Climate Change and Security

Why Climate Change Is A Threat To National Security

This year, the United States experienced two of the most devastating and costly weather events in its history within one week - Hurricanes Harvey and Irma. Sarah Busch writes on how national disasters like these, hurricanes, floods, and wildfires, are becoming a serious threat to our national security.


This year, the United States experienced two of the most devastating and costly weather events in its history within one week – Hurricanes Harvey and Irma. Over one hundred twenty deaths have been reported, thousands of people have lost their homes, and the cost of damages are estimated to reach up to $200 billion. National disasters like these, hurricanes, floods, and wildfires, are becoming a serious threat to our national security.

When people think of threats to our national security, our primarily focus is on issues such as terrorist attacks, illegal immigration, and drug smuggling. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is a component of the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS), but it only plays a minor role when it comes to funding (21.2% of entire DHS budget in FY 2017). For FY 2018, the current administration has proposed cutting FEMA’s disaster relief budget by $667M, while increasing the Department’s focus on terrorism-related issues. Cutting the FEMA budget will weaken our capacity to respond to natural disasters; current DHS strategies need to be adjusted to reflect the immense risk climate changes poses to our national security.

First, climate change creates an immediate health, economic, and homeland security risk increase for the US and its citizens. Extreme weather events and flooding lead to increased economic cost, a higher mortality risk, and disrupt our way of life. People living in the coastal areas are more likely to lose their houses, properties, and lives due to natural disasters and the rising sea level. States such as California and Montana, are becoming increasingly affected by droughts and wildfires. A study from the United States National Academy of Sciences from 2016 shows that the area affected by climate change related wildfires is twice as big as 30 years ago and the fires now spread across an additional 16,000 square miles.

Second, climate change is a foreign threat multiplier and will ultimately raise the stakes for conflicts and instability, not only in the country that was directly affected by a natural disaster, but also in the US. After natural disasters, such as droughts, floods or hurricanes, food and/or water insecurity rises dramatically. The immediate crisis could result in a higher level of intra- as well as inter-state migration, and lead to other negative effects on human security in the region. The US could soon experience a large number of climate refugees and immigrants from Latin America as droughts and national disasters increase.

In addition, terrorist groups are more likely to exploit vulnerable areas after a disaster, which increases the possibility of civil wars and global conflict.  Climate change has catastrophic outcomes for humans, particularly for unstable communities and regions. The necessary management of unstable areas around the world will have diplomatic, economic, and military implications for the US and its allies.

Going forward, it will be necessary for the DHS to adjust the central focus of strategic planning to include climate change. The biggest threat to national security is not ISIS, al-Qaeda or Muslim immigrants, but carbon dioxide and methane emissions. On average, 200,000 Americans are dying every year due to air pollution, whereas only 3,024 have been killed by foreign born terrorist between 1975 and 2015 (a statistic that includes 9/11.) The US needs to be better prepared for future disasters, while at the same time working to reduce the causes of climate change by investing in renewable energy and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. In addition to our existing military, we need supplementary funds to invest in an army of scientists and alternative technologies, such as solar panels and offshore wind farms.

Despite the Department of Defense (DoD) beginning to recognize the climate threat in their 2014 report (Climate Change Adaptation Roadmap), more still must be done.

A reorientation of US security policy is necessary to be prepared for the growing threats posed by the climate change era. The DoD will face the choice of where to engage and direct resources, which will lead to a clash in strategic priorities. Already, the military is increasingly providing disaster relief and humanitarian assistance in the US and across the world. As climate change related disasters occur more frequently, the DHS, the DoD and all infrastructure planners need to restructure their operations and risk assessment plans to remain reliable protectors of US citizens.

The US needs to commit to a stronger national and international role to help stabilize climate change. This includes working on global partnerships with less developed nations such as Bangladesh, Vietnam, Somalia and Tanzania, to help them build their capabilities in facing the impacts of climate change. Initiatives can range from investments in warning systems, implementations of the public health systems, and accelerate access to technical innovations and solutions.

These are the first steps to avoid disruption to our global stability and security which, if ignored, will result in new threats to our national security. If we don’t act now, we will keep sleep-walking into a national security crisis created by the denial of climate change.

Sarah Busch is a Masters candidate at New York University’s Center for Global Affairs. 

 Please note that opinions expressed in this article are solely those of our contributors, not of Political Insights, which takes no institutional positions.

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