How efforts to combat climate change created new security challenges in the Arctic

In a little over a week, the parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) will hold their annual meeting, dubbed COP26, in Glasgow, Scotland. At that meeting, tens of thousands of negotiators, government representatives, businesses and citizens will come together to discuss ways to build on the achievements and momentum of the historic 2015 Paris climate accords.

In one sense, this is simply another annual meeting of the UNFCCC. But most experts believe COP26 has a unique urgency. For as momentous as Paris was, there is broad agreement that countries must now go even further than they did at that previous summit if climate disaster is to be averted. In this sense, COP26 is viewed by many as a decisive moment in the effort to arrest climate change.   

One of the rationales underpinning COP26 – and, indeed, the entire multilateral effort to address climate change – is the belief that change to the planet’s climate poses a clear and present danger to international peace and security. This isn’t the only rationale, of course. Climate change matters for a range of economic, environmental, developmental and humanitarian reasons. And, for the longest time, the connection between climate-related environmental change and various threats to security was not considered to be particularly important. It certainly wasn’t one of the major drivers of the global effort to deal with this issue when it first gained political traction.

But over the last decade and a half or so, what is now typically referred to as “climate security” has achieved considerable prominence on the international political agenda. Indeed, at both the national and international levels, the impact of climate change on international peace and security has gone from being something of a non-issue to one of the most pressing political concerns of our time.

Underpinning this relatively new concern with climate security is the assumption that climate change is a powerful “threat multiplier,” a phenomenon that both amplifies and complicates existing risks to peace and security. In this view, the threat to international peace and security comes not from climate change itself, but from the way in which climate change interacts with existing social conditions and political dynamics to undermine human, national and international security.

Climate change, for example, can contribute to a broad range of destabilizing trends, including internal population displacements, cross-border migration and political unrest. In turn, these trends can amplify state fragility and internal conflict — potentially leading to state failure and collapse. Climate change can also disrupt existing international security dynamics in sensitive geopolitical environments such as the Arctic and the South China Sea.

An obvious policy-relevant corollary of this premise is that mitigating climate change will necessarily go a long way to mitigating those direct and indirect security threats. If climate change-induced increases in sea levels undermine security, for example, then it stands to reason that taking steps to mitigate climate change in ways that moderate the rise in sea levels will help enhance security.

And that corollary is valid, as far as it goes. But it’s only part of a very complex picture.

As with most human efforts to address big challenges, initiatives intended to address climate change are likely to have some unintended, perhaps even perverse, consequences. In the world of climate change, one type of perverse consequence is what is known as the “rebound effect,” defined as the tendency of gains in energy efficiency to make an energy-consuming technology less expensive to use, thereby encouraging people to use it more often. This is perverse because it results in an overall increase in energy use, the opposite of what was intended.

In the narrower realm of climate security, something analogous is beginning to come into view: a kind of “geopolitical rebound effect” in which efforts to address climate security create new security dynamics that are at least as dangerous as the ones they were intended to mitigate.

Take, for example, the way in which the rising demand for rare earth elements (REEs) – a key component in green technologies such electric car batteries, solar panels and wind turbines – is amplifying geopolitical competition in the Arctic. Driven partly by a desire to secure access to one of the world’s greatest untapped sources of these increasingly important minerals, Russia, China and the United States are positioning themselves for a new cold war in the Arctic. 

Russia, for example, has dramatically expanded its military footprint in the region in recent years, establishing new Arctic commands and military units; building or refurbishing airfields, ports and military bases; and deploying air defense and coastal missile systems, early warning radars and a variety of other military assets along its Arctic coastline.

China has also entered the arena, declaring itself a “near-Arctic” state, calling for greater Chinese participation in the development of Arctic shipping routes as part of a so-called “Polar Silk Road” and planning to expand resource exploration and exploitation in the region. China also envisions a greater role for the Chinese military in securing China’s polar interests and is planning to develop the power projection capabilities – forces, basing infrastructure, etc. – that would enable it to fulfill its Arctic vocation.

Finally, the United States has also beefed up its Arctic military presence, reestablishing the 2nd Fleet for North Atlantic and Arctic operations, initiating freedom of navigation operations in Arctic waters, deploying B1-B bombers to Norway and mobilizing NATO countries to enhance their own military deployments to the region.

These efforts are not simply about securing access to REEs, of course. As always, there are other interests in the mix. And, perhaps ironically, intensified geopolitical rivalry in the High North is possible only because of climate change and the shrinking of the polar ice cap.

But the basic point is still valid. The geopolitical rebound effect of adopting more green technologies is rising geopolitical competition – increased friction, more contention and perhaps even outright hostilities – as states seek to secure access to these resources. 

Something, perhaps, for those participating in the upcoming COP26 to think about.

Andrew Latham is a professor of international relations at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn.

Tags Arctic Arctic Climate Change Climate change policy Climate security cop26 Effects of climate change Geopolitics of the Arctic United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change
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