Monday, May 21, 2012

Climate change as a threat to national security

Climate change 

Climate, as described in the Merriam-Webster dictionary, is the average condition of the weather formed over all parts of the world.1 In contrast with the word – 'weather' – it is often mistaken for, which refers to relatively short-term environmental phenomena such as storms2, climate is composed of weather patterns that extend over much longer periods of time.
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The climate in the Philippines is tropical and maritime, similar to the climate of the islands situated just above the Equator, just like the countries in Central America. The country has a average annual temperature of around 26o Celsius, except in Baguio, which is elevated by 1500 meters above sea level, where the average annual temperature is around 18o Celsius. It also has a high level of relative humidity, the moisture content of the atmosphere, due to the combination of its warm temperature and its surrounding bodies of water. The country is also known for having an abundant rainfall. Based on the temperature and the distribution of rainfall around the country, two major seasons were recognized in the country: the rainy season that occurs from June to November, and the dry season that occurs from December to May.3

Recently, the country has been experiencing extreme weather events such as typhoons. Although, typhoons coming to the Philippines, which are coming from the region of the Marianas and Caroline Islands of the Pacific Ocean4, have been a fixture to the country's natural climate, it had been more frequent and more destructive in the recent years. Typhoons such as Nitang in 1984, Uring in 1991, Rosing in 1995, Reming in 2006, Frank in 2008, Pepeng and Ondoy in 2009, and this year's Pedring have claimed many lives, destroyed many agricultural lands, and left the country with billions of pesos worth of damages.5

Also, it has been observed that the average temperature per year has been increasing and that the frequency of hot days and nights and the significant decrease in cold days and nights have been noticeable. Moreover, sea levels not only in major Philippine coastal cities, but also in other parts of the globe have been rising due to thermal expansion of the oceans and the melting of mountain glaciers.6,7 These drastic changes in the environment around the world have been attributed to  'climate change'.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) defined climate change as, “A change of climate which is attributed directly or indirectly to human activity that alters the composition of the global atmosphere and which is in addition to natural climate variability observed over comparable time periods.” 8 It is brought about by the build-up of greenhouse gases, gases in an atmosphere that absorbs and emits radiation within the thermal infrared range. These gases include chlorofluorocarbons (CFC) from synthetic compounds emitted by industrial factories, nitrous oxide from the usage of commercial fertilizers and biomass burning, carbon dioxide (CO2) from burning of fossil fuels, and water vapor. These gases are the reason of the rising global temperature. The temperature changes have been said to cause extreme weather events (floods, storm surges, intense monsoon rains, unpredictable weather patterns), coastal erosion, saltwater intrusion, frequent toxic red tides, increase acidity of the seas, lowered agricultural production, riskier health situations, predictable intensified droughts and floods associated with El Niño and La Nina, etc.9

Its effects climate change has brought about is believe to exacerbate existing tensions between states and may even trigger new ones thus, carries serious implications for international peace and security.10

Threat to National Security

During the 20th  century, national security has been defined in militaristic terms. Its meaning is shaped by a specific set of events, such as the World Wars. It was largely about the military and intelligence capabilities necessary for preventing or winning a major war and the efforts made to improve it was assessed against estimates of the threats of nuclear war and communist expansion, and invariably emphasized the importance of military and intelligence assets. A state, in an effort to secure itself would build and maintain good allies, a strong economy, social cohesion and trust in government, democratic processes, civil preparedness, a skilled diplomatic corps, and powerful, forward-looking military and intelligence agencies.11

However, after the fall of the Soviet Union, there were no other countries are deemed likely to launch a full-scale nuclear attack. The nature of interstate conflict had become less brutal and violent. Security is not about victory and defeat anymore. It has now depended on extensive reform of the global economy, the international system of states, the divide between nature and civilization, and entrenched patterns of gender and ethnic inequality.12 The conceptions of security threats already expanded to include issues such as terrorism, disease, and global economic crisis.

During the Cold War, one of the issues presented was the growing concern about environmental degradation and stress. On the 70th plenary meeting, and 43rd  session of the United Nations General Assembly on December 1988, with the initiative of the Government of Malta, concerns about the effects of climate change were voiced. The general assembly recognized that climate change affects humanity as a whole and a timely action should be taken to deal with it within a global framework. This lead to the establishment of the IPCC by the World Meteorological Organization and the United Nations Environmental Programme. Scientists from all over the world that contributed to the work of the IPCC reviewed and assessed scientific, technical and socio-economic information produced worldwide relevant to the understanding of climate change and  provided the world with a clear view its potential impacts. After the Cold War ended, the growing concern for the environment led to the Rio Summit on Environment and Development, also known as the Earth Summit. It introduced a transformative vision that involved shifting the entire planet onto the path of sustainable development. Climate change then was framed as a development issue rather than as a national or even global security issue.

The UN Security Council have been debating on the potential impact of climate change on peace and security since 2007. The Nobel committee even recognized the emerging threat of climate change to peace and security by awarding former vice president Al Gore and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change its peace prize. But, is it really a security issue?

A contemporary generation of scholars explored the link between environmental stress and two national security challenges: violent conflict and state failure. They argue that scarcity of certain natural resources, due to the environmental stress caused by climate change, can be a significant factor affecting the government behavior, development prospects, population flows, and forms of competition and it may trigger violent conflict and other types of insecurity. Thomas Homer-Dixon, a contemporary scholar, argues that violent conflict may result from developing countries experiencing resource capture or ecological marginalization. Colin Kahl believe that scarcity may lead to state failure or state exploitation. In addition, scientists have observe that changes in the distribution of water, increases in the intensity of severe weather events, longer heat waves, longer droughts, and sea-level rise and flooding may generate threats to national security.

National security revolves around three concepts: power, state, and conflict and there are studies that claim, climate change has the potential to have a negative impact in each of these.


Table 1 presents the different impacts of climate change to national security. It shows how different events caused by climate change may weaken national power, contribute to state failure, and cause violent conflict.

Table 1. Climate change impacts to national security
Climate change has the potential to affect geography and resource endowment, military capacity, intelligence capacity, and a range of social factors, including population size and cohesiveness, regime type, and the size and performance of the national economy, which are considered important variables of national power. Economist Paul Collier contends that poor and failed states are often enmeshed in interactive conditions and processes that inhibit development.An increase in costly and hard-to-manage events such as floods, droughts, heat waves, fires, pandemics, and crop failures would probably be an enormous additional burden on these countries, thus weakening their national power.12

The 2010 report of the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies noted that the cost of climate-related disasters tripled from 2009 to 2010 to nearly $110 billion. Disasters are costly. Instead of spending for critical activities such as building infrastructure, investing in skills development, and implementing employment and poverty reduction programs, the funds into emergency relief. This shift can have a direct and very negative impact on a government’s functional capacity.  Due to the long-term negative effects of climate change to food  security, public health, urban development, rural livelihoods, and so on, it can displace people into marginal lands or unwelcoming communities, enticed by extremist ideology, compelled to resort to crime in order to survive, or take up arms, all of which risk overtaxing the government, deepening social divisions, and breeding distrust and anger in the civilian population.12

States will also fail if they no longer have territories. Rising seas and glacial outburst may cause vulnerable countries to disappear within a few years. Maldives and forty other island states are facing this starkly existential threat. People from states that failed or 'disappeared' due to rising sea levels, massive flooding, and long, devastating droughts may be permanently displaced. The displaced people may cause epic humanitarian crises and be extremely difficult to manage.12

In 2007, the U.S. Navy, through the CNA Corporation, released a report on climate change and national security by a panel of retired U.S. generals and admirals. They claimed that climate change presents a significant national security challenges because it can be a threat multiplier for instability, especially in the most volatile regions of the world, and may add to tensions even in stable regions of the world. The German Advisory Council on Global Change’s report World in Transition: Climate Change as a Security Risk also said that “Climate change will overstretch many societies’ adaptive capacities within the coming decades.” These publications capture the basic concerns of the climate change issue. They claim that climate change will weaken states that are already fragile, and it will contribute to violent conflict, intensify population displacement, increase vulnerability to disasters, and disrupt poverty alleviation programs, especially in South Asia, the Middle East, and sub-Saharan Africa, where large numbers of people, widespread poverty, fragile governments, and agricultural economies conspire to create heightened vulnerability.12

Stephen Walt, in a series of editorials in Foreign Policy magazine, contends that the arguments about climate change in various reports makes it clear that this is simply not a national security issue. He agreed that climate change may cause serious problems, but these problems and the responses they will trigger are better described as humanitarian issues. For the realist thinkers, national security is about the survival of the state, threats of this magnitude have been and continue to be threats of military aggression by other states. Walt asks us to only consider only immediate threats to national security. The effects of climate change to security is still vague and unpredictable.12

Nils Petter Gleditsch and Marc Levy, agree that according to different literature, it appears that there is a correlation between certain forms of environmental change, such as sudden changes in water availability, and violent conflict or state failure, but the findings are tentative and must compete with other variables that correlate nicely with disastrous social outcomes. According to them, although increases in the amount of carbon in the atmosphere, the severity of storms, the average global temperature, and so on are well documented, the social effects of these trends are far more speculative.12


Climate change is an international issue. Its effects have been documented in many literature and reports. It is claimed that several conflicts brought about by climate change will be faced by different states in the world. These conflicts include: reduction of arable land, widespread shortage of water, diminishing food and fish stocks, increased flooding and prolonged droughts which may cause civil unrest and may lead to significant economic losses; economic damage and risk to coastal cities and critical infrastructure; loss of territory and border disputes due to receding coastlines; environmentally-induced migration; increase instability in weak or failing states by over-stretching the already limited capacity of governments; and tensions over energy supply.

But since national security is loaded with expectations and preferences, the role of climate change as a threat is questioned. There is still an uncertainty about how climate change will play out in different social contexts. But, climate change's uncertainty is what allows it to be integrated into any political agenda—from calls for sweeping reforms of the international system to those for more research and debate. Although the reported effects that it may cause make us reflect the values we hold, the levels of risk we are comfortable assuming, the strengths and weaknesses of the institutions and practices that exist to meet our personal needs and allocate our shared resources. it does not mobilize agreement nor clarify choices.

Works Cited

1 "Climate." Dictionary and Thesaurus - Merriam-Webster Online. Merriam-Webster, Incorporated. Web. 25 Sept. 2011. <>.
2 "What Is Weather?" Canterbury Environmental Education Centre. Web. 25 Sept.
2011. <>.
3 "Climate." DOST Service Institutes. Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical and Astronomical
Services Administration - Climatology and Agrometeorology Branch. Web. 25 Sept. 2011.
4 "Climate." DOST Service Institutes.
5 Alojado, Dominic. "20 Worst Typhoons of the Philippines (1947-2009)." David
Michael D. Padua, 29 July 2010. Web. 25 Sept. 2011.
6 "Climate Change." Tik Tok Pilipinas | It's Time for Climate Action! Web. 25 Sept. 2011.
7 Climate Change Portal. Department of Agrarian Reform - Bureau of Agricultural Research. Web. 25
Sept. 2011. <>.
8 “Climate Change : a glossary by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.”
Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Web. 21 September 2011.
9 “What is climate change?” One hot earth. Web. 21 September 2011.
10 "Climate Change and Security." International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD). Web. 13
Aug. 2011. <>.
11 Defensor-Santiago, Miriam. International Relations. Quezon City: Phoenix, 2002.
12 Matthew, Richard. “Is Climate Change a Ntional Security Issue?” Climate and Security. Spring 2011


  1. Yep. Sa International Studies 201. hehe!
    pag wala akong maisip na blog post, nipapublish ko na yung academic papers ko ( para magkasense itong blog site ko.. haha!