This past month, rich countries made it very clear that least-developed and under-resourced nations — the ones most vulnerable to extreme climate impacts but the least responsible for the global warming that generated them — are on their own.
At the United Nations-brokered climate talks in Glasgow, the United States and the European Union blocked efforts to boost climate disaster funding and “create a facility providing financial support to victims of climate disasters.”
Maldives’ environment minister, in response, whose country faces submersion from sea-level rise this century, rightly cried foul, noting the Glasgow climate pact was not only “not in line with the urgency and scale required,” but the pact’s promises “will be too late for the Maldives.”
By ignoring the growing climate disaster needs of our least-developed nations, the U.S. and EU leave tens of millions across the globe — if not more — in immediate and increased peril.
Climate refugees and climate-displaced populations now comprise a majority of those seeking safe harbor within wealthier nations like the U.S. Ninety percent of refugees under the mandate of the United Nations’ refugee agency are from countries on the frontlines of the climate crisis. Seventy percent of displaced populations are from the same environment, with climate-related disasters displacing three times as many people as conflict last year.
But here’s the paradox. As the U.S. and EU refuse to fully cover their responsibilities for what’s called ‘loss and damage’ in these least-developed countries, they simultaneously name climate-related ‘threat multipliers’ in their well-funded defense policies.
The U.S., the UK and the EU have been very explicit in their defense strategies — and their respective departments’ climate planning — that climate change is a ‘destabilizer’ and the impacts to national and regional security are clear and present.
All three defense agencies recognize the need to respond to growing security risks and threats from climate-related disaster and displacement. And all three defense agencies are readying the resilience of their missions and installations, while committing to decarbonizing their fleets — with the EU even going further to look at the military’s circular economy, ensuring no product goes to waste.
What’s missing in these military rethinks and climate adaptation planning, however, is a redesign of the mission entirely. Currently, for the most part, it’s business as usual. No major rethink on the military modus operandi, which is a huge, missed opportunity.
Rather than merely recognizing climate change is a threat multiplier, and readying the troops for a traditional response, why not take the existing capacity, knowledge and infrastructure within these defense agencies and redirect it towards prevention?
Here’s an example. When Syria’s Ministry of Agriculture asked the world for assistance when farmers began migrating into cities due to extreme, record-breaking drought, which killed off livestock and livelihoods, that’s when a climate-centric defense apparatus should’ve taken notice.
But we didn’t. Few did. A diplomatic cable sent from Syria underscored the dire situation as early as 2008, when Syria’s agriculture minister stated publicly that the economic and social fallout from the drought was beyond the country’s capacity to cope. Even the UN Food and Agriculture Organization’s representative in Damascus made a direct appeal to rich countries for help. And yet, the global response was weak. Donor countries coughed up only $5 million, a mere quarter of the total that had been requested.
There was an opportunity to step in and stop this threat multiplier from worsening the situation on the ground, but we ignored it. You know the rest: Cue the civil war.
Syria’s story is not unique. This is happening all around the world. Countries are destabilizing due to climate disasters, and rich countries are waiting until a response — usually in the form of military assistance or deployment — becomes the default imperative. Beyond the moral implications here of preventable loss of life, what an inefficient status quo and what a waste of resources.
It’s time for our defense departments — the U.S. Department of Defense, the UK Ministry of Defence, and the EU’s Common Security and Defense Policy office — to truly prioritize human security.
That means securing environments, in advance, from increased disaster, destabilization and displacement. That means focusing, beforehand, on infrastructure and livelihoods. And yes, that means rethinking the mission, so that when another call comes in from an agricultural ministry saying a drought or flood has destabilized an entire region, and it’s beyond the country’s capacity to cope, that our most heavily resourced government agencies — our defense departments — can mobilize resources immediately.
We can do this. We’ve done it before. Our defense departments were mobilized effectively to respond to the COVID crisis. Why not similarly mobilize them to respond to the climate crisis in a way that assists communities before they’re destabilized and before they’re displaced.
If we do this right, we can conserve significant resources while saving lives, and we can slow mass migration while mitigating conflict and violence. The climate is ripe for a global security rethink.
Montpelier resident Michael Shank and U.S. Rep. Yvette D. Clarke teach at NYU’s Center for Global Affairs.