Global Implications of Climate Change:

A Greater Contemporary Security Challenge than Terrorism — Michael E. Imasua


This paper reviews published research on the impact of terrorism on global security, and its connection to the consequences of climate change on human security. The issue of security has always been the foundation of every human progress and development through all civilizations. Basic human security challenges include safety from human and environmental threats. Coincidentally humans are at the center of both human and ecological security threats. This paper explores the impact of terrorism by examining data from the 2016 Global Terrorism Index (GTI) and the 2015 Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START) — Country Report on Terrorism. It determines how much threats terrorism pose to global security; looking at the general causes and effects of armed conflicts and reprisals. Additionally, the paper explores the challenges of climate change as a human security concern. The text focuses on the effects of scarce resources including clean water, unusual flood patterns, and the economic impact of climate change on the global economy. The paper also analyzes the consequences of climate change on rising sea level, desertification, air pollution, erosion, landslide, and mass population movements. The paper further describes how climate change poses a bigger threat than terrorism. The final section is the conclusion and a set of recommendations for policy options towards curtailing the challenges of climate change research.

Keywords: climate change, terrorism, contemporary security challenge, resource scarcity, sea level rise, human security, armed conflict,

Turn the television or radio on, go through every news headlines in the electronic or print media, you will be overwhelmed by the multitude of news items that are focused on terrorism or terrorist attacks or threats! There is a common fear or sensitivity towards human terrorism that has beclouded or overshadowed any practical concerns for the more prominent and global scale, human security threat like the devastating effects of the climate change.

Several studies have been conducted on various facets of climate change, focusing on its global environmental change problems, its potential impacts on food security, and how it affects global warming. However, there has been relatively little systematic research that explores the implications of changing vulnerabilities of climate change on Human security. The few existing studies are inconclusive, and in most cases, depicts insufficient effects of climate change on human security. A recent report published on 31st March 2014 by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), and unanimously approved by more than 100 countries in Yokohama, Japan, states that climate change intensifies the conflict risks and other human security issues. The scenarios summarized in this report are less particular on the social implications of climate change than on the physical consequences, and the few critical statements on the security implications relied on questionable references. It is critical that all aspects of climate change be studied and analyzed to understand how climate change undermines human security. This paper systematically examines climate change research against other contemporary security research, including human security and global terrorism. The paper critically shows how climate change poses a more significant security challenge than terrorism. It includes in its discussion, recommendations for mitigating and adapting to the challenges of climate change.

Impact of Terrorism on Global Security

A multitude of crisis plagues regions around the world that it can be hard to remember them all. Among them is the issue of terrorism that continues to present itself as one of the core challenges to international stability. Political and Institutional instability in many countries has provided a breeding ground for radicalization and development in terrorist activities. In recent years, news of terror attacks continues to dominate headlines. In 2015, countries in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD)[i] experienced a 650% increase in terrorism. Denmark, France, Germany, Sweden, and Turkey were particularly affected as they recorded the most deaths from terrorism in a single year since 2000. Although, according to the 2016 Global Terrorism Index (GTI), the number of terrorism-related attacks and deaths in 2015 decreased globally for the first time since 2010 by ten percent to 29,376. Terrorism continued to spread to more countries during the same year, with more countries experiencing higher levels of terrorism.[1] Of the total people killed in terrorist attacks in 2015, 24 percent were perpetrators of the attacks that were killed intentionally in suicide bombings, accidentally in their attempts to carry out terrorist attacks, or by security forces and civilians responding to attacks. The perpetrator deaths show an 11 percent increase compared to 2014.[2]Five countries most affected by terrorism as measured by the GTI — Iraq, Nigeria, Afghanistan, Syria, and Pakistan — accounted for 72 percent of the total terror attacks in 2015. Furthermore, the report shows the concentration of terrorism in three regions — the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa — which together account for 84 percent of total attacks and 95 percent of all terror-related deaths.[3]

While the fatalities associated with terrorism in this report is cause for serious concern, thus requiring further actions, it also shows that the security challenges posed by terrorism are minor in scale and localized, compared to other devastating crisis associated with climate change that is facing the global community. However, it is noteworthy that the 2015 economic impact of terrorism saw its second highest level since 2000 of $89.6 billion. Even though this is a decrease of fifteen percent from its 2014 level, “the economic and opportunity costs arising from terrorism have increased approximately eleven-fold during the last fifteen years.”[4]

Climate Change and Human Security

Climate change involves a significant change in temperature, precipitation, or wind patterns, among other effects that occur over several decades or longer.[5] A 2015 Department of Defense report identified climate change as a security risk because of its impact on human security and more indirectly, as a root of political instability that leads to widespread population migration, degradation of infrastructure, and the spread of diseases (U.S. Department of Defense, 2015). The report also showed that fragile states with limited resources are significantly more at risk because of how climate change could exacerbate existing problems, particularly in relations to poverty, hunger, environmental degradation, social tensions, incompetent leadership, and weak political institutions — that threaten domestic and regional stability.[6] Consequently, the issue of how climate change may cause human security challenges rests on the question of the scarcity of resources. For instance, degradation of the environment as a result of climate change exacerbates a problem of resources scarcity. A reduction in rainfall and the pollution of freshwater sources have a significant impact on the availability of clean, fresh water for cleaning, drinking, and food production. Water scarcity can lead to intense political pressures, undercut human health, undermine development efforts, and puts stress and strain on conflict-prone communities. It can also ignore political boundaries, evade institutional classifications and eludes legal generalizations.[7] Many regions of the world, mainly sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East, are already experiencing clean water scarcity. The political and social instability already in these areas may have global impacts that extend well beyond their boundaries. The status quo of politically stable regions in North America and Europe may very well be affected by the loss of stability in hydrological patterns[8].

Increasingly, variable flooding patterns due to the unusually high rate of precipitation, are likely to contaminate the supply of fresh water and increase the risk of water-borne diseases. Globally, two billion people use a drinking-water source contaminated with feces, and almost three billion people lack access to basic sanitation.[9] Contaminated water and poor sanitation that results from environmental degradation due to climate change lead to the spread of water-borne illnesses such as diarrhea, typhoid, cholera, of which five million people are dying from each year (Wolf, 1999). The scarcity of water resources that results from climate change stresses plays a critical role in the armed conflict continuum between and within states such as the case between Egypt and Ethiopia.[ii]

Furthermore, floods and phenomenon such as El Nino necessitate the breeding of disease-carrying insects such as flies, mosquitos, and fleas. A recent study by Pennsylvania State University professors found that climate change strongly influences the ability of mosquitos to transmit malaria. Currently, vector-borne diseases such as malaria result in the death of more than 500,000 people every year, the majority of whom are children under five years old, from sub-Saharan Africa.[10] The vector-borne disease of dengue is also highly sensitive to climate conditions, and studies show that an increase in human exposure to dengue is likely to continue throughout the coming years.[11] Flooding can also lead to the destruction of public infrastructure and private properties. Over the past several years, Pakistan is one of many countries that have witnessed, firsthand, the devastating effects of climate change where catastrophic floods have the potential of displacing millions of citizens. The frequency of floods globally has increased in recent times, due to melting glaciers and torrential rainfall. A recent 2015 finding from the Aqueduct Global Flood Analyzer, an online flood-tracking tool shows that flooding around the world threatens roughly 21 million people annually, costing the global economy approximately $90.65 billion in GDP. With the increase in frequency and impact of flooding and the rise in global sea levels, the finding suggests that the cost of flooding is expected to grow to $513 billion by 2030.[12]

Impact of Rising Sea Level and desertification on Population Movement

The quantification of the impact of climate change on mass migration is difficult due to other connected factors such as political and socioeconomic conflicts, population growth, and human destruction of the ecosystem. However, the rise in sea level and desertification as a result of climate change will play a dominant role in exacerbating the mass migration. A 2009 report by Columbia University’s Center for International Earth Science Information Network (CIESIN), the United Nations University and CARE International show that the impacts of climate change are already causing migration and population displacement.

Although global sea level rise remains a significant threat to national economies, it is also a dangerous risk factor to coastal communities. Today, more than three billion of the world’s population lives within 200 kilometers of a coastline.[13] The result of sea level rise on low-lying coastal communities may lead to loss of agriculture, livelihood, and loss of culture. As sea level rises, tidal flooding is expected to occur more often, causing more disruption, and even render some areas uninhabitable and unusable. The flooding of habitable lands also has the potential of exacerbating forced migration.

Another devastating phenomenon of climate change is the issue of drought and desertification. Variations of climatic conditions and human activities are two leading causes of desertification. ‘This includes climate change, drought, moisture loss on a global level, removal of natural vegetation cover, and agricultural activities in the vulnerable ecosystems of arid and semi-arid areas.’[14] Nigeria is one of the several countries that is affected by the issue of desertification. Consequently, Nigeria loses about 350,000 hectares of land every year to desertification.[15] Out of the 910,768 sq km of the country’s land area, desert encroachment affects fifteen northernmost states in the country or about 581,343 sq km accounting for 63.83% of the total area (Olagunju, 2015). Desert encroachment has led to population displacements in villages across eleven states in the north of the country and the neighboring Niger Republic in the North. The movement of people and livestock looking for grazing land as a result of desertification has led to armed conflicts between herdsmen and farmers in Nigeria. The 2016 Global Terrorism Index list Nigeria as one of five countries with the most deaths resulting from terrorism in 2015 due to the jihadi group Boko Haram. This group are usually characterized as the biggest threat to Nigeria’s state security and even as one of the world’s deadliest militant groups. However, in 2016, Boko Haram has been responsible for fewer deaths — 562 to be precise — than other sectarian groups in Nigeria combined, which have accounted for 1067 deaths, according to the Nigerian Security Tracker by the Council on Foreign Relations.[16] A majority of the deaths conducted by sectarian groups are due to an ongoing conflict between predominantly Fulani herdsmen and settled farming communities.

Migration has important security and development implications for both sending and receiving communities. “It can also play a role in facilitating terrorism. Population movements can become the cause of economic hardship, and the increase in competition for scarce resources of various kinds from lands and jobs to social housing and natural resources, and can weaken existing power structures and institutions within countries, as well as threaten cultural identities and social cohesion”.[17]

Consequences of Climate Change on Armed Conflict

Many research that studies the causes of armed conflict often resort to weak political institutions and governance, ethnic cleavages, poverty, and inequality as critical conflict drivers. As the effects of climate change continue to increase with a high frequency of environmental phenomenon, there has been a new focus on climate change as a primary driver of conflict. A recent report by the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research shows that while each ‘conflict is the result of a context-specific mixture of interconnected factors, climate change appears to increase the chances of armed conflict in ethnically divided communities.[18] The link between armed conflict and climate change coincides with the factors through which the latter can lead to social and political instability. These factors include the intensification of natural disasters such as desert encroachment, flooding, corrosion, landslides, etc.; as well as an increase in resource scarcity, such as clean water & land; and sea-level rise due to global warming. The risk associated with these factors concerns the destruction of public infrastructure, inadequate health factors, and loss of livelihood. While the consequences of climate change may not necessarily increase the risk of armed conflict in all communities, the scope in which the factors above play out depends critically on two community-specific contextual factors. First, the fragility of the political and social institutions and its ability to absorb the adverse socio-political and economic effect, and second, how the resulting consequences increase the likelihood of armed conflict.

Communities facing a sudden reduction in the quality of life due to climate change may develop several coping strategies. First, they may choose to adapt to new natural or human systems by exploiting valuable opportunities. Communities unable to adjust to the new challenges may pursue obtaining an increasing share of diminishing resources through the means of force. They may also opt to flee to more attractive locations, thereby competing for limited resources with host communities. A 2007 report by Christian Aid claims that based ‘on current trends, an estimated one billion people will have no choice but to abandon their homes between now and 2050. This level of displacement has the potential to destabilize whole regions where desperate populations compete for scarce resources.[19]

Climate Change as a Bigger Threat than Terrorism

The magnitude of climate change impacts on human security can correlate by the level of population movement, resource scarcity, rising sea level, and an array of armed conflicts resulting from these factors. These environmental factors, coupled with other social change phenomenon generates tension and threatens global human security. Furthermore, it is germane to note that the devastating effects of climate change is massive and goes beyond territorial borders, while terrorism is in most instances, restricted to regional and localized boundaries. Therefore, the cumulative consequences of climate change put on a global scale as against terrorism are overwhelming. Hence, the analysis in this paper shows that climate change claims more lives, property, and infrastructure than terrorism. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the direct impact of global climate change accounts for more than 160,000 health-related deaths annually. This number does not include the death associated with flooding, desertification, poverty, starvation and forced migration. Furthermore, the indirect impact that results in water-borne disease or vector-borne diseases which when combined claims over 5.6 million lives annually shows that the climate change poses more threat than terrorism. The air pollution in places like China should be a case study for airborne health challenge resulting from Climate change. The decline of agricultural produce in Nigeria is a result of climatic factors such as rising temperatures, desertification, irregular or reduced rainfall, and hydrological drought. These factors have reduced yields of cash crops like groundnut pyramids, cocoa, and palm oil by almost 90 percent over a period of 30 years, and has also disrupted long-held crop rotation practices and traditions. These conditions have exponentially increased the poverty level and political tension in Nigeria by intensifying competition for diminishing resources. These resulting socioeconomic issues invariably play a role in some of Nigeria’s security challenges particularly in terrorism by Boko Haram groups, and clashes between farmers and herdsmen over access to grazing land, in Nigeria’s North East and the Middle Belt.[20]

Conclusion, Future Study and Policy Actions

The threats posed by terrorism and climate change are very different — yet they present similar opportunities. Terrorism presents an immediate threat that has to be dealt with to preserve lives and infrastructures. However, climate change has both short-term and longer-term factors that pose a significant threat to the entire world. The rise of sea level that results from climate change would not only lead to unprecedented flooding but could also affect food and water supply, as well as loss of property and lives. The relationship between the scarcity of resource and human security is indicative at best in the analysis of this paper. Resource scarcity contributes to the outbreak of conflict, though sometimes in interaction with other conflict promoting factors. In the most vulnerable and impoverished communities with unstable political institutions, populations are more inclined to resort to violence due to the scarcity of resources, loss of property, or culture. In the most extreme cases, the circumstances may breed extremism or terroristic tendencies. As the impact of climate change on global human security materializes, the political and economic instability it brings will continue to threaten most communities around the world. Hence, national governments and the international communities must prioritize their response to climate change to mitigate environmental threats and prevent future calamities. Efforts to curtail climate change effects are achievable through international cooperation and collaboration as the consequences of climate change has no boundaries. Nonetheless, existing studies on the intersection between climate change and global human security have failed to converge on any significant connection between resource scarcity and armed conflict. While we cannot rule out the possibility of no general linkage, substantial limitations in research leave a lot to be desired. Furthermore, there is a need for a paradigm shift in policy from addressing only the effects of terrorism and not considering some of its causes such as climate change. Accordingly, the potential for building upon this study is high, particularly in the quantitative research methods.


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End Notes

[1] (Institute for Economics and Peace, 2016)

[2] (National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism, 2015)

[3] (Institute for Economics and Peace, 2016)

[4] (Institute for Economics and Peace, 2016)

[5] (EPA)

[6] (U.S. Department of Defense, 2015)

[7] (Wolf, 1999)

[8] (Bigas, 2012)

[9] Poverty-reduction approach to water, sanitation and … (n.d.). Retrieved from

[10] (Birch, 2015)

[11] (WHO, 2016)

[12] (ARTEMIS, 2015)

[13] (Greenpeace International, 2012)

[14] (UNDP/UNSO, 1997)


[16] (Council on Foreign Relations, n.d.)

[17] (Bali, 2013)

[18] (Schleussner, Dongesa, Donner, & Schellnhuber, 2016)

[19] (Christian Aid, 2007)

[20] (Eigege & Cooke, 2016)

[i] The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) is a forum where the governments of 34 democracies with market economies work with each other to promote economic growth, prosperity, and sustainable development. The member states of the OECD include 25 European countries and North America, as well as Australia, Chile, Israel, Japan, New Zealand and South Korea.

[ii] “Egypt has been suffering from severe water scarcity in recent years. It has only 20 cubic meters per person of internal renewable freshwater resources, and as a result, relies heavily on the Nile River for its main source of water. The River Nile is also the backbone of Egypt’s industrial and agricultural sector. Egypt controls majority of the water resource extracted from the Nile River due to colonial-era treaty, which guaranteed Egypt 90 percent share of the Nile. However, in recent years, countries along the Nile such as Ethiopia are gaining more control over the rights for the Nile. A big challenge is tackling the issue of Ethiopia’s construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) in the Blue Nile watershed that may cut into Egypt’s share of the Nile. The Dam has the capacity to store 79 billion cubic meters of water and generate 6,000 megawatts of electricity for Ethiopia a year.” (Dakkak, 2016)



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