrastructure such as nuclear installations along the coasts, ports, defense establishments, the national electricity grid etc are all vulnerable to impacts of climatic stress. For example, India’s nuclear facilities located along coasts are specifically vulnerable to storm surges, cyclones and sea level rises. The 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster was caused by a tsunami and provides a glimpse into challenges that nuclear facilities might face in the future. Furthermore, recent climate change models show that previous predictions underestimated the scale of climate change impact, especially regarding sea level rises and extreme weather events. Structural and functional safety standards as well as contingency plans created a decade ago might be inadequate to deal with the fast-changing physical environment of today and tomorrow. Moreover, given how nuclear installations are time-intensive projects with long life cycles, long term climate change threats must be factored in during planning.

Public Health
IPCC reports have predicted the spread and intensification of vector-borne diseases such as malaria, dengue, and chikungunya due to global warming. There is also a possibility of increase in new zoonotic diseases due to increased human-wildlife interaction arising from natural habitat loss. Epidemic induced public health crises could easily become a national security issue. Given the high population density and limited public health management capacity, pandemics and large-scale epidemics can be catastrophic for India. Diversion of physical assets and human resources from the security apparatus may be required to manage all-out medical/health crises. Military, paramilitary and other security personnel will be needed to assist civilian administration in logistics and emergency response. This will create vulnerabilities in standard areas of national security like border security, domestic law and order, industrial security, counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency operations etc. Vulnerabilities of this nature are susceptible to exploitation by adversarial state and non-state actors alike. Perception wars during such crises cannot be ruled out either. There is a risk of adversarial state and non-state actors using disinformation to intensify panic and/or discontent arising from any public health crisis, leading to potential internal instability as well as legitimacy challenges for the state.

Security implications arising from environmental risks are wide-ranging and multi-layered. Potential consequences of climate change’s adverse interaction with insurgencies, critical infrastructure and public health highlight the range of threats climate change could pose across diverse security domains. India must urgently recognise climate change’s potential for creating or exacerbating national security threats and invest in enhancing preparedness in a timely manner.


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