Climate Security: A Growing Military Concern that Policymakers Should Heed

Thursday, February 25, 2021

Climate change is not news in Asia: Storms, floods, heat and wildfires regularly dominate headlines. Less appreciated, however, is how climate affects national and regional security – and the need for defense, foreign affairs and energy policymakers to unite with coordinated, systemic responses to prevent the worst outcomes. The authors of two reports on climate security challenges in South Asia and Southeast Asia by the Expert Group of the International Military Council on Climate and Security in Washington, DC, highlight their key findings.

Climate Security: A Growing Military Concern that Policymakers Should Heed

Abandoned vessels on the South China Sea: Vietnam and the Philippines have called out China for using seafaring militias to attack fishing boats that Beijing claims are violating its territory (Credit: Trey Ratcliff)

Asia’s security challenges are broad and diverse. Socio-economic inequities, resource scarcity, instability and national rivalries bedevil governments, particularly in lower and middle-income countries that are striving to provide basic services. The Covid-19 pandemic has undermined many of these efforts over the past year. As climate change accelerates, its role as a threat multiplier is clear and will increasingly strain and complicate governance and security challenges. Two recent reports on South Asia and Southeast Asia by the Expert Group of the International Military Council on Climate and Security make clear that urgent action is required to curb carbon emissions and prevent escalation of climate-induced security risks.

The intersection of climate and security encompasses a wide spectrum of risks – the detrimental effects of global warming on every level of national and international security. Within state boundaries, extreme weather and long-term climate stress can affect the fundamental infrastructure and services upon which societies depend. This in turn may undermine livelihoods, forcibly displace large numbers of people, increase grievances with governments, fray the social compact, spark intercommunal tensions, and amplify the drivers of the region’s serious security threats.

Inter-state relations may suffer when extreme weather coincides with conflict over shared resources such as water or fish, actions by extremist or separatist groups to recruit popular support, or entrenched rivalries between nuclear-armed states. These converging risks have implications for national security, foreign policy, energy investment and the transition to a low-carbon economy.

Climate security and the military dimension

By altering the security environment in significant ways, climate change also poses challenges for militaries. Extreme weather can hamper operational readiness by damaging military ports, airports, infrastructure and equipment. It can also impair the physical ability of soldiers, sailors and air-service members to perform their duties. In the past two decades, climate change has redirected Asian military resources and expanded military operations – most notably, through the creation of cadres to deal with a growing number of humanitarian assistance and disaster response missions. India’s National Disaster Response Force and Japan’s Disaster Relief Teams are two examples of the institutionalization of military capacity to rescue at-risk populations, provide recovery services, and support resilience efforts.

South Asia and Southeast Asia: Variable but connected climate security threats

South and Southeast Asia each face a variable mix of climate security threats, which interact with and exacerbate one another in a multitude of ways. South Asia’s extreme urban density and poverty levels render many population centers highly vulnerable to the first-order impact of storms, floods and heatwaves. Southeast Asia’s geography, newer asset base and growing economies may weather storms more robustly, but a lack of basic soft and hard defenses makes investment in infrastructure a societal and security choice. Both regions face energy decisions which will shape their future and the world’s.   

Climate impact and vulnerabilities in South Asia 

The overlay of climate hotspots on top of existing security flashpoints in South Asia creates climate security risks of unique concern. These risks are both mappable and addressable, however.

Climate insecurity: Workers at Lake Thorthormi in Bhutan taking measures to reduce the risk of floods from melting ice glaciers (Credit: United Nations Development Programme)

Climate insecurity: Workers at Lake Thorthormi in Bhutan taking measures to reduce the risk of floods from melting ice glaciers (Credit: United Nations Development Programme)

Overpopulation, inadequate infrastructure, and a history of ethnic and religious tensions pose an endemic governance challenge in the region’s densely populated coastal megacities. Add to this fractious and sometimes fragile environment extreme weather exacerbated by a changing climate. The International Water Management Institute expects more intense cyclones in the Indian Ocean, extreme rainfall along western coastlines, and flooding along the subcontinent’s rivers. Coastal metropolises including Kolkata, Mumbai, Chennai and Karachi are at severe risk from rising sea levels, storms and storm surges. Whether the effects of climate change boil over into tension and violence depends on the relationships between the vulnerable communities and the governments upon which they rely for support and assistance.

Another category of concern is inland areas plagued by heat – particularly in India. An estimated 118 billion hours of work were lost in 2019 due to extreme temperatures. The forecast is grim: A recent McKinsey report projects that by 2050, normal outdoor activity will be untenable in India during 30 percent of working hours annually. Such extremes will likely contribute to internal displacement and migration, which could further tax overcrowded cities and add fuel to inter-ethnic tensions.

Projections of the number of South Asians forced to migrate within their countries because of climate range from 34 million to 63 million by 2050. While migration can be a positive adaptation strategy, it can also create new challenges. For example, in India, state boundaries typically coincide with linguistic and cultural attributes, and the influx of migrants from one state may not be welcomed by some residents of the receiving states. Perceptions of competition for jobs and space, as well as fear mongering by ethno-nationalist political forces, can exacerbate tensions and challenge state institutions – a growing concern with the anticipated harsher impact of climate change.

Also of concern is the prospect of internal separatist and extremist groups taking advantage of more frequent and intense natural disasters to bolster their positions. Consider the Taliban in Pakistan, which used the 2010 floods as a reprieve from fighting the Pakistan army. The group took advantage of the disaster, which displaced 200 million people and killed 2,000 to position itself as a provider of life-saving aid, while at the same time demanding that the government reject foreign assistance and ultimately killing three foreign aid workers.

As concerning as the internal challenges is the potential for climate change to exacerbate existing geopolitical tensions between India and its rivals, Pakistan and China, all of which are nuclear capable. India and Pakistan have long faced off over the contested Kashmir region. The territory has been the site of sporadic fighting and terrorist acts for years, some of it focused on water and power – both in short, often irregular supply. Climate-induced demand for clean energy has spurred dam construction on multiple shared rivers. Such dams, along with changing precipitation and glacial melt, could affect river flow, further magnifying the conflict.

Regional risk profile: Water stress in South Asia (Credit: Aqueduct Water Risk Atlas, World Resources Institute, 2020)

The best – and only – governance mechanism available is the World Bank-brokered Indus Water Treaty, which provides for inter-state data-sharing and management of critical water resources. It partitions the six rivers in the shared basin, limiting water retained by India as the upstream actor. Yet concerns and opportunities for misunderstanding persist. Pakistan worries that India will manipulate dam storage levels to amplify downstream floods, harming the Pakistani population and economy. India worries that Pakistan will cite climate-enhanced floods to accuse India falsely of manipulating upstream flows and to justify aiding Islamist militants in attacking Indian dam projects. As is the case in many fragile security situations, perception can be as powerful as reality.

The India-China rivalry has multi-dimensional geopolitical roots, and, as with relations between India and Pakistan, shared water resources are a potential security flashpoint. Three major rivers – the Indus, Sutlej and Brahmaputra – originate in Tibet and flow through India. Four Chinese-built dams are operating or in the process of being built on these rivers. The affected area includes the Line of Actual Control, which separates territory controlled by China from that held by India. One important shared waterway, the Brahmaputra River (called the Yarlung Tsangpo in China), floods Indian terrain regularly, largely because of monsoon patterns. Disasters followed by military-aided disaster response are perennial events.

The November 2020 announcement by China of a super-sized hydropower project on the Yarlung Tsangpo just north of the Indian border stirred protests from India over potential water manipulation. In fact, the project could actually benefit both countries if thoughtfully constructed. Again, perception is a powerful force in this delicate national-security context.

Climate impact and vulnerabilities in Southeast Asia

In Southeast Asia, territorial and resource conflicts also abound – most notably in the South China Sea. Competing territorial claims, dwindling fish stocks, sub-sea minerals and the militarization of contested marine features are sources of tension and expressions of strategic competition – all affected by climate change. China is solidifying its claims to control waters within territory legally defined as international waters. Beijing is building military assets (airstrips, port facilities and long-range sensor arrays) on contested islets, shoals and other geological features that might otherwise be submerged as sea levels rise, using this expanded base of operations to project control over maritime zones.

Fish stocks depleted by climate change and over-fishing are another focus for Chinese military operations. Vietnam and the Philippines have called out China for using armed vessels to attack fishing boats that Beijing claims are violating its territory. In September 2020, the China Coast Guard reported the eviction of more than 1,100 fishing boats from the northern South China Sea. To assert its territorial claims, China has armed a seafaring militia that works alongside its navy and coast guard. The US Department of Defense calls this the People's Armed Forces Maritime Militia (PAFMM) and sees these tactics as strengthening the case for asserting the rule of international law on maritime boundaries in the region.

New power capacity in India by energy source: The share of fossil fuel (mainly coal) had fallen as renewables surged but has recently rebounded (Credit: Saurabh, “Coal Makes A Comeback In India, New Capacity Up 73% In 2019”, Cleantechnica, Jan. 20, 2020)

Massive sub-sea oil and gas reserves are another source of aggressive positioning. The US Energy Information Agency (EIA) estimates that there are about 11 billion barrels of oil and 190 trillion cubic feet of natural gas in proven and probable reserves in the South China Sea. Some Chinese projections are even higher. The US government reckons the value of these reserves at US$2.5 trillion.

The assertion of claims to this sub-sea resource trove has become a high-stakes competition between ASEAN states and China. Indeed, Chinese action to halt Malaysian, Philippine and Vietnamese exploration in disputed waters, while preparing for its own such activities, has rankled the neighbors and provoked widespread condemnation. Amid these disputes in the region, the US significantly increased its patrols. As ASEAN countries consider their energy-development options, competition for sub-sea resources will remain a potential catalyst for conflict.

Violent extremist groups in Southeast Asia seek power and independence through occasional acts of violence. Examples include the Barisan Revolusi Nasional-Koordinasi and affiliated groups in Southern Thailand and the Islamic State-linked Abu Sayyaf and Maute groups and communist New People’s Army in the Philippines. When drought and other climate stressors hit poorer villages, the offer of alternative employment may be one factor driving recruitment into these groups, which can use local skill sets (such as fishermen’s ability to make explosives for blast fishing) for violent political ends.

Trans-boundary water sharing is another source of inter-state tension. For example, the Mekong River, which originates on the Tibetan Plateau in China but supports 60 million people in six countries, has been subject to a spate of dam building in the quest for renewable energy. Water dropped to its lowest level in 100 years during the summer of 2019, devastating fishing yields, upsetting crop cycles and affecting the riverine environment. A US government-funded study found 126 meters of river height “missing”, corresponding to water retained in the 11 dams built by a Chinese state-owned enterprise since 2012. The combination of climate-affected river flows and dams built for low-carbon hydropower and irrigation is a potential catalyst for conflict in Asia and indeed throughout the world.

The energy-climate security nexus in South and Southeast Asia

Energy consumption and climate change form a negative feedback loop with alarming implications for climate security in the region. Temperatures soaring above tolerable levels make air conditioning a basic necessity. Yet the International Energy Agency reports that indoor cooling is available in only 20 percent of Southeast Asian households, and at even lower levels in South Asia. Demand for airconditioning is a key contributor to a surge in the demand for energy. Coal of course is the main power source.

Unless regional governments recognize this threat and make the transition to renewable energy, the region will be trapped in a dangerous cycle of growing carbon emissions contributing to the global stock of carbon dioxide, thereby fueling ever-more-harmful climate-security threats. The choice is clear: Reducing fossil-fuel use will positively affect climate security, while neglecting to address it will exacerbate the climate-security challenges in the region for decades to come.

Recommendations and conclusions

The converging risks of energy, climate and national security require a multi-disciplinary, systematic response. Policymakers in the domains of military and security, foreign policy and energy should holistically incorporate climate security into their portfolios, with consequential shifts in priority setting and resource allocation.

Here are three top recommendations from our reports:

Security actors in the region should fully integrate climate-change projections and their cascading effects into security projections, planning, equipment acquisition and training, including regular joint exercises to improve readiness for disaster response. Climate’s threat-multiplier effect should be considered in security assessments, planning, training and joint military exercises. Regional Climate Security Watch Centers should be created to make this process more efficient by feeding data-based analyses and recommendations to regional policymakers.

Foreign policy actors and regional governments should actively enshrine common climate-security and environmental goals into regional agreements and practices. Doing so will be particularly important to introducing stability and predictability into competing claims on key river basins and the South China Sea. Corollary initiatives to build platforms for data-sharing, planning, funding and emergency response will further the goals of communication, transparency and collaboration, which are essential to preventing disputes and de-escalating crises when they occur.

Energy policy actors should incorporate the systemic costs of human security, internal security and external security into the calculus of energy policy. Net-zero carbon targets announced by China (2060), Japan and Korea (2050) helped establish expectations that other Asian countries would do the same. Doing so would curb demand for new coal power plants (many previously funded by Chinese, Japanese and Korean foreign assistance, although that may be changing), shift assistance budgets to clean energy and energy storage, mitigate investment in stranded assets, and prevent carbon emissions which are fueling climate-security threats.

Climate change jeopardizes not only social and economic wellbeing in Asia, but the region’s security as well. The converging risks of energy, climate and security necessitate systemic, multi-disciplinary strategies coordinated across traditional bureaucratic silos. Fast action is essential, particularly to curb carbon emissions and adapt to locked-in climatic changes. Thus, science-based assessments and renewable-energy transition plans are critical to keeping climate change – and climate security disasters – out of the headlines in Asia.

The two reports by the Expert Group of the International Military Council on Climate and Security are available here for Southeast Asia and here for South Asia.

Opinions expressed in articles published by AsiaGlobal Online reflect only those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of AsiaGlobal Online or the Asia Global Institute


Rachel Fleishman

Rachel Fleishman

Center for Climate and Security, Council on Strategic Risks

Based in Hong Kong, Rachel Fleishman is senior fellow for Asia-Pacific at the Center for Climate and Security, an institute of the Council on Strategic Risks in Washington, DC, and Asia-Pacific liaison at the International Military Council on Climate and Security (IMCCS).

Shiloh Fetzek

Shiloh Fetzek

Center for Climate and Security, Council on Strategic Risks

Shiloh Fetzek is senior fellow for international affairs at the Center for Climate and Security, an institute of the Council on Strategic Risks in Washington, DC, and Research Coordinator at the International Military Council on Climate and Security.

Andrea Rezzonico

Andrea Rezzonico

Council on Strategic Risks

Andrea Rezzonico is deputy to the CEO and deputy director of the Converging Risks Lab at the Council on Strategic Risks in Washington, DC.

Sarang Shidore

Sarang Shidore

Council on Strategic Risks

Sarang Shidore is a senior fellow at the Council on Strategic Risks in Washington, DC.

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