Global Heating, Climate Justice and Security

We are already in climate triage, argues Sam Adelman, and the responsibility to address global heating lies disproportionately with countries like the UK with the largest historic greenhouse gas emissions. Climate justice is the new imperative.

Global heating is now at the top of the agenda of security agencies around the world and a growing concern of the World Economic Forum. Its 2017 Global Catastrophic Risks report argued that climate change and other global security risks pose an existential threat to civilization and the Global Risks Report 2019 cites extreme weather, lack of climate action and natural disasters as three of the main problems facing the planet.

Concerns about the threat that global heating poses to global stability are not new: the US Naval War College identified it as a threat in the late 1980s around the time that NASA scientist James Hansen warned the US Congress about the looming catastrophe.  Climate change was first discussed by the UN Security Council in 2007, which took little action until 2017, after which environmental and climate-related issues have been more frequently discussed. In 2013, a senior UK military commander warned that climate breakdown poses as grave a threat to the country’s security and economic resilience as terrorism and cyber-attacks. The UK’s 2015 National Security Strategy views climatic harms as a major global risk that will make political instability, conflict and migration more likely.

In 2018, China accepted that climate change is a security threat to peace. However, Russia has remained steadfast in its opposition to the inclusion of climate in the work of the Security Council, while the current (outgoing) US administration believes that global heating is a hoax but will veto action anyway. Germany recently called for action by the Security Council to mitigate the security risks of global heating. In January 2019, more than 80 of the 193 UN member states addressed the issue apart from the US.

Global heating as indirect and direct threat to human security

Until recently, global heating was largely regarded as an indirect threat multiplier that can worsen or exacerbate other sources of instability and conflict, such as competition for natural resources and ethnic tensions, particularly in fragile developing states and conflict zones. At the top of policy concerns are food, water and energy security and climate displacement. But rising sea levels, more intense tropical storms and massive forest fires are evidence of direct and growing harms.

In 2019, the US intelligence community – including the CIA, NSA and FBI – published their annual Worldwide Threat Assessment which stated that “climate change is an urgent and growing threat to our national security, contributing to increased natural disasters, refugee flows, and conflicts over basic resources such as food and water. These impacts are already occurring, and the scope, scale, and intensity of these impacts are projected to increase over time.”

These threats are unevenly spread and disproportionately affect countries and communities least responsible for greenhouse gas emissions but most vulnerable to them, often with low adaptive capacities. This will have disproportionate effects in less developed countries with fragile political and social contexts and/or socially vulnerable and marginalized groups.

As early as 2007, the German Advisory Council on Global Change identified four potential sources of conflict: degradation of freshwater resources, food insecurity, an increasing frequency and intensity of natural disasters, and increasing or changing migration patterns.

Global heating and population displacement

Rising sea levels that threaten small island states and communities in developing delta states such as Bangladesh and Vietnam are expected to lead to between 200 million and a billion people being displaced by slow and sudden onset climate impacts, a mass migration that will dwarf the numbers crossing the Mediterranean in search of asylum and safety and overwhelming UN refugee and other relief agencies. It is estimated that up to 300 million people will be threatened by flooding at least once a year by 2050 unless carbon emissions are cut significantly and coastal defences strengthened. This threatens homes and livelihoods, and will strain resources in poor countries. Collapse of the Antarctic ice sheet could threaten as many as 640 million people by 2100.

In 2018, the World Bank estimated that global heating will displace up to 143 million people in Latin America, sub-Saharan Africa, and Southeast Asia by 2050. Of the 68.5 million people forcibly displaced in 2017, it is estimated that about one-third were displaced by sudden onset weather events such as flooding, forest fires after droughts, and intensified storms. Those who cross borders -climate refugees- are forced to move without protection under international human rights or refugee law. There is a growing backlash against climate migrants fuelled by authoritarian populists and ethno-nationalism that is likely to result in stronger restrictions on the movement of displaced communities, especially those seeking to cross borders.

Securitisation of global heating – subordination of adaptation needs

For the victims of climate breakdown – especially the poor and vulnerable in the global South who are least responsible for the problem but most at risk from climatic harms – the securitisation of global heating is likely to subordinate their adaptation needs, multiply the climatic harms they face and impede climate justice. Poorly formulated adaptation policies may have negative impacts on human security if mishandled – such as the spread of vector-borne diseases like dengue fever.

Militarising global heating will trigger national responses to a global problem that can only be solved collectively – as Covid-19 demonstrates. Growing climate threats such as rising sea levels, desertification and more intense tropical storms require a shift from disaster management to disaster preparedness rooted in internationally-funded adaptation policies responsive to local conditions. Adaptation policies should be designed to prevent conflict in places such as Darfur and Syria where global heating has led to inter-communal confrontation. Successful adaptation depends upon strengthening domestic infrastructure and the overall resilience of states, particularly in the global South, as well as the existential imperative to reduce emissions.

Climate justice – the new imperative

The 2018 report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change lays out the impacts of every small rise in temperature to the security of humans, ecosystems, economy, infrastructure and societies. The report states: “Climate-related risks to health, livelihoods, food security, water supply, human security, and economic growth are projected to increase with global warming of 1.5°C.”

Climate justice is about who owes what to whom, and why? It is an ethical and political framing designed to highlight the plight of the poor and vulnerable. It includes historical responsibility for greenhouse gas emissions and the human rights of current and future generations. It encompasses other forms of justice including environmental, gender and distributive justice, and justice for other species and the planet itself.

Climate justice requires drastic mitigation, coherent adaptation policies, radical social transformation and substantial redistribution of global resources. The sooner we act, the more suffering we can avoid. We are already in climate triage: forced to make choices about whose food, water, energy and physical insecurity we should address with insufficient resources. Failure to keep global temperature from increasing by more than 1.5oC multiplies the security threats facing the poor and vulnerable human beings, biodiversity and ecosystems.

The UK has particular responsibility for global heating as one of the largest historical emitters of greenhouse gases, a country that continues to fund fossil fuel projects in developing countries, and host of the delayed COP26 conference on the implementation of the Paris Agreement – responsibility it is difficult to trust the Johnson government to discharge.


Sam Adelman is Reader in Law at the University of Warwick, where he teaches and writes on legal theory, development, human rights, and sovereignty. He is originally from South Africa, where he was banned, detained and exiled during the struggle against apartheid.


The views and opinions expressed in posts on the Rethinking Security blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the position of the network and its broader membership.


Image Credit: Image by Niek Verlaan from Pixabay.

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I am a reader in the Law School at the University of Warwick doing research on climate change, law and development. I am a British Academy/Leverhulme Senior Research Fellow in 2020-21 and am currently completing a book on climate justice in the Anthropocene.

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