Extreme weather events during this past summer — the hottest ever recorded — have highlighted the immediate danger of climate change to not only individuals, but also global security.
As fossil fuel emissions continue to increase (carbon emissions are on course for another record high), we will have to navigate a world of more severe extremes and their deadly impacts. Record high temperatures across the globe this summer were a case in point, with nearly half the world’s population facing at least 30 days of extreme heat. Heatwaves in turn fueled unprecedented wildfire seasons, such as the ongoing Canadian blazes that have burned 16.5 million hectares, displaced tens of thousands of Indigenous residents, and spread unhealthy air quality across North America. Maui’s wildfires were the deadliest the United States has seen in over a century, exceeding deaths in the United States from terrorism in any year following the 9/11 attacks. Southern Europe has been battling widespread forest fires as well, with Greece experiencing the largest wildfire on record in the European Union. Across the Mediterranean, devastating flooding in Libya has resulted in over 5,000 casualties.
Not only do these hazards threaten safety, health, and economy, they also threaten security, as demonstrated in our recently-published studies of climate change and security in Turkey, Iran, and elsewhere. Our analysis of Turkey’s climate threats finds that most of the country will face high wildfire danger by 2040, including areas near major cities and military facilities. This risk is already apparent; in August, fires in Turkey closed the Dardanelles Strait. The country will also experience diminishing water resources, which risk threatening major hydropower projects, stoking ethnic tensions, and fueling disputes with downstream countries over the shared Tigris and Euphrates rivers.
Meanwhile, Iran experienced scorching temperatures soaring to a heat index of 160°F, far exceeding the threshold for extremely dangerous by 30°F and prompting a two-day national shutdown amid fear of protests. Our research demonstrates that Iran’s combination of climate change, resource mismanagement, and international isolation also threatens food and water security. Together, these factors are decimating agricultural livelihoods and exacerbating water shortages – fueling repression of environmental protests in rural and minority regions and generating tensions with Turkey, Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Gulf States over dam building on shared rivers, regional dust storms, and pollution of maritime ecosystems.
This climate security analysis builds on previous work highlighting these and other risks affecting nuclear-armed powers in the Arctic, the China-India border region, and North Korea. In the Arctic, wildfires and thawing permafrost threaten critical infrastructure, U.S. missile defense capabilities, and Indigenous communities. Meanwhile, shrinking sea ice has provoked militarization and competition between Russia and the United States over potential shipping routes and natural resources. As the militaries of nuclear rivals China and India face off on their border, climate change is likely to exacerbate tensions over shared rivers and open patrol routes that bring troops into closer contact. And extreme flooding worsened by climate change could further inflame North Korea’s current food insecurity.
More needs to be done to anticipate — and prevent — these risks. The Biden administration has certainly made progress in highlighting global climate resilience as a national security and military imperative, issuing intelligence assessments, national security reports, and defense documents. Climate change rightly appears in the U.S. National Security Strategy, National Defense Strategy, and regional priorities.
Nevertheless, integrating these risks into mainstream policymaking remains a work in progress, especially in seemingly stable middle-income countries. U.S. officials also need to account for how climate change is altering the physical and political environments in key countries like China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea — ranging from extreme weather impacts on military plans, to social and geopolitical transformations. To keep itself and the world safe from climate change, the United States needs to not just reduce emissions, but also invest in financial and technical assistance to support stability in fragile states, mainstream climate risk across foreign policy making, adapt the military, and support a more flexible global migration system.
But the difficult work of resourcing, implementing, and sustaining such action continues to lag amid domestic politicization and shortsighted tradeoffs. Even the Democrat-controlled Congress in 2022 failed to fund Biden’s pledge of providing $11.4 billion annually for climate vulnerable nations by 2024, undermining international security and eroding U.S. credibility. Now under Republican leadership, the House has signaled even greater hostility to climate security investments by proposing cutting $715 million in Department of Defense climate programs that strengthen U.S. capabilities, seeking elimination of important international climate resilience programs, and incorrectly claiming that climate aid detracts from — rather than supports — competition with China.
Such blind spots make the United States and the world less safe, and stall efforts to bolster global climate resilience. If inaction persists, Washington can expect to face growing instability and humanitarian crisis abroad, an increasingly strained and outdated military, and a loss of influence to China. As work evaluating U.S. government progress on climate security has shown, U.S. leadership on climate and security must be matched with resources to reduce fragility abroad, climate-proof U.S. security capabilities, and mainstream climate considerations across key foreign policy agencies. U.S. policymakers should recognize the critical security risks climate change poses, and make commensurate development, defense, diplomatic, and intelligence investments to anticipate and mitigate them.