iPOP: Climate Change, Security, and U.S. Foreign Policy

By David Reed

Melting Arctic ice is opening the door to international conflict over newly available resources and transport routes. Global food price spikes helped spark the Arab Spring. And over-fishing in the Indian Ocean contributed to the rise of piracy.  Around the globe, growing scarcities of renewable resources–water, productive land, fish, forests, energy–threaten livelihoods, food security, and social and economic stability. In many places, climate change is expected to aggravate those scarcities. Increasing temperatures, droughts, floods, storms and rising sea levels will create unprecedented pressures on the resources needed for human prosperity.

While the United States should be concerned about the consequences of climate change within its own borders, our country must recognize that growing environmental scarcities affecting our trading and strategic partners will be a critical concern in coming decades. U.S. prosperity depends on the prosperity and stability of many other countries and, as we enter this new epoch of climate change and resource scarcity, we face an array of pressures quite unlike those we have faced in the past.

To better understand how we can respond, we have worked with a team of experts to explore the security implications of environmental change in a new book, In Pursuit of Prosperity: U.S. Foreign Policy in an Era of Natural Resource Scarcity. Rigorous analysis of rapidly changing environmental conditions in nine countries and regions around the world sheds light on the various ways in which climate change and other resource pressures affect economic and political stability.

Mud cracks on a reservoir shore during a summer drought. © Global Warming Images

Mud cracks on a reservoir shore during a summer drought. © Global Warming Images

In India, serious water and energy shortages will be aggravated by climate change, potentially sparking domestic conflicts and threatening an economic slowdown that would be disastrous in a country with such high levels of poverty. As India’s neighbors confront similar scarcities, India may no longer be able to maintain regional stability, a matter of major concern to the U.S. Resource scarcity is a serious growth constraint for China, too, and will affect the close economic ties between our two countries. Climate change is likely to be a threat multiplier, especially in arid regions of China, contributing to food insecurity and demand for energy, and detrimental impacts on global markets. Coastal East Africa, a region prone to food and water scarcity, will see climate change aggravate the impacts of deforestation, overfishing, and population growth. Already illegal and unsustainable resource extraction concern the U.S. because of links to terrorism and the potential for humanitarian disaster. Displacement of populations in places as diverse as Pakistan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, because of scarcity and conflict over resources, pose challenges to the stability of these countries and their relationship with the U.S. On our own border, water scarcity in the U.S. Southwest and northern Mexico are likely to trigger rising food prices and local conflict as climate change affects agricultural production. Other studies looked at disputed resources in the South China Sea and the Russian Arctic, and links between agriculture and climate change in Brazil.

Taken together, these case studies illustrate the ways in which resource scarcity affects U.S. interests: disrupting global supply chains, fueling social instability, destabilizing regional relations, undermining our strategic relationships, and spawning opportunities for international criminal and terrorist activities. They also provided the basis for us to develop a policy framework, in collaboration with key institutional players in the foreign policy arena that lays out the necessary adjustments in U.S. policy pillars.

We believe that environmental sustainability must be integrated as a central tenet of U.S. foreign policy. While the U.S. military and intelligence community have drawn attention to the security implications of climate change, ensuring U.S. prosperity means that environmental pressures must be addressed before they become intractable security or military problems.  To this end, the book sets out three broad recommendations that mark a new path for U.S. foreign policy.

  1. Early Warning and Preventive Action: Better data collection, analysis, and strategic planning will allow for early warnings about places where climate change is creating severe social and economic stress and pave the way for preventive action.
  2. Strong Response Toolbox: Increasing and strengthening the mechanisms available to the U.S. government for responding to emerging global environmental problems will allow the U.S. to take a leadership role in supporting countries as they make appropriate resource-use decisions and build resilience.
  3. Lead on Greenhouse Gas Reduction: Pursuing a more ambitious domestic policy to reduce greenhouse gas emissions will not only reduce global environmental pressures but will also increase U.S. credibility on environmental questions around the world.

Following up on the findings of our study, WWF’s In Pursuit of Prosperity program (iPOP) is now working to ensure that the U.S. government anticipates and preemptively addresses disruptions and conflict associated with natural resource scarcity and climate change; that U.S. commercial statecraft promotes sustainable business practices; and that U.S. foreign assistance to strategic partners strengthens their responses to natural resource scarcity and climate change impacts that threaten U.S. interests.