25 Nov 2021

COP26 and the national security implications of the global climate crisis

Gina Bou Serhal

With the COP26 international climate talks in Glasgow completed and world leaders having returned home to hash out the details of their committed promises on achieving net-zero emissions by mid-century, it’s important to understand why this international summit has left many environmental experts and climate activists pleading with heads of state, government officials, negotiators, businesses, and NGOs to deliver on climate policy. In the aftermath of the talks, activists are ramping up their rhetoric to ‘sound the alarm’ on the gravity of today’s global climate crisis. This urgency stems in part from the devastating climate forecast published in August by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a UN body established in 1988 to assess the science related to global warming. The IPCC’s recent report detailed the impact of human activity on increasing global surface temperatures: ‘It is unequivocal that human influence has warmed the atmosphere, ocean and land. Widespread and rapid changes in the atmosphere, ocean, cryosphere and biosphere have occurred.’ These impacts are expected to further increase unless ‘deep reductions in CO2 and other greenhouse gas emissions occur in the coming decades.’[1]

With input from 234 scientists from 66 countries, the IPCC’s findings suggest that while human activity from 1850-1990 was chiefly responsible for the 1.1ºC increase in global warming, current predictions indicate that temperatures over the next two decades could increase by (or exceed) 1.5ºC. Such a rise would result in increased and frequent hot extremes leading to intense, heavy rainfall incidents along with ocean acidification and, conceivably, ice-less summers in the Arctic. The report stated the human-induced climate crisis has caused weather-related extremes across the globe, including increased sea-levels that are now ’irreversible for centuries to millennia ahead.’  If human activity is left unchecked and emission levels continue at today’s pace, the earth’s temperature is on track to exceed 2ºC within the 21st century; an outcome that would result in 37% of the world’s population experiencing severe heat waves once every 5 years, expose 194 million people to severe drought, and the degradation of 99% of the oceans’ coral reefs.[2]  In response, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres said the IPCC findings should be viewed as ‘Code Red for humanity The alarm bells are deafening, and the evidence is irrefutable.’[3]

While the 2020 Conference of Parties (COP) was postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, this year’s annual climate change conference was considered a target milestone with regards to the commitment pledged by 196 countries during COP21 in 2015 that led to the ‘the Paris Agreement -’ to limit global warming to well below 2ºC while aiming for 1.5ºC compared to pre-industrial levels. According to the agreement, ‘every country agreed to communicate or update their emissions reduction targets – their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDC) every five years to reflect their highest possible ambition and a progression over time. . . COP26 marked the first of these five-year cycles’.[4]

In addition to the 1.5ºC target, the Paris Agreement reaffirmed that developed countries would provide climate finance, technical support, and capacity building to the more vulnerable developing countries to assist their efforts to develop large-scale emission reductions in their own countries. Such support would enable developing nations to adapt to climate change by switching over to renewable energy sources.  Considering developing countries are the most as risk to the adverse effects of climate change, a crucial outcome of the Paris Agreement required developed nations to mobilize $100 billion annually in climate finance for developing countries. This would ensure that they had the financial resources to manage the growing impacts of global warming including the development of early warning systems, flood defenses, resilient infrastructure and agriculture to avoid loss of life, livelihoods and natural habitats.[5]

COP26 Achievements

Over the course of two weeks during COP26, more than 100 countries joined the Global Methane Pledge, a collective commitment intended to ‘reduce global methane emissions by at least 30 percent from 2020 levels by 2030, which could eliminate over 0.2˚C warming by 2050.’[6]  Methane, one of the more dangerous greenhouse gasses generated through fossil fuel use, livestock farming, and landfills, accounts for half of current global warming.  Over a 20-year period, methane is considered to be ’80 times more potent at warming than carbon dioxide.’[7] While addressing the Glasgow summit, EU Commission Chief Ursula von der Leyen stressed the urgent need to ‘cut emissions fast’, adding that methane-emission reduction was ‘the lowest hanging fruit’ and ‘one of the most effective things we can do to reduce near-term global warming.’[8]

Another promising step towards reaching the Paris Agreement goals included the signing of the Glasgow Leaders’ Declaration on Forests and Land Use, a pledge by over 110 countries that hold 85% of the planet’s forest to commit to ‘sustainable land use, and to the conservation, protection, sustainable management and restoration of forests, and other terrestrial ecosystems.’[9] It is estimated that today only half of the 6 trillion trees present on earth 10,000 years ago remain today. As well as agreeing to halt and reverse deforestation and land degradation by 2030, world leaders also committed $19 billion to restoring and protecting the world’s forests. Hailing the accord as ‘unprecedented,’ UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson praising the declaration, stating: ‘We will have a chance to end humanity’s long history as nature’s conqueror, and instead become its custodian.’[10]  Healthy and substantial forests are an integral component in efforts to address climate change, as they are able to absorb carbon and greenhouse gases and clean the air we breathe while ‘regulating water flows and protecting coastal communities from extreme events and sea level rise.’[11]    

Certainly, the most contested pledge of COP26 – the Global Coal to Clean Power Transition – aims to address the single biggest cause of global warming by phasing out the use of unbated coal fueled power generation by 2030. Estimates of the impact of coal power generation have attributed to 46% of carbon dioxide emissions globally and 72% of energy-related CO2 emissions to coal burning.[12]  More than 70 countries committed themselves to phasing out coal-fired power as well as halting new construction of coal-fired power generation projects.  However, the more ominous facet of the agreement was that which countries did not offer in their support for a transition away from coal. China, the United States, and India, the world’s most coal-dependent nations and top three carbon emission polluters, declined to throw their support behind the agreement. This reluctance ultimately casts a shadow over how committed countries will remain long-term to the voluntary COP26 pledges, particularly in countries such as the US where the fossil fuel lobby retains significant political influence.

Yet, the most substantial commitment produced during COP26 was the announcement from the group United Nations Glasgow Financial Alliance for Net Zero of a group of global financiers including banks, investors and insurers that committed to offer $130 trillion – two fifths of the world’s financial assets – towards investments in technologies that could help accelerate climate action. Intended help meet the goals of the Paris Agreement, the initiative is intended to curb financing for new fossil fuel projects and instead put climate change development and technology at the forefront of major financial decisions for years to come.[13]

Discussing climate action policies at the Saudi Green Initiative Forum this October, US Climate Envoy John Kerry remarked that ‘this is the biggest market opportunity the world has ever known. It’s the biggest transformation that has ever taken place on this planet since the industrial revolution, if we do it.’[14] Furthermore, in a report published early last year detailing the repercussions climate change would have on the global economy, the World Economic Forum found that half of the world’s GDP – a massive $44 trillion – is moderately or highly dependent on nature and that ‘biodiversity loss is one of the top five risks in terms of likelihood and impact in the next 10 years.’[15]

Despite the private sector deeming the climate crisis an ’investment opportunity of a lifetime’ there remains a vitally important aspect of climate action that often gets overlooked in the headlines: national security. Predictions suggest that the effects of global warming will push an additional 100 million people below the poverty line by 2030.[16] Such enormous hardship could apply additional pressure on already vulnerable governments to respond adequately along with the danger of increasing instability and political tensions.

The Implications of Climate change on National Security

The linkage between climate change and national security is becoming more evident. The greater the impact climate change has on societies, the more susceptible do nations at risk become to political, social, and economic instability. The impacts of climate change multiply adverse risks to human health, increase food insecurity, escalate the potential for water conflict, and drastically increase human displacement and mitigation.  The Pentagon has long pegged the effects on society from climate change as ‘threat multipliers’ that may catalyze conflict. Such a designation does not imply that global warming ‘automatically leads to more fragility and conflict’, but rather suggest that climate change ‘interacts and converges with other existing risks and pressures in a given context and can increase the likelihood of fragility or violent conflict.’[17]

During a United Nations Security Council debate on climate and security in February, UN Secretary General Guterres forewarned the council that:

where climate change dries up rivers, reduces harvests, destroys critical infrastructure and displaces communities, it exacerbates the risks of conflict. . .the impact is greatest where fragility and conflict have weakened coping mechanisms, where people depend on natural capital for their livelihoods and where women, who bear the greatest burden of the climate emergency, do not enjoy equal rights.[18]

The increased frequency and intensity of climate shocks such as extreme heat threaten recurring droughts while undermining water supply and agricultural security. With 41 million people throughout the world on the brink of famine, combined with two-thirds of those living in poverty who rely on agriculture as their main source of income[19], food and water insecurity can lead to internal and cross-border competition for scarce natural resources. This may exacerbate tribal and ethnic tensions while raising the prospects of ‘dissatisfaction with governments, increasing the risk of social, economic, and political instability.’[20] Consequently, a recent World Bank report[21] found that without immediate, concrete climate and development action, these heightened political tensions, combined with water scarcity, a reduction in agricultural production and rising sea levels, could displace nearly 216 million people worldwide over the next three decades.  When analyzing the security implications of climate risk, the US Department of Defense paints an even more dire picture, stating that while the impacts of climate hazards may drive mass migration within vulnerable regions, the ‘worst case scenario’ could result in political and civil unrest, regional shifts in the balance of power, or possibly even failed states.[22]

As the fastest warming region on earth, the Arctic is a particular region of concern in terms of intensified geopolitical rivalry due to the physical effects of climate change. As a result of rising temperatures, Arctic ice reduction has permitted newly opened sea routes in stretches that were previously inaccessible. These areas are also treasure-troves of untouched natural resources.  The US Department of Energy estimates that the Arctic holds nearly 13% of the world’s untapped oil reserves – amounting to 90 billion barrels – along with 30% of global natural gas reserves[23] and $1 trillion worth of precious metals and minerals.  With such resources being expected to generate increased strategic economic competition between Arctic and non-Arctic states, the security concern lies in a likely military buildup and an associated risk of miscalculation as countries look to ‘protect their investments, exploit new maritime routes, and gain strategic advantages over rivals.’[24]  Given the high stakes, concern over geopolitical tensions in the Arctic also stems from the resurrection of great power competition between the US, Russia, and China, the last of which who granted ‘observer status’ as a non-Arctic state by the Arctic Council in 2013.[25]  In its 2018 ‘white paper’, China declared itself a ‘near-Arctic state’ whose interests in the region are linked to its trans-Arctic shipping routes and the ‘Polar Silk Road’ linked to Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative, which the US perceives as a means by China to expand its growing global influence. Moreover, China, which imported 8% of its natural gas from Russia in 2020[26], has made massive investments in the Yamal oil and gas project in the Arctic that is estimated to hold more than a fifth of the world’s gas reserves.[27]

In addition, Russia has continued to build up its militarized presence in the Arctic, including the recent installation of Bastion anti-ship missiles[28] as a means to defend its once ‘ice-incapsulated’ northern coastline that is now is melting and altering the local security calculus in Moscow. China’s strengthening presence and Russia’s evolving military strategy, coupled with the rising physical effects of global warming in the Arctic, suggest that strategic competition and perceived challenges to security may well raise the risk of miscalculation or conflict. Once considered a region of stability and peaceful collaboration whose physical elements provided natural barriers to human exploitation, the growing geopolitical rivalry in the Arctic may erode the existing rules-based order in the region that has historically underpinned a ‘tradition of cooperation and low tensions.’[29]


While vital commitments were pledged at COP26, most experts believe these promises are not ambitious enough to limit global warming to the 1.5ºC target.  Furthermore, these commitments will remain words on paper until concrete action is taken. The US approach to the summit was based on an assessment that consistent climate leadership is needed to set an example for other countries.[30] However, though US President Joe Biden made bold, visionary promises during his opening speech at COP26 to prioritize climate change at home and abroad with a particular emphasis on reducing the global dependency on fossil fuels, such pledges are nevertheless dependent on Congressional approval back home.  Taking into account that the US will be holding midterm elections in 2022, it will be difficult to persuade Republicans to support any further climate policy initiatives.

If the US is unable to lead global climate action, the world’s largest greenhouse emitter – China, is even less inclined to do so.  President Xi Jinping did not attend COP26 sent a delegation in his place that offered no new commitments to reach carbon neutrality before mid-century, causing Biden to declare that ‘China had walked away from the climate challenge’ and that Beijing had ‘undermine[d] its own efforts to assert a new role as a world leader.’  Perhaps in response to concerns about Xi’s absence, the US and China released a joint declaration in the closing days of COP26 agreeing to expand cooperation on tackling climate change. US climate envoy John Kerry and his Chinese counterpart Xie Zhenhua stated that both sides intended to enhance methane emission control measures, engage collaboratively to tackle illegal deforestation, and phase down coal use in line with the Paris Accords.  The agreement between the world’s top two emission polluters indicates the critical role they play in addressing climate issues.

Even more concerning, a recent investigation claims that 196 countries are under-reporting their greenhouse gas emissions to the United Nations, suggesting there is a massive gap between the emissions levels that states officially declare and what they are actually releasing into the atmosphere.[31] Such calculated inaccuracies only undermine the feasibility of reaching net zero by 2050. If current policies are left unchecked, the effects of climate change will be increasingly by the middle of this century.  The consequences could be a spectrum of weather extremes and cross-border geopolitical conflict over water and food security along with increased food, health and energy costs.  If countries do not work to limit the trajectory of their emissions, there will be no facet of everyday life left unscathed by the effects of global warming in the years to come.

What is needed now is a total transformation of how governments and industries approach the climate crisis in order to meet the essential greenhouse gas emissions targets of the Paris Agreement.  For far too long, the grim statistics and the challenge of reforming how societies function has dissuaded governments from adopting ambitious measures.  UN Secretary-General Guterres believes such challenges should compel governments to ‘question economic models, invent new industries and recognize the moral responsibility that wealthy nations have to the rest of the world, placing a value on nature that goes far beyond money.’[32] The world must continue to prioritize climate change as a collective, global security threat given that the effects of global warming respect no borders or sovereignty.

References :

[1] ‘Climate Change 2021: The Physical Science Basis,’ 2021. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), https://www.ipcc.ch/report/ar6/wg1/downloads/report/IPCC_AR6_WGI_SPM_final.pdf

[2]‘National Intelligence Estimate: Climate Change and International Response Increasing Challenges to US National Security through 2040’ National Intelligence Council, Office of the Director of National Intelligence, https://www.dni.gov/files/ODNI/documents/assessments/NIE_Climate_Change_and_National_Security.pdf

[3] Marcus Kauffman.  2021. ‘IPCC report: ‘Code Red’ for human driven global heating, warns UN chief,’ UN News, https://news.un.org/en/story/2021/08/1097362

[4] ‘COP26 Explained,’ Conference of Parties to the UN Convention on Climate Change, https://ukcop26.org/cop26-goals/

[5] Ibid.

[6] ‘Global Methane Pledge,’ 2021.  Climate & Clean Air Coalition Secretariat, https://www.globalmethanepledge.org

[7] ‘Methane emissions are driving climate change. Here’s how to reduce them,’ 2021.  UN Environment Program (UNEP), https://www.unep.org/news-and-stories/story/methane-emissions-are-driving-climate-change-heres-how-reduce-them

[8] Zia Weise.  ’At COP26, more than 100 countries commit to reducing methane emissions,’ 2021, Politico, https://www.politico.eu/article/cop26-100-countries-reducing-methane-emissions/

[9] ‘Glasgow Leaders’ Declaration on Forests and Land Use,’ COP26: UN Climate Change Conference UK 2021, https://ukcop26.org/glasgow-leaders-declaration-on-forests-and-land-use/

[10] Jake Spring and Simon Jessop.  2021. ‘Over 100 global leaders pledge to end deforestation by 2030,’ Reuters, https://www.reuters.com/business/environment/over-100-global-leaders-pledge-end-deforestation-by-2030-2021-11-01/

[11] ‘Forests Combat Climate Change,’ 2016.  The World Bank, https://www.worldbank.org/en/topic/forests/brief/forests-combat-climate-change

[12] ‘The End of Coal?’ 2021.  United Nations Climate Change, https://unfccc.int/blog/the-end-of-coal

[13] Liz Alderman and Eshe Nelson.  2021. ‘Global finance industry says it has $130 trillion to invest in efforts to tackle climate change,’ The New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/11/03/world/europe/cop26-climate-change-finance-industry.html

[14] Aya Batrawy.  2021.  ‘Gulf Arab states, squeezed by climate change, still tout oil,’ Associated Press, https://apnews.com/article/climate-technology-business-environment-and-nature-middle-east-c9f2733f576c570f70dcc1ef631403c5

[15] ‘Nature Risk Rising: Why the Crisis Engulfing Nature Matters for Business and the Economy, 2020.  World Economic Forum, https://www3.weforum.org/docs/WEF_New_Nature_Economy_Report_2020.pdf

[16] ‘Climate Change and the Developing World: A Disproportionate Impact,’ 2021.  U.S. Global Leadership Coalition, https://www.usglc.org/media/2021/03/USGLC-Fact-Sheet-Climate-Change.pdf

[17] Katharina Nett and Lukas Rüttinger.  2016. ‘Insurgency, Terrorism and Organised Crime in a Warming Climate Analysing the Links Between Climate Change and Non-State Armed Groups,’ Climate Diplomacy Initiative, https://climate-diplomacy.org/sites/default/files/2020-10/CD%20Report_Insurgency_170724_web.pdf

[18] ‘Climate Change ‘Biggest Threat Modern Humans Have Ever Faced’, World Renowned Naturalist Tells Security Council, Calls for Greater Global Cooperation,’ 2021.  United Nations Security Council, https://www.un.org/press/en/2021/sc14445.doc.htm

[19] ‘IRC on COP26: The climate crisis is here; where is the global leadership?’ 2021.  International Rescue Committee, https://www.rescue.org/press-release/irc-cop26-climate-crisis-here-where-global-leadership

[20] ‘National Intelligence Estimate: Climate Change and International Response Increasing Challenges to US National Security through 2040’ National Intelligence Council, Office of the Director of National Intelligence, https://www.dni.gov/files/ODNI/documents/assessments/NIE_Climate_Change_and_National_Security.pdf

[21] Clement, Viviane; Rigaud, Kanta Kumari; de Sherbinin, Alex; Jones, Bryan; Adamo, Susana; Schewe, Jacob; Sadiq, Nian; Shabahat, Elham. 2021. ‘Groundswell Part 2: Acting on Internal Climate Migration,’ World Bank, https://openknowledge.worldbank.org/handle/10986/36248

[22] Department of Defense, Office of the Undersecretary for Policy (Strategy, Plans, and Capabilities). 2021. Department of Defense Climate Risk Analysis. Report Submitted to National Security Council.

[23] ‘Arctic oil and natural gas resources,’ 2012.  U.S. Department of Energy, https://www.eia.gov/todayinenergy/detail.php?id=4650#

[24] ‘National Intelligence Estimate: Climate Change and International Response Increasing Challenges to US National Security through 2040’ National Intelligence Council, Office of the Director of National Intelligence, https://www.dni.gov/files/ODNI/documents/assessments/NIE_Climate_Change_and_National_Security.pdf

[25] ‘Changes in the Arctic: Background and Issues for Congress,’ 2021.  Congressional Research Services, https://crsreports.congress.gov/product/pdf/R/R41153

[26] ‘China-Russia east route natural gas pipeline delivers 10 billion cubic meters of gas,’ 2021.  Global Times, https://www.globaltimes.cn/page/202108/1231246.shtml

[27] ‘Russia eyes Arctic Yamal gas for chemical projects, LNG – minister,’ 2021.  Reuters, https://www.reuters.com/article/russia-gas-lng-yamal-idUSL1N2N10IP

[28] Andrew Kramer.  2021. ‘In the Russian Arctic, the First Stirrings of a Very Cold War,’ The New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/05/22/world/russia-us-arctic-military.html

[29] ‘Changes in the Arctic: Background and Issues for Congress,’ 2021.  Congressional Research Services, https://crsreports.congress.gov/product/pdf/R/R41153

[30]‘National Intelligence Estimate: Climate Change and International Response Increasing Challenges to US National Security through 2040’ National Intelligence Council, Office of the Director of National Intelligence, https://www.dni.gov/files/ODNI/documents/assessments/NIE_Climate_Change_and_National_Security.pdf

[31] Chris Mooney; Juliet Eilperin; Desmond Butler; John Muyskens; Anu Narayanswamy; Naema Ahmed.  2021. ‘Countries’ climate pledges built on flawed data, Post investigation finds,’ The Washington Post, https://www.washingtonpost.com/climate-environment/interactive/2021/greenhouse-gas-emissions-pledges-data/

[32] ‘Climate Change ‘Biggest Threat Modern Humans Have Ever Faced’, World Renowned Naturalist Tells Security Council, Calls for Greater Global Cooperation,’ 2021.  United Nations Security Council, https://www.un.org/press/en/2021/sc14445.doc.htm

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