kenewendo2_ PHILL MAGAKOEAFP via Getty Images_durban floods PHILL MAGAKOE/AFP via Getty Images

The Climate-Security Failure

The lack of interest in climate adaptation and mitigation among national-security policymakers reflects a profound misunderstanding of the risks that climate change poses to global stability. To avert catastrophe, the international community must help the world’s most vulnerable countries strengthen their resilience.

GABORONE – World leaders, diplomats, intelligence officials, and scholars convened in Germany in February for the annual Munich Security Conference amid a raging land war in Europe and heightened geopolitical tensions. As a result, the focus was on traditional security threats. That is both understandable and disappointing.

While the first anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine dominated the MSC discussions, along with mass migration and the advent of a new cold war, there was little interest in issues like adaptation to climate change and green finance. Given that the MSC’s organizers defined the transformation of relations between the Global North and South as one of this year’s themes, the lack of interest in mitigating the worst effects of global warming represents a missed opportunity. More importantly, it reflects a profound misunderstanding of the biggest threat facing our planet today.

This is not the first time that the intelligence community has downplayed a serious (albeit nontraditional) threat. Just as the 2019 conference ignored the risk of a pandemic, this year’s conference largely ignored the systemic risks – including economic regression, food insecurity, and forced displacement – posed by climate change.

But unlike the then-hypothetical threat of a pandemic in 2019, climate change is already wreaking havoc around the world. Forty percent of S&P 500 companies experienced supply-chain disruptions in 2021, and last year’s devastating floods in Pakistan are expected to reduce the country’s rice production by 7% this year. This will exacerbate food insecurity and fuel political instability in countries that depend on Pakistan for rice imports, such as Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, and Kenya.

As extreme weather events become more frequent and intense, developing countries will likely be hit the hardest. Last year, flooding ravaged the port of Durban, South Africa, cutting off global supplies of cobalt and other commodities. A super typhoon smashing Taiwan or China’s industrial heartland would cripple global semiconductor production, just as the devastating floods in Thailand in 2011 disrupted computer hard-drive supplies and caused the prices of cars, cameras, and phones to spike.

To bolster global security and resilience, we must acknowledge that adaptation finance is “an unavoidable necessity,” as a recent report by insurer Swiss Re put it (and as last year’s United Nations Climate Change Conference in Egypt affirmed by embracing the Sharm el-Sheikh Adaptation Agenda). According to the UN, international finance flowing to developing countries for climate-adaptation programs is 5-10 times lower than what is needed. And the gap is widening: developing countries’ annual climate-adaptation needs are expected to increase to $160-340 billion by 2030 and to $315-565 billion by 2050.

Secure your copy of PS Quarterly: Age of Extremes

Secure your copy of PS Quarterly: Age of Extremes

The newest issue of our magazine, PS Quarterly: Age of Extremes, is here. To gain digital access to all of the magazine’s content, and receive your print copy, subscribe to PS Premium now.

Subscribe Now

Fortunately, governments have become increasingly aware of the urgent need to scale up financing for mitigation and adaptation. But they are not moving fast enough to shore up their supply chains ahead of inevitable disruptions. Last November, for example, the Climate Change Committee, which advises the British government, recommended that the United Kingdom offer financial support to countries on which it depends for crucial food imports. In a recent report, the Committee warned that nearly 20% of UK trade relies on climate-vulnerable countries and noted that a spike in food-import prices would hit the country’s poorest the hardest.

This analysis mirrors similar studies conducted in Germany and Sweden that called on developed countries to reduce their exposure to climate risks rather than focus on disaster response. But, at a time when governments are spending billions on bolstering their defense budgets, progress on this front has been sluggish at best, even though neglecting this existential threat could have disastrous consequences.

To survive our age of “polycrisis” – accelerating climate change, war, inflation, and the ongoing pandemic – we must make large-scale investments in mitigation and adaptation. Developed countries must also step up and ensure that lower-income countries on the frontlines of climate change can strengthen their resilience. By funding initiatives like the African Development Bank’s Adaptation Fund and the Africa Climate Risk Facility, the international community could provide much-needed protection for the world’s most vulnerable populations.

But even these initiatives, while critical, are not enough. Reforms of lending practices at multilateral development banks are essential to close climate-financing gaps in the developing world. Fostering an inclusive green financial infrastructure that can manage the impending global crisis, similar to the creation of the Bretton Woods institutions after World War II, would help us avert an environmental and humanitarian catastrophe.

Finally, climate change poses a huge risk to global stability. If we are to build long-term economic resilience, it is in the national-security interest of every country, including the world’s richest, to support mitigation and adaptation efforts in the Global South. As we learned during the COVID-19 pandemic, no one is safe until everyone is safe.