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February 8, 2016

Responding To: The Global Future of Security

Climate Planning for National Security in the 21st Century

Ashley Arostegui

Beyond the often-examined issues of resource and energy competition, climate change poses a growing security threat in the 21st century. In 2015, the Department of Defense signaled its recognition of the issue when it submitted a report to the Senate Appropriations Committee on the national security implications of climate-related risks. While much of the scientific and popular conversation revolve around mitigation, or preventing average global temperatures from rising more than two degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, climate change adaptation and resilience will be increasingly important for international security.

Even a two-degree rise in average temperatures, which global leaders have pledged not to exceed, has security implications for developing and prosperous countries alike. We are already seeing issues in places like the Arctic, where melting ice has revealed newly navigable waters and could intensify competition among Arctic nations like the U.S., Russia, Canada, and others. Sea level rise threatens both coastal cities and island nations. Through increased heat waves and severe weather events, climate change is poised to impact global food supplies, movements of people, and quality of life. While conflict generally has many interconnected drivers, environmental degradation is now recognized as an important factor. The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which analyzes and synthesizes climate research, has pointed to a number of already-visible security risks.

The prospects are not all doom and gloom, however. The recent Paris agreements were an important first step in addressing climate change and mitigating global warming. Climate has become a grassroots issue with widespread support and news coverage. More cities and communities are actively planning for climate change, and the international community is adopting some best practices and funding important research. But if we fail to build on those goals or allow them to unravel, then the risks become more acute.

What should we prioritize? Improved disaster prediction, preparation, and relief will be crucial, and technology and data collection will help this effort. Recognizing the links between climate change and displacement will also be an important human security priority as we begin to see climate refugees. Perhaps most importantly, development and climate advocates should reexamine their traditional competition, given that the world’s poorest are also the most vulnerable to the effects of climate change. Much of this work is already underway, but will be even more important as the effects of climate change become more visible.

Ashley Arostegui is a MSFS candidate at Georgetown's School of Foreign Service.

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