The Security Challenges of Climate Change: Who is at Risk and Why?

Author: 
Author data: 
Tim Gulden
Publication Date: 
September 2009
Description: 
in Matthias Ruth and María E. Ibarrarán (eds), Distributional Impacts of Climate Change and Disasters: Concepts and Cases, Cheltenham, UK and Northampton, MA, USA: Edward Elgar Publishing. © 2009
Project: 
Emerging Issues in Cooperative Security
Document Type: 
Articles and Op-Eds


This chapter focuses on identifying the potential security problems posed by climate change. Where the security challenges of the twentieth century were largely defined in terms of large-scale interstate conflicts (for example, World War II and the Cold War), the challenges of the twenty-first century have been typified by civil conflicts (for example, the genocide in Rwanda), and asymmetric conflicts (for example, the ‘Global War on Terror’). The drivers and dynamics of such civil conflicts cannot be explained by extensions of theories developed in an interstate context (Steinbruner and Forrester 2004). Because climate change is a fundamentally disruptive force, it is important to think carefully about the implications of these disruptions for different forms of armed conflict and for human security in general.

Like the direct impacts of climate change, many of the associated conflict-related risks are likely to fall most heavily upon the poor. This fact is acknowledged in studies of resource scarcity as a driver of conflict. Still, there are other important, but less direct, connections between climate change and human conflict that add another aspect to the distributional analysis. Civil conflicts in the less developed parts of the world can pose real threats to wealthy nations. Technological responses, if not handled adequately, may threaten the wealthiest citizens of the most powerful countries.

The security challenges of climate change can be broken down into two overarching categories: (1) those which stem from the environmental disruptions of climate change itself (including uncoordinated human reactions to these events); and (2) those which stem from our coordinated attempts to avoid more catastrophic change by shifting the structure of our economies and energy production systems. The first class of problems needs to be assessed in order to understand the costs of inaction. The second class needs to be assessed in order to weigh the relative worth of various courses of action.

This chapter is excerpted from Matthias Ruth and María E. Ibarrarán (eds), Distributional Impacts of Climate Change and Disasters: Concepts and Cases, Cheltenham, UK and Northampton, MA, USA: Edward Elgar Publishing. © 2009. Reproduced with permission. Use of this material is restricted to personal use only.