Climate change as the ‘new' security threat: implications for Africa

By Anne Hammill, Oli Brown, Robert Mcleman on November 6, 2007

Once an environmental issue, then an energy problem, climate change is now being recast as a security threat. So far, the debate has focused on creating a security ‘hook', illustrated by anecdote, to invest climate negotiations with a greater sense of urgency. Political momentum behind the idea of climate change as a security threat has progressed quickly, even reaching the United Nations' Security Council.

This article reviews the linkages between climate change and security in Africa and analyses the role of climate change adaptation policies in future conflict prevention. Africa, with its history of ethnic, resource, and interstate conflict, is seen by many as particularly vulnerable to this new type of security threat, despite being the continent least responsible for global greenhouse gas emissions. Projected climatic changes for Africa suggest a future of increasingly scarce water, collapsing agricultural yields, encroaching desert and damaged coastal infrastructure. Such impacts, should they occur, would undermine the 'carrying capacity' of large parts of Africa, causing destabilising population movements and raising tensions over dwindling strategic resources. In such a case, climate change could be a factor that tips fragile states into socio-economic and political collapse.

Climate change is only one of many security, environmental and developmental challenges facing Africa. Its impacts will be magnified or moderated by underlying conditions of governance, poverty and resource management, as well as the nature of climate change impacts at local and regional levels. Adaptation policies and programs, if implemented quickly and at multiple scales, could help avert climate change and other environmental stresses becoming triggers for conflict. But, adaptation must take into account existing social, political and economic tensions and avoid exacerbating them.

Please cite as:

Oli Brown, Anne Hammill, Robert McLeman, 'Climate change: the new security threat', International Affairs 83: 6, November 2007, pp. 1141-1154.

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International Affairs
IISD, 2007