Amid the flurry of discussion caused by “climate-gate” and debates about CO2 emission caps, the relationship between climate change and security is likely to be overlooked in Copenhagen. Unlike traditional security issues like nuclear warheads, missile proliferation, or naval modernization, climate change often escapes national security discussions. Ozone depletion, CO2 emissions, and rising sea levels are clearly environmental concerns, but these issues are simultaneously economic and impact human security. R. K. Pachauri,Chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, made this clear when he accepted his 2007 Nobel Peace Prize.


Peace can be defined as security and the secure access to resources that are essential for living. A disruption in such access could prove disruptive of peace. In this regard, climate change will have several implications, as numerous adverse impacts are expected for some populations in terms of: access to clean water, access to sufficient food, stable health conditions, ecosystem resources, and security of settlements.

The developed countries in North America, Asia, and Europe certainly have the resources to mitigate the effects of climate change, but leaders should not overlook how environmental changes undermine core values of promoting development and reducing conflict. Climate change contributes to the weakening of fragile states as governments cope with water scarcity, desertification, and internal human migration. At the same time, illegally armed groups will continue to exploit governments that cannot provide security for their people and territory. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon:

The environment and natural resources are crucial in consolidating peace within and between war-torn societies […] Lasting peace in Darfur will depend in part on resolving the underlying competition for water and fertile land. And there can be no durable peace in Afghanistan if the natural resources that sustain livelihoods and ecosystems are destroyed. The United Nations attaches great importance to ensuring that action on the environment is part of our approach to peace. Protecting the environment can help countries create employment opportunities, promote development and avoid a relapse into armed conflict.

This view of the environment is influencing strategic military thinking in the United States. For example, Admiral T. Joseph Lopez,former US commander of naval forces in Europe , pithily summarized the connection between climate change and instability: “More poverty, more forced migrations, higher unemployment. Those conditions are ripe for extremists and terrorists.” The group National Security and the Threat of Climate Change (composed of distinguished retired military officers) sees it as essential for the military to prepare for natural disasters, pandemic disease events, and other climate change induced tragedies warranting responses from the United States.   And the Pentagon now considers gradual warming and abrupt climate change scenarios leading to economic malaise, border collapse, and global conflict in its planning scenarios.

Climate change clearly undermines human security, but it is also linked to traditional security concerns. The most explicit example comes from a thawing Arctic Ocean. The U.S. Navy’s Oceanographer, Rear Admiral David Gove, observes, “The [Arctic] region is primarily a maritime domain and the U.S. Navy of the future must be prepared to protect sea lines of communication supporting maritime commerce and other national interests-including national security-there.”

Concerns about the environment are not new. Green movements have been significant social movements in North America, Europe, and Japan for decades. The Sierra Club was founded in 1892, Greenpeace was founded in 1971, and Earth First! was founded in 1979. What is new, however, is the link between climate change and security. As leaders meet in Copenhagen over the next two weeks, the environmental and economic dimensions should not overshadow the security dimensions of climate change. Developing countries like China and India see international efforts restricting their development, but they should also be wary of how climate change impacts their security.

Derek Reveron, an Atlantic Council contributing editor, is a professor of national security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island.  These views are his own.