09 August 2021

Balancing on a Knife’s Edge: Climate Security Implications of the Latest IPCC Findings 

A new scientific consensus released this week details the potential future course of climate change, with serious repercussions for international security and stability. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released the first product of its Sixth Assessment Report (AR6), summarizing the latest scientific understanding on the state of global climate change. This report, completed by the IPCC Working Group I (WGI), offers the best collective picture of how human-caused climate change is impacting the physical systems of the planet now and in the future. 

The report makes clear that our planet’s climatic systems are changing rapidly in response to the accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. By 2100, global average temperatures are expected to rise between 2.1-3.5°C in an intermediate scenario, or 3.3-5.7°C in a high emissions scenario, if humans do not curb and continue expanding greenhouse gas emitting activities. The path to keeping global temperatures to just 1.5°C of warming, the report states, looks increasingly narrow; while every additional fraction of a degree in planetary warming will have worsening impacts on climate stability.

The findings of the WGI report have two important implications for security audiences: First, cutting emissions and adapting to climate impacts are equally important for security in the coming years; second, that the increasing risk of crossing climate tipping points suggests security services must prepare for managing multiple climate-induced crises at once. 

Curbing climate change and building resilience are critical for security 

From a security perspective, these new scientific warnings are stark. The Center for Climate and Security has detailed the swift defense consequences of warming increasing above 1.5 C, as well as the security implications of warming as high as the projected levels of over 2°C. The findings of the latest World Climate and Security Report 2021, a product of the Expert Group of the International Military Council on Climate and Security (IMCCS), underlines the IPCC findings that each additional level of warming is already bringing with it dramatic destabilization and security threats on the ground. 

While emissions cuts are necessary to stave off catastrophe in the long-term, the IPCC report also shows that rapid investments in resilience will be critical to maintaining safety in both the short and medium-terms. The impacts to natural systems detailed in the report will have increasingly destructive effects on security institutions, critical infrastructure, global supply chains, human health, and livelihoods that must be avoided. The Center for Climate and Security’s concept of “climate-proofing” all security operations and planning endeavours (also adopted by the IMCCS), will be of central importance in this rapidly changing world.

From a regional perspective, the report shows that while all geographies are facing unique climate impacts and trajectories, there is no place on earth that will be unaffected. This means security actors must integrate an understanding of planetary shifts and climate impacts on human systems in their strategic planning for all regions. The IPCC’s new Interactive Atlas tool can be a useful option for policymakers in this regard, and should be built upon by security researchers and the intelligence community to provide detailed analysis of climate’s impact on vulnerable regions across the world.

Global tipping points pose growing threats 

​​Another key message from the Working Group I report is the danger of crossing climatic tipping points, a conclusion which was largely absent from the IPCC’s previous reports. A tipping point is a threshold level which, when reached, can trigger large-scale, accelerated and irreversible changes to the planet’s environmental stability. Consistent warming of the earth beyond 1.5 degrees could trigger dangerous runaway effects, which could be impossible for humans to reverse. 

The WGI report identifies 12 distinct tipping points of concern, and also proposes the phenomena of ‘cascading tipping points.’ Whilst the science is still evolving, the cascade theory suggests that once a tipping point is reached, a domino effect could be triggered causing other climate systems to speed towards their own tipping points, accelerating the impacts of climate change beyond the reasonable ability of humanity to adapt and mitigate.

 If these cascading tipping points are crossed, the military and security sectors, which are often the first-responders to climate-induced crises, will be further strained as they manage multiple and parallel issues, limiting their own efficacy in meeting any one challenge.  As we’ve begun to see with more frequent disasters worldwide, these impacts often deviate resources away from long-term adaptation and mitigation, with severe disruption of military and defense installations. Tipping points are therefore very likely to overwhelm national security apparatus in its current form, unless substantial reforms are made

One example of a tipping point that could cause cascading risks to security conditions is thawing permafrost in the Arctic region. Warming global temperatures have already triggered the release of CO2 and Methane locked in the carbon-rich soil, whose emissions accelerate overall global warming. This loss of the permafrost is irreversible and structurally weakens the foundation of all infrastructure built upon it, undermining the security of regional energy, commercial, and military installations. Arctic militaries are increasingly forced to divert resources to these challenges, while also combating growing wildfires and extreme heat events, which themselves trigger more rapid permafrost thaw. Meanwhile, degrading permafrost and rising temperatures are accelerating the melting of Arctic ice and pushing sea levels higher, forcing Arctic nations to adapt naval capabilities to deal with the new conditions. These changes are impacting each other, as Arctic conditions speed towards potential permafrost and glacial tipping points, putting increasing pressures on military manpower, resources and financing to address them together, let alone simultaneously pursuing long-term climate mitigation goals.

The fight to come 

This overview of the most glaring security implications of the WGI report demonstrates how, in a very short period of time, global national security leaders will face multi-track climate risks. For many nations with weaker or more poorly funded security sectors, there will be substantial opportunity costs in deciding which risks to deal with. Delayed responses to other dangerous climate impacts and tipping points will likely lead to more irreversible changes, worsening long term climate security. Consequently, rapid investment in resilience is vital to enhance the security of military assets, and that of the wider population.

Looking ahead, the report of the IPCC’s Working Group II, focused on the vulnerabilities of humans and nature to global warming, and that of Working Group III, detailing what can be done to prevent catastrophic temperature rise, are due to be released early next year. Both will be critical tools for the global security community to integrate into its planning operations, and to identify emerging climate vulnerabilities to build resilience against.

Overall, it is clear from these findings that the security sector must be more engaged than ever in the fight to adapt and mitigate the effects of our rapidly warming planet. As the leading global scientists who collectively make up the IPCC have detailed, each tenth of an additional degree of warming will carry with it more intense, disruptive events than those that have preceded it. Continuing on the high or intermediate planetary warming trajectories will represent a dangerous departure into a world of rapidly cascading threats and disasters. For the security community, these are futures we cannot afford to welcome.

By Akash Ramnath and Kate Guy

Photo credits: Josh O'Connor/Flickr.com