Climate Change is National Security - Our Case for the Issue

By James Goudreau

Fellow, Climate Change & National Security Program


Much of the public attention surrounding Climate Change has been on issues of carbon reduction, pollution and climate change mitigation. This is relevant, but incomplete. Climate change is already and must be considered a legitimate national security issue and global security issue.


Resource scarcity that is caused or exacerbated by climate change will create or amplify regional instability potentially leading to conflict


Coordinated, consistent bipartisan policy will be required for both adaptation and mitigation in order to avoid or minimize conflict


Climate change is a National Security issue, and requires the focus and attention from our national leadership commensurate with its status as such. The instability and conflict ignited and amplified by climate change will impact us whether we would like it to or not. We can no longer allow climate change to remain as politicized an issue as it has been. It must be considered nonpartisan, an issue that represents a threat to all citizens, to US national interests and US national security. It demands our attention, and our bipartisan support.


Change matters. The ability to recognize change and act on it responsibly matters even more.  And if you can’t recognize, or aren’t willing to recognize, change that is happening around you, you may very well ignore an issue that could threaten your livelihood and the safety of those around you. The planet is warming. The seas are warming, acidifying and rising. These are facts, and there is data to show the change. The combined impact of these factors on the system of systems used to support the global population will be significant. No discussion of climate is complete without also talking about energy, water and food ecosystems. US Climate Policies, especially as they intersect with Foreign Policy, will therefore have to account for, grapple with and deal with these anticipated changes.

Experts in climate security issues like Sherri Goodman have been known to say that water is the frontline of climate change, and that there is either too much or not enough. She is absolutely right, and that is just the start of the story.  Society uses water for individual use, but we also use large amounts of water to create energy. We then use energy to create and move that water. Finally, we then use water and energy to both grow and distribute food. As challenging as the cycle is today, the anticipated increase in global population to 9B by 2050 will result in demand for 55% more water70% more food and 80% more energy to support that population. This Food/Water/Energy Nexus will be at the center of every major resource allocation question in the 21st Century.

At the same time, climate change is going to significantly reduce the resources that are available to deal with water, energy and food demand. The changes we are observing have already begun to create conditions of scarcity in some regions globally.

Many, if not most, of these changes are indirect, and magnify the intensity of other changes that are underway. People who may live in drought-stricken  regions will find they can no longer grow the same crops as generations before them. Unable to support themselves locally, they move to an urban area, which then increases the stress that already exists in that system. Or they may live on an island nation or coastal area, quickly disappearing due to sea level rise, forcing them to relocate for survival. But many desirable destinations will likely themselves face the same problem they only just fled.  

Weather events have always had enormous destructive potential, but that will be amplified as sea level rise allows the flooding from storm surges to be much more destructive to local infrastructure. The destruction from flooding during Typhoon Haiyan led to displacement of millions of people, some of which lasted for years. Over a year and a half after that single event, only 32% of the households were able to cover their basic needs. The changing climate will not only cause its own slate of changes, but will also heighten the intensity of second-order problems it causes.

Depending on the locale, climate change impact may have different symptoms that a citizen notices, but the end result will be very similar.  An enduring disruption to the system that begins as a storm, a flood, a drought, an extended heat event or something else  will end up as a new systemic resource scarcity. These conditions of resource scarcity without any mediation or  support, combined with existing, simmering differences along national, religious or ethnic lines can spark into conflict much more rapidly than the global community can normally respond. We can therefore say with a good degree of confidence that resource scarcity, driven and exacerbated by a changing climate and compounded by resource mismanagement, will lead to conflict. It could be conflict over land, water, food or energy, or some combination, but it will be conflict. Climate change is not simply a science issue, an industrial issue or a social issue. It is a National Security issue.

Policy measures that combine a mix of mitigation and adaptation of climate risks are needed to deal with this change. Just as importantly, the US will have to work to coordinate these measures across regional and international boundaries, otherwise a solution for one community will merely relocate the risk to another, which will lead to conflict. All solution sets must take this into account or run the risk of creating conflict when the intent was to avoid conflict.

Creation and implementation of these measures is a long term, strategic discussion.  Strategists across all nations will be challenged to craft effective, practical frameworks that will have the desired impact of avoiding or reducing conflict. Most importantly, these frameworks must allow political and national security leadership across multiple administrations to reduce national security risks. Accordingly, long term intellectual rigor and multi-stakeholder engagement must be applied in government, academia and industry to create enduring solutions.


Climate change is a national security issue that will require a mixture of revised strategy, policy and execution approaches in order to avoid conflict. Multiple policy initiatives and industry solutions addressing mitigation and adaption strategies will be required to effectively reduce climate risk.


CAPT James Goudreau, SC, USN, Ret is a fellow in the Met Society's Climate Change policy program, Palisade, and currently is responsible for global strategy and policy for sustainability and climate resilience a top Pharmaceutical Firm.