Climate change isn't the only factor in recent disasters — governance and security risk

Climate change isn't the only factor in recent disasters — governance and security risk
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Close your eyes and drop your finger on a world map — nearly any place you land has faced a climate catastrophe this summer. No region has been spared the devastation of record-breaking extreme weather events. The security impacts have been severe, with thousands of lives lost and billions of dollars of damage done to critical infrastructure. Numerous countries, including Algeria, Canada, China, Germany, India, Russia, Turkey and the United States, have deployed their militaries to combat fires or conduct flood rescue missions.

Beyond these first order security risks, this summer has also previewed more complex security concerns that arise as climate change intersects with other risks — particularly poor governance, corruption, rising inequality and state fragility. In other words, few of this summer’s climate disasters were catastrophic due to climate change alone. In Iran, an unprecedented drought came after years of mismanagement of water supplies. Greece faced a record fire season in a country with low trust in government amid concerns about corruption.

In Tennessee, incredibly intense rainstorms fell in a county that refused federal flood insurance and lacked building codes. Infrastructure and governance systems designed for a climate that no longer exists make it more likely that climate change hazards become crises that increase risks of instability and conflict.

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Also worrisome were governments that turned to scapegoating marginalized populations to distract from their mistakes, as the Turkish government did when it blamed the Kurds for the wildfires there. Similarly, in Algeria the government claimed “terrorist” groups supposedly linked to Morocco and Israel for setting the blazes.

In other countries, low trust in government, disinformation, and a history of corruption contributed to climate change-driven instability. For example, in Russia, where at least some government officials now acknowledge the role of climate change in Siberia’s unprecedented fires, rumors persist that the blazes are solely the result of attempts to cover up illegal logging. Meanwhile, the early warning improvements made by the Greek government in response to fires are overshadowed by conspiracy theories that the fires are started by corrupt businessmen or Afghan refugees.

This summer’s devastation is shocking, but it shouldn’t be surprising. Both scientists and security experts have warned about these growing risks for years. As the UN’s most recent climate report underscored, this summer is just a preview of what’s to come — if emissions aren’t cut rapidly, the effects will only get worse.

Even if emissions are cut — this summer represents a new “normal” of more intense rainstorms, drier summers, more wildfires, stationary heat domes that are here to stay. The report makes clear two critical points — though the climate risks we face are unprecedented, our foresight capacity to predict these risks is also unprecedented. The challenge is quickly leveraging this foresight capacity to both anticipate and prevent these risks.

In 2019, The Center for Climate and Security released The Responsibility to Prepare and Prevent (R2P2), a framework aimed at meeting this challenge. R2P2 identified key gaps in governing climate security risks and how to address them. Although the framework was aimed at the international system, it’s principles hold within states as well.

These principles include standardizing climate security assessments that leverage predictive capabilities, followed by developing stronger leadership by security practitioners and better coordination mechanisms linking climate change and security policies within bureaucracies to ensure these assessments are used and available to those that need them. Progress on these principles would help governments and societies in their race to overcome the mismatch between our systems of governance, infrastructure and resilience and the pace and intensity of the climate risks we face. The speed at which this change must happen cannot be underestimated, nor can the obstacles even wealthy locales face as they try to prepare for future threats in the midst of current disasters.

The events of this summer make it clear that we are already behind and there is no time to waste. 

Erin Sikorsky is the director of the Center for Climate and Security, and the director of the International Military Council on Climate and Security. Previously, she served as the deputy director of the Strategic Futures Group on the National Intelligence Council in the United States, where she co-authored the quadrennial Global Trends report and led the U.S. intelligence community’s environmental and climate security analysis. Follow her on Twitter: @ErinSikorsky