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Climate Change as a Security Threat for the United States and China

Neil Oculi wrote “Climate Change as a Security Threat for the United States and China” as part of the 2015 Humanity in Action Diplomacy and Diversity Fellowship




In December 2015, world leaders negotiated and adopted what many deemed a historic climate change accord. Despite its warm reception, however, I argue that the climate change accord is actually a major disappointment. While 190 countries pledged to cut their greenhouse gas to a certain amount, these pledges have no compliance mechanisms to enforce their emission cuts. The lax enforcement stems from the fact that the United States (US) and China, whose own pledges are very moderate, have not taken enough leadership on climate change. China, the second largest economic power and the biggest greenhouse gas polluter, will not act on climate change unless the US more actively engages in the process. This matter is further problematized when we consider that members of the US Senate - contrary to the global scientific community – refuse to accept human behavior as a cause of climate change. In addition, and as owing to their superiority in world politics, these two countries feel that they are not vulnerable to the adverse effects of climate change. Neither nation has acted as a model for other nations to follow. In contending that climate change poses internal and external security threats for both China and the US, I offer the perspective that these nations’ failure to combat climate change runs against their self-interests. 

The role of climate change as a harbinger of security issues necessitates a more detailed discussion of environmental security in the late twentieth century. The notion of environmental security came about in the late 1970s and was first recognized as a global issue in the mid-1980s by the World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED). The WCED was established by the United Nations (UN) to better understand sustainable development and human security. The US government was also concerned with the increasing risk of violent conflict arising from environmental change and a growing scarcity of natural resources. These concerns were reflected in 1980’s Global 2000 Report sanctioned by President Jimmy Carter. The report called for a comprehensive approach to international security that went beyond military power and armed competition. The long-term sources of insecurity uncovered by the WCED included unsustainable development, the effects of which could result in traditional forms of conflict such as refugee crises and wars.


Climate Change as a Security Issue


Climate change has given renewed impetus to the environmental security debate. Climate change highlights collective security problems that are impossible to be solved by any one country alone. This collective security problem is built on the premise of common interest and requires international cooperation to be solved. Regrettably, the commonality premise could provoke “us-versus-them” responses, such as a scenario in which the global North could be pitted against the global South. Within climate change negotiations in recent years, the most obvious us-versus-them scenario to emerge has seen China and the US engage as adversaries rather than collaborators.

Climate change as a security issue firstly highlights national security dimensions, which supports the widely held assumption that climate change may trigger violent con´Čéict and implications for various military apparatuses. Climate change has resulted in human security dilemmas such as mass displacement and the migrations of people, which in turn provides internal shocks for countries that must deal with refugees of climate events. China and the US are very vulnerable to these security dilemmas created by climate change.


1.    Climate Change as a Security Threat for the US


Although the US has not taken a leadership stance on climate change on the global stage, various departments and commissions have studied short- and long-term threats climate change could pose to the US. As a domestic security issue, climate change has received much internal attention in the US. In the 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review Report, the Department of Defense recognized that “the distribution of global political, economic, and military power is becoming more diffuse.” (1) Recognizing the rise of China and India, the US can no longer act as a sole hegemon but must increasingly work with key allies and partners if it is to sustain stability and peace. (2) Climate change amplifies such diffusions of global security threats to which the US security apparatus is not immune.

Climate change presents both internal security threats (threats geographically localized within the US) and external threats (threats existing in regions outside the US that indirectly impact US security) to the US. Daggett points out that internal and external threats posed by climate change will shape operating strategies of the US military both domestically and internationally. (3) Climate change will function not merely as a global conflict, but one, which gives life to new conflicts and accelerates existing disputes and instabilities. All related conflicts will place additional burdens on the US military.

In assessing the internal threats of climate change, Pumphrey et al. explain that the CIA commissioned a study to look into the security implications of climate change in the late 1970s. (4) However, their efforts did not receive any traction until the late 1990s when the Senate Armed Service Committee declared that “environmental destruction” (a blanket term that included global warming) was a growing national security threat. At the same time, the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) and the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) were preparing reports (the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [IPCC]) based on available scientific information on climate change and its impacts. An additional report commissioned by the Pentagon followed in 2003 entitled “An Abrupt Climate Change Scenario and its Implications for United States National Security.” This report provided multiple scenarios in which climate change could have a negative effect on national security and its worst-case scenario suggested that climate change could result catastrophically in nuclear war. (5)

Climate change has had major consequences on US national security, making the US more vulnerable to external and internal terrorist threats. In 2007, 11 retired US army generals and admirals along with former (1993-2000) Undersecretary of Defense for Environmental Security, Sherri W. Goodman, issued a report highlighting links between climate change and manifestations of terrorism. The report correspondingly focused on the consequences of climate change for the US national security establishment (e.g. concern over DoD installations situated in areas that would be affected by sea level rise). Busby highlights the vulnerabilities of various air force bases in Florida to deal with storms and hurricanes. For example Hurricane Andrew in 1992 damaged the Homestead Air Force Base in Miami, which never reopened. (6) The Pensacola Naval Air Station was closed for almost a year because of damages made by Hurricane Ivan in 2004.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, almost 1,500 people perished, disrupting the lives of thousands of individuals, and billions of dollars were lost in business and residential assets. Katrina depicts what Molotch describes as a defective institutional structure, which I argue fosters major security threats for the US. (7) The US military, through the US Army Corps of Engineers, has been responsible for the river systems in New Orleans since the 1920s, yet were unprepared to deal with the catastrophes caused by Katrina. Quoting two local environmentalists, Geoff Monaugh and Nicola Twilley, Molotch claims that New Orleans, because of the city’s landscape, “has never been under anything but martial law.” (8) Katrina demonstrated how ill-prepared the US government was and is to deal with climate change-related threats. During Katrina, the Emergency Management Assistance Compact (EMAC) deployed about 50,000 troops, the largest National Guard deployment in US history, to deal with the crises in New Orleans. (9) However, as noted in the 2006 Senate Report, the US does not have adequate protocols in place to successfully deploy large-scale numbers of National Guard troops for civil support, hence the reason for much frustration by Governor Blanco of Louisiana during the Katrina crisis. 

The destruction of New Orleans is not an isolated case of climate change being an internal security threat to the US: the entire eastern seaboard of the US has been and remains very vulnerable to climate change. In 2012, Superstorm Sandy – which threatened the security of New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut – once again demonstrated how the US government was not prepared to deal with internal security threats related to climate change. Sandy’s destruction highlights the vulnerability of US infrastructure, which is important for economic, human, and national security.

Climate-induced migration can foster internal stress on the US security apparatus. People in more vulnerable countries in Latin America, the Caribbean, and Pacific regions are more likely to migrate to the United States because of climate change. This argument is not novel and many authors have made the same claim. Busby describes this process as spillover security effects on the US. He notes that “Caribbean countries such as Haiti and Cuba could be hard hit by extreme weather events, contributing to humanitarian disasters as well as the possibility of large-scale refugee flows and state failure.” (10) Both Haiti and Cuba have historically used the threat of migration and, in some cases, coercively engineered migration to extract concessions from the US. Greenhill defines coercive engineered migration as “cross-border population movements […] deliberately created or manipulated in order to induce political, military and or economic concession from a target state.” (11) Both Haiti and Cuba have been successful in utilizing coercive engineered migration to receive benefits from the US.

The Pacific islands of the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM), the Republic of the Marshall Islands, and the Republic of Palau through the Compact of Free Association (CFA) have an agreement with the United States that allows the US to operate armed forces in CFA areas. The agreement provides the US with land for operating bases (subject to negotiation), and excludes the militaries of other nations without US permission. The CFA agreement also allows residents from these Pacific states to travel to and live in the US without visa and work permits. In return, the US controls the water of these island countries. 

Because these countries are very vulnerable to the adverse effects of climate change, satellite bases of the US military in those countries also become vulnerable. This in turn creates external security dilemmas for the US. In assessing external security threats, Myers argues that “violence in the Third World threatens our interests in a variety of ways. It can imperil a fledgling democracy (as in El Salvador), increase pressures for large-scale migration to the US (as in Central America), jeopardize important US bases (as in the Philippines), and threaten vital sea lanes (as in the Persian Gulf)." (12) The United States is a hegemon and has a moral and liberal obligation to provide humanitarian aid to countries particularly susceptible to conflict over scarce resources; the US will also be pressured to deploy military forces to aid in emergencies, such as in 2010 in Haiti and more recently in the Philippines in 2013 after the superstorm. For these reasons the US should have a greater interest in helping these countries minimize the adverse effects to climate change.


2.    Climate Change as a Security Issue for China


China plays a major role in the international arena because of its population size, geographic scale, economic power, and military presence. China’s growth trajectory presents many security problems that are directly related to climate change. According to Mochizuki and Zhang (2011), the Chinese government was first reluctant to accept climate change as a national security imperative. However, the establishment of the Military Climate Change Expert Commission with the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) demonstrates that the Chinese government is beginning to see climate change as a real national security threat. In this section I will unpack some of the security threats that China faces. China’s economic development policies are creating three different security threats: domestic, regional, and international. Domestically, China’s internal security crises include mass internal migration. Regionally, China faces external threats and potential conflicts with neighbors because of its environmental practices. Air pollution from China can affect Korea, Japan, “some even reach the west coast of the United States” (13). Internationally, China is the world's biggest producer of carbon dioxide, the chief greenhouse gas, making it the biggest polluter.

The concept of security has too long been interpreted narrowly in the context of protecting territory from external aggression, protecting national interests in foreign policy, or safeguarding against the threat of a nuclear holocaust. I propose that our notion of human security needs to expand beyond the military- and state-centered logic. The idea of human security was first coined by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) in the 1994 Human Development Report. In looking at the new dimensions of human security, the Human Development report noted that “human security can be said to have two main aspects. It means, first, safety from such chronic threats as hunger, disease and repression. And second, it means protection from sudden and hurtful disruptions in the patterns of daily lives.” (14) In China, the government has not formally accepted the term human security. Rather security is understood through a traditional definition, emphasizing national security, national sovereignty, national unity, and territorial integrity. This understanding is primarily reflective of China’s authoritarian government, which currently has a firm grasp on power. The country’s vulnerabilities to climate change will materialize in potential freshwater shortages and storm damage along its densely populated coast. The immense human costs of extreme weather events in cities such as Shanghai and Tianjin could also damage China’s industrial production capacity and ports, with knock-on effects on the global economy. 

Sixteen of the world’s 20 most polluted cities are in China. (15) China’s pollution is as much a domestic crisis as it is an international one. For example, in November 2013 government officials had to shut down roads, schools, and the airport in Harbin, a city of 11 million inhabitants. This was because the pollution level was 40 times the safe limit set by the World Health Organization.

Climate change-induced migration also poses considerable security threats for China. In a 2008 report by the Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy, Dokos et al. note that an estimated 30 million people were displaced by climate change in China alone. Climate change-induced migration in China is a result of water stress, flooding, increased drought, coastal erosion, saltwater in excess, and the glacial melt in the Himalayas among other things. (16) According to the Center for a New American Security, these factors could bear effects on hundreds of millions of individuals. In assessing climate change-induced migration and violent conflict, Reuveny explained that between the 1980s-90s, 20-30 million fled Gansu and Ningxia to urban centers. (17) These people migrated because of floods, land degradation, desertification, and water scarcity. 

Regionally, China is also creating security tensions with its neighbors. Unabated demand for water resources and other minerals to keep up with China’s development trajectory has led to trans-boundary environmental problems such as acid rain and yellow dust. Mochizuki and Zhang note that “environmental stresses caused by China’s energy and resource demands have become increasingly evident in recent years, urging China to cultivate delicate diplomatic relations with its neighbors and strategic partners.” (18) Global climate change issues such as trans-boundary air pollution, cross-border water resources management, and resource exploitations have brought about these tensions. Again Mochizuki and Zhang (2011) articulate that “the threats of climate change are becoming increasingly visible in regions such as the Himalayas, where important glaciers feeding Asia’s major rivers [and] uncertainty about the consequences of climate change, pose significant risks to global and regional security.” (19)

Because China is the world’s biggest polluter, the country poses an international security threat by increasing global temperature through its continued reliance on fossil fuels. One of the principles guiding climate change is the principle of “common but differentiated responsibility.” During international negotiations, China continues to use this principle to justify many of its economic policies that in turn pose climate change-related security threats at the domestic, regional, and international levels.


3.    Conclusions and Recommendations


Climate change presents security threats for all nations, threats that are exacerbated by the failures of the US and China to collaborate on leading the way moving forward.  My definition of security goes beyond the traditional military, state-centric logic. I employ a broad definition of security that encompasses individual actors, sustainable development, and the environment. The need for such a definition of security is very important, because after the end of the Cold War and the fall of the Berlin Wall, it was clear that traditional definitions of security would not hold.

In order to achieve success on climate change the United States and China have to participate and engage at all levels: domestically, regionally, and internationally. The US faces many internal security threats from climate change including external and internal military bases. Many major American cities are located in coastal areas prone to storms, including New Orleans and New York City. At the same time, the US military has proven ill-equipped to handle major catastrophic events such as Hurricane Katrina and Superstorm Sandy. The US faces other external climate-related threats such as coercive engineered migration from countries such as Cuba and Haiti.

China’s approaches to unsustainable economic development have created many climate change-related security threats. Because of air pollution due to unregulated burning of fossil fuels in many cities in China are unbearable for people to live or feel safe in. This creates health issues for citizens and non-citizens in the region alike, because 16 of the 20 most polluted cities are in China. China is losing human and financial capital, losses that underscore the country’s vulnerabilities to external threats. Many of China’s major cities are very vulnerable to climate change and climate-related disasters such as flooding and desertification, forcing people to migrate to overpopulated urban cities. 

My recommendation is very simple: China and the US have to play better roles in addressing climate change. These two countries must facilitate ways to collaborate given that their economies are so closely intertwined. Moving forward, I recommend that the US provide financial and technical support (such as technological transfer) to China in order to facilitate their human security dilemmas.  Both China and the US must invest in developing countries to help with adaptation and mitigation efforts to enhance their security capabilities.




Many thanks to Simone M. Müller for her dedicated efforts in reviewing earlier versions of this article.


About the Author


Neil Oculi is a doctoral student in the Geography department at the University of Connecticut Uconn. He received his Master’s in International Studies from Uconn and his undergraduate degree in Human Ecology from the College of the Atlantic. Neil studied farm management and rural development at the United World College in Venezuela. He has been part of his country’s delegation at the United Nation Framework Convention on Climate Change UNFCCC. His area of interest are adaptation, finance, and loss and damage as it relates to Small Island Developing States. He was born and raised in Saint Lucia and is a Humanity in Action Senior Fellow (2012).


1. Daggett, Stephen. "Quadrennial Defense Review 2010: Overview and Implications for National Security Planning." Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. Congressional Research Service, 2010.

2. Ibid.

3. Ibid.

4. Pumphrey, Carolyn. “Global climate change: National security implications.” Army War College Strategic Studies Institute, Carlisle Barracks, PA, 2008. 

5. Schwartz, Peter, and Doug Randall. “An abrupt climate change scenario and its implications for United States national security.” California Institute of Technology Jet Propulsion Lab, Pasadena, CA, 2003. 

6. Busby, Joshua W. "Climate Change and National Security." An Agenda for Action. CSR 32 (2007).

7. Molotch, Harvey. Against security: How we go wrong at airports, subways, and other sites of ambiguous danger. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2012. 

8. Ibid.

9. US Senate Report, 2006.

10. Busby, “Climate Change and National Security.” 

11. Greenhill, Kelly M. Weapons of mass migration: forced displacement, coercion, and foreign policy. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2011.

12. Myers, Norman. "Environment and security." Foreign Policy 74 (1989): 23-41. 

13. Galbraith, Kate. “Worries in the Path of China’s Air.” New York Times. Dec. 25, 2013. Accessed May 5, 2016. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/12/26/business/energy-environment/worries-in-the-path-of-chinas-air.html?_r=0.

14. UNDP, Human Development Report 1994, 23.

15. http://theweek.com/article/index/252440/chinas-massive-pollution-problem

16. Dokos et al. (2008).

17. Reuveny, Rafael. "Climate change-induced migration and violent conflict." Political Geography 26, no. 6 (2007): 656-673.

18. Mochizuki, Junko, and ZhongXiang Zhang. Environmental security and its implications for China's foreign relations. No. 30.2011. Nota di lavoro//Fondazione Eni Enrico Mattei: Sustainable development, 2011.

19. Ibid.

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