Small Wars Journal

SWJ Review Essay – Climate Change, Conflict, and (In)Security: Hot War

Tue, 03/05/2024 - 6:13pm

SWJ Review Essay – Climate Change, Conflict, and (In)Security: Hot War

Zachary Z. Horsington

Hot War

Timothy Clack, Ziya Meral, and Louise Selisny, Eds., Climate Change, Conflict, and (In)Security: Hot War. London: Routledge, 2023 [ISBN: 9781032455792, Paperback, 402 Pages]

Response to the climate crisis and its reverberating effects will define our species’ survival and future quality of life. Climate Change, Conflict, and (In)Security, edited by Timothy Clack, Ziya Meral, and Louise Selisny, is an indispensable, highly approachable, information kaleidoscope into the multidisciplinary discussion surrounding the climate-conflict nexus and climate-security policy. While there is rich and healthy academic discourse surrounding this field of study, which has magnetised significant mainstream visibility and attention within security studies recently, the discipline is nonetheless emergent and bourgeoning academically.

Regardless, the book bridges many interdisciplinary gaps typically associated with military and environmental science across three neat sections: 1) Climate security contexts; 2) Defence and security implications; and 3) Framings and reflections. Over sixteen diverse chapters, a robust, and elaborate set of perspectives and frameworks are considered, which illuminate insight into the various non-linear systems, multidimensional and transnational complexities and the reverberating effects associated with climate-change, human behaviour, and associated implications for national, human, ecological, and planetary security. 

Indeed, there is a significant amount of greenwashing, wilful negligence, and lack of accountability within many security discourses concerning the climate crisis. Such discussions often feel far detached from the dire and stark environmental realities and human stresses observed around the world. Thus, it was welcome to see this book spotlight and address some of the basic environmental ‘elephants in the room’, explicitly within a security context. The authors bridge the stark tone gap between environmental scientists and security practitioners regarding the transnational impacts associated with the adverse effects of anthropocentric climate change, and the current ecological state of our planet.

Assessing the Introduction

The introduction provides a sharp general overview of various adverse physical effects of climate change, and briefly explains how they can directly and indirectly influence political violence, geopolitical/humanitarian crises/shocks, and induce change/adaptation in military decision making/acquisition.[1] The discussion then directly addresses tactical, operational, and strategic level defence implications before pivoting to consider human security concepts; intricacies associated with causation and complexity regarding threat multiplication, magnification, and intensification; reputational risks, and securitisation of the climate crisis more broadly.[2]

Throughout the introduction, relative locality, transnational influences and effects, the human experience, and humanity at large are considered, which instils a refreshingly humanistic tone to a discourse typically dictated by national interests. The introduction does a fantastic job of distilling various environmental and climactic observations, and explains clearly how the discourse surrounding casual links between climate change and political violence is academically contested and diverse. Accessible and interpretable visuals and graphics are used throughout to illuminate the complex topics. 

While it does highlight a number of defence implications, it was brilliant to see the introduction be used to explicitly address how conditions of environmental degradation and scarcity influence human contexts and do not promote conditions of stability and security.[3] The authors advocate for a human security perspective beyond current individualistic concepts and a broader perspective that considers ecological and planetary security at large, on the foundation that the climate crisis represents a direct threat to humanity’s existence.[4]

Assessing Section I

The first section, titled “Climate Security Contexts,” is made up of seven chapters which covers: cascading and systematic risks stemming from environmental change, geopolitics and security in the changing Arctic and Antarctic, climate change and security politics in the Levant, the research and policy implications of sudden-onset and slow-onset climate change, a new framework to understand risk, and insecurity and economic transformation.

Chapter one reviews embedded transnational interests and efficiency gains, global supply chain risks, cascade risks, exposure and vulnerability, developmental status disparities, domestic inequality considerations, and policy environments, under the lens of the climate crisis.[5] The chapter is supported by strong case studies – the 2010/11 food price hike in Eastern Europe, and environmental stress and conflict in the Sahel. Indeed, case studies are effectively deployed throughout the book, and they are consistently relevant and interesting. Thus, the book is a useful and versatile source as an academic reference within security/strategic studies. Discussion towards the end of this chapter covers hazard mitigation and adaptation, examining redundancy, diversity, modularity, substitutability, and flexibility.[6]

The two subsequent chapters on Arctic and Antarctic security are solid introductions and overviews on polar security. Discussion regarding Arctic resource competition, policy paralysis in the Arctic Council, and developments regarding the North Sea Route is robust, and it was pertinent to see explicit discourse regarding the implications of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. [7] While permafrost melt and the greenhouse gas effect are mentioned, I would have liked to have seen more consideration for risks regarding dormant viruses trapped in permafrost ice, more information and explanation surrounding the fragility of periglacial environments, and more perspective regarding how devastating and cataclysmic periglacial ecosystem collapse and greenhouse gas effect intensification could be.[8]

Likewise, while it was refreshing to see a section of the Arctic security chapter dedicated to the political influence of indigenous people, it would have been beneficial to include more discussion regarding Russian indigenous peoples in the Arctic circle, since Russia accommodates the largest population of indigenous groups in the Arctic circle (indeed, Russians represent 40% of the Arctic population, organised across approximately 11 different indigenous groups).[9] Discussion is often dominated by a focus on Putin’s regime and government repression, rather than a nuanced and diverse representation of the colourful Russian indigenous interests in the region. Generally, the chapter could have been strengthened with further discussion regarding current and future fishing disputes and prospects regarding satellite coverage, challenges regarding military logistics, and in-field casualty response.[10]

The following chapter on Antarctic security is the perfect companion, and a fantastic overview. Direct physical impacts of climate change to the South Pole are discussed, the concept of suppositional imperialism is introduced and used as a lens of analysis, Cold War military competition in the region is reviewed, base racing, sovereignty, and the weaponisation of conservation are all considered.[11] There is also insight regarding Antarctic Treaty considerations and disputes, and discussion regarding the trojan horse that may be tourism—or “non-scientific occupation,” as the book describes.[12]

Chapter four provides insight into how sovereign power abuse and biopolitics influence demographic change and structural violence. Pertinent case studies include Saddam’s Iraq, Gleick’s Climate–Migration–Conflict nexus and the Syrian conflict, and insight into the various Palestinian refugee diasporas in Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon.[13] Indeed, the chapter indirectly spotlights human resilience and tenacity in the face of significant adversity and tyranny. It is a solemn reminder of just how unfortunate it is that such human perseverance has to be observed and experienced under such involuntary and harmful circumstances.

Chapter five on research and policy implications regarding sudden and slow-onset adverse climate change effects is absolutely fundamental for any lay security academic or practitioner who seeks to broadly appreciate the dense complexities associated with local, temporally dynamic, multi-agent policy multitasking. Indeed, there is an overview of the intricacies and issues associated with observing and analysing short term shock events, accounting for local sensitivities and preventing counterproductive, top-down action, and rich discourse regarding the various and desperate research gaps related to this topic more broadly.[14] Overall, the perspective that practitioners should contextualise climate change with other human natural systems pressures, to broaden perspective and enrich understanding is salient, and the notion that policy has to multitask, at multiple paces, with multiple stakeholders, all at once, desperately needs to be handled better by current policy leaders.[15]

Chapter six presents a novel and relevant framework for reconceptualising climate change related risks, focussed around: physical and natural systems vulnerability, transboundary and regional dynamics, scales of decision making, and political and social stability.[16] These ‘core dynamics,’ as the chapter describes them, are explained and then applied against climate related security risks in the Northern Triangle.[17] In doing so, the chapter effectively communicates a basic multidimensional approach to risk management that considers local sensitivities and contexts, policy appropriateness, and reverberating effects, focussed around the creation of dense information networks and effective transliteration, communication, and cooperation to impact resilience and transformational responses.

The final chapter of section one, which covers the securitisation of climate change risks, net zero, and associated impacts for global security and security institutions, is clearly genuine in its altruism, although at times it edges at erroneousness. The chapter opens by flagrantly accepting that our species can no longer sustainably operate fossil fuels the way we do if we are to survive on this planet, and effectively explains the logic behind national self-interest and the fiat zero-sum game which conceives of non-renewable resources and their scarcity as zones of contest over access, control, flow, and competitive denial to ensure an edge over adversaries. However, the chapter begins to spoil when it muddies the history associated with multinational climate security discourse, and attempts to argue that net-zero is transformational.

The chapter describes the “first major international public conference” on the subject of climate change and security occurring in June 1988 in Toronto, and frames this event as the genesis of a discussion which propelled climate security discourses into the international policy arena.[18] However, this presentation of events and flow of discourse is slightly problematic, as indeed in 1987 the United Nations published “Our Common Future,” which still holds today as a robust compendium of discussion regarding environmental security risks, energy security concerns, irreversible and pernicious biodiversity loss, urban resilience strategies, multinational management of common domains such as oceans, space, and the Earth’s poles, and prospects for relevant international institutional and legal change.[19] Alas, it was disappointing to see this overlooked, as there is a rich discourse from around this time, which even, at times, involved the Soviet Union. In giving more credit and attribution than due to North American discussions in influencing and shaping early climate security discourses, portions of the chapter read as unnecessarily and overly Western-centric. 

Likewise, the argument that net-zero is transformational was not convincing. A ‘transformation’ implies a shift/change from one state of being to a new, novel, and/or different state of being, whereas net-zero is merely the heroin addict’s dilemma. Certain nation states have made a commitment to quit their fossil fuels of choice ‘cold turkey’ at some point in the future, and there is an acceptance that withdrawal is painful, which necessitates the viability of alternative fuels.

However, quitting ‘cold turkey’ and supplying chemical substitutes may have been considered as transformational rehabilitation at one point in the past. However, it cannot be viewed as such today, as displacing energy usage and overall human consumption without addressing our species’ continued self-entitlement to unsustainable life on Earth merely substitutes the problem at large, and does not solve or repair it. 

This is not to say that our species must live without energy, nor that we must view our species’ relationship with energy consumption as akin to an illicit substance abuse problem. However, discussion surrounding net-zero being transformational frequently read as dry and shallow, as the silence associated with failing to mention/consider discussions related to philosophies, contexts, systems, and incentives surrounding more sustainable energy use and consumption at large rings louder than net-zero itself.

Assessing Chapter II

The second section of the book explicitly intersects previous discussions regarding climate change risk with associated implications for defence and security. The first chapter of this section reviews NATO’s Green Defence Framework, and very strongly examines energy transition by design and the Madrid summit, information and technology sharing, fuel interoperability and diversity within the armed forces, limitations associated with NATO’s ability to enforce good practise, as well as acquisition foresight.[20] Again, it was interesting and pertinent to see a section of this chapter dedicated to measuring success and setting expectations, with explicit reference to how Russia’s war in Ukraine affects NATO perceptions and policy.[21]

Chapter nine represents a continuation of this discussion zoomed in on the United Kingdom. The beginning offers insight into how the UK interprets national security risks associated with climate change and correctly explains how climate change affects human health, infrastructure development and maintenance costs, as well as research, development, and design considerations.[22] However, an inconsistency is foreshadowed in the subsequent sections of this chapter which appears again more significantly later, in the book’s penultimate chapter: climate change and its adverse effects are discussed and considered ‘threats’ or ‘threat multipliers’. In many instances this seemed inappropriate and/or the logic of hazard or risk should apply instead.

Indeed, a puddle on the floor is a slipping hazard. The closer one gets to the puddle, the greater the risk of slipping and falling over. While slipping and falling may inflict injury, which may threaten one’s life, the puddle itself was never a threat, because it was never motivated to act against the person’s interests. Thus, it read awkwardly when this chapter’s ‘threat multiplication’ subsection opened by discussing the adverse effects of extreme weather events and erosion on infrastructure as though these phenomenon were motivated and malicious. Likewise, scarcity, conflict, and insecurity drivers are discussed, at times correctly linking circumstance and human experience to social behaviour and threat, however many examples referenced should be considered and referred to as hazards, risks, and/or risk modifiers/multipliers instead.[23] Thus, the logic and lexicon deployed throughout this section is rather confused.

This disoriented logic continues throughout the subsections “the technology threat (and opportunity)” and “a threat to freedom of manoeuvre.”[24] Again, the systems, platforms, and infrastructures discussed are vulnerable to adverse effects associated with climate change, but climate change itself is not a threat. Adjustment and/or loss of sensor capability due to atmospheric changes, for example, merely demonstrates technological limitations, not the aggrieved impetus of a cloud. Nonetheless the chapter does end on a relevant and pertinent point regarding eco-anxiety and military recruitment, which was a discussion deserving of more attention and detail.[25]

Chapter ten colourfully pivots offshore to explore maritime security, and does so with perspective, clarity, and case studies. Physical and societal impacts of climate change are addressed, the Caribbean, the South China Sea, and the Arctic are isolated as case studies, and frameworks for transformation are discussed, all supported with strong visual elements. The criticality of destructive feedback loops, technological potential, evolution of organised criminal elements, environmental crime and conservation as a weapon are all expounded upon throughout this chapter superbly. There is clear perspective throughout that:

The optimal approach to climate change from the maritime military perspective involves multilateral and cross-sectoral cooperation, science diplomacy, the enforcement of security regimes, and concern for human rights and international development to promote social justice.[26]

And an acceptance that:

Climate impacts differ from one region and one community to another and tend to exacerbate inequalities. They also impact more strongly the communities least responsible for carbon emissions. Developing climate justice to achieve more equitable distribution of the benefits and burdens of climate change requires approaches based on cooperation, human rights, and international development.[27]

Indeed, this chapter may only be strengthened with further discussion related to illegal and organised fishing, coral bleaching, deep ocean rare earth mineral mining, and more discourse from within the shipping sector regarding alternative fuels.

Indeed, the following chapter is just as strong, and may be eloquently summarised using this scintilla:

All too often climate change appears to be a zero-sum game in which states must secure their interests against those of other competitor nations. By considering the human–animal–ecological relationships at the core of our societies, we may be able to offer alternative pathways through these current challenges.

Instead of investing in business-as-usual, we could look to combine mitigation efforts with searches for new strategies and new relationships between our societies and ecologies. By centring cultural and economic connections between groups and their environments, we become more aware of the ways in which impacts are felt and addressed.

Moreover, by prioritising these contextual, relational dynamics we provide new perspectives on those pathways that lead towards and away from conflict.

In doing so, this chapter expertly advocates for greater ecocentrism within security, which is a perspective scarcely discussed in strategic studies circles with the same humanity and consideration.

Chapter twelve delves into climate intelligence and argues for hyper-localised data flows to inform more appropriate resource allocation and policy response “across contexts of regional, national, and subnational variability.”[29] It introduces the concepts of Climate Intelligence (CLINT) and Climate Counterintelligence (C-CLINT), although at face value the second acronym should either be corrected to CLI-CINT, because Counter-Climate Intelligence (C-CLINT) should be considered its own phenomenon separately.

The CLINT intelligence cycle in this context has been reconceptualised around: adaptation, evaluation, preparation, and collaboration.[30] This system is both useful and problematic. Overall, the perspective presented in this chapter should be contemplated by intelligence practitioners as a useful eco-centric lens to superimpose on current best practise regardless of intelligence discipline or domain. However, considering that adaptation occurs as a reactive process in the face of environmental pressure/stress, starting the CLINT intelligence cycle with an inherently responsive operation seems counterproductive for an industry so often used as a tool to inform proactive decision making.

Overall, the capacities associated with CLINT in this chapter come across as overly technocentric, which would likely undermine the concept if it were to be realised in practise, as there are many detrimental effects associated with adopting a ‘collect all’ approach to intelligence.[31] While there is consideration for the role that human intelligence can play into this eco-centric approach to intelligence, it is limited to a mere reference to the possible deployment of ‘Cultural Advisors,’ without any corresponding discussion regarding intricacies surrounding neocolonialism, espionage concerns, nor cultural sensitivities and trust issues more generally. Nonetheless the chapter’s coverage of conflict and multinational intervention in the Sahel and Mali in particular is critical to understanding how kinetic action and conventional military capability fail to realise sustainable security outcomes in today’s complex environments, if they are conceived without humanitarian focus or without ascendency for human security.

The final chapter of this section of the book, chapter thirteen, explores operational risks and opportunities for Western militaries regarding climate change and conservation efforts. The chapter highlights how both peace and conflict undermine biodiversity, and explains its significance with regard to carbon storage and sequestering, regulation of terrestrial, marine, and atmospheric systems, natural disaster resilience, and represents ‘natural capital.’[32] There is a valid insight into how military operations within this space often address symptoms, rather than root causes.

However, this chapter fails to provide perspective concerning the dire rate of extinction observed on planet Earth. Indeed, in 2014, the University of Zurich found extinction rates to be 1000 times higher than natural background rates and expected future rates of extinction to be 10,000 times.[33] Biodiversity loss and extinction are not just critical because we lose beautiful, useful, and resilient natural capital, but because it may lead to keystone species loss, irreversible food chain collapse, and ecosystem/biome demise. Likewise, the severity of this situation is unlike other tipping points with cascading effects, as the loss of keystone species almost always ensures food chain collapse, and the conditions which ensured its genesis and survival may never be replicated. Indeed, the direct, secondary, and tertiary effects of such food chain collapse and associated security implications are rarely studied. This chapter could have been strengthened by addressing this point further, and indeed it seems a significant oversight, considering how tangible, critical, irreversible, and devastating such effects are observed to be currently, and will likely be in future.

Assessing Section III

The final three chapters of the book make up section three. Chapter fourteen concentrates on many of the eco-centric security perspectives made throughout the book; chapter fifteen presents a comprehensive framework to consider the climate crisis a ‘hyper-threat’; and the final chapter reflects on nearly 30 years of research and the maturation of this field.

Indeed, the focus of chapter fourteen is to explain how national self-interest can no longer be conceived without regard to the condition of the biosphere.[34] The significance of first mover advantage, military industrial interests, and implications surrounding an even more multi-polar world are discussed.[35] The critical argument made throughout is that state security cannot exist without human security, which may also not exist without ecological security. One point of critique relates to the discussion concerning Australia and the US deploying reserve service members to combat forest fires.[36] While such operations are framed as demonstrations of resilience, this might not be the case, as national fire services should be managing such disasters themselves. Instead, such deployments should be regarded as solemn reminders of redundancy, not aggrandised desperation passed off as resilience. Nonetheless, the chapter frames food, energy, water, and displacement as fundamental pathways of, and overall, the chapter appropriately compliments previous arguments made in earlier chapters.

Concluding Thoughts

Chapter fifteen (the final chapter) argues that climate change should not be conceived of as a threat multiplier, but rather as the primary threat—the hyper-threat. The perspective that the climate crisis should be considered the primary threat to humanity, considering the current state of environmental calamity, carries significant merit. Indeed, the book’s previous chapters foundation this argument. However, as mentioned previously, merely branding climate change as a threat, when the climate change itself cannot conceive of malicious motivation, reads superficially and intellectually shallow. “Threat,” in this chapter “is not conceived as an ‘identity’ (an individual or group), but instead focus shifts towards ‘actions’ or ‘activities’ that will harm others (including matter) or which will degrade planetary-human-state security.”[37] However, this definition is far detached from understanding which accepts that intention and motivation separate threat from risk, hazard, or accident. Indeed, the intricacies, issues, and interests associated with attributing environmental crimes, bridging cultural divides, or defeating wilfull negligence are washed over to predominate a vision which overcomes such frictions. Considering how grounded in reality the rest of the book is at deciphering the complexities and complications associated with observing, understanding, and diagnosing climate security risks, this chapter was disappointing due to how far detached its argument and perspective feel from the previous discourse.

Nonetheless, the final chapter of the book reads as a stark insight into just how much time and effort has been invested in this field of research, and just how little attention it has received. Indeed, the chapter really hones just how passionate and invested researchers in this field are.

In doing so, the book stands as a testament to how complex, intricate, and impactful climate security risks are and may be in future, and represents a robust overview for anyone interested in breaching this subject accessibly. Overall, the book may have been strengthened with more insight into desertification, overfishing, and Malthusian complexes. Likewise, considering how politicised climate change is, it seemed a significant oversight not to include any discussion related to whistleblower protections and institutional rigidity regarding this subject. While there is some good discussion regarding eco-anxiety and eco-fascism, it was curious to see very little discussion regarding resource scarcity and the convergence of extremists’ narratives around eco-fascism, nor how politically active younger generations are in mobilizing and coordinating political action around climate crisis aversion.

Nonetheless, the breadth and depth of subjects covered across this book is impressive. It stands as a strong foundation and should be read by anyone seeking to actively involve themselves in climate security initiatives. Indeed, the book shows how this field is maturing, and any cross disciplinary gaps or discrepancies should be viewed as opportunities to reinforce this multidimensional and disciplinary research space for the betterment of humanity at large. Climate security concerns are all too frequently conceived through the lens of state sovereignty or individual experience and potential; thus, it was rejuvenating to read perspectives which attempt to influence a democratisation in outlook toward a conception of security grounded in ecological sustainability and a more pluralistic conception of human security. 

For those familiar with this field of study and the publication scarcity associated with this topic, this book represents a refreshing topic review, with a few novel moments. For those unfamiliar with this topic, Climate Change, Conflict and (In)Security: Hot War is a must-read, as it provides an insightful and expeditious general overview.



[1]        Timothy Clack, Ziya Meral and Louise Selisny, Eds., Climate Change, Conflict and (In)Security: Hot War (1st ed.). London: Routledge, 2003. pp. 3–4, 7, 11, and 13.

[2]        Ibid. pp.14 and 18–19.

[3]        Ibid. p. 5.

[4]        Ibid. pp.13 and 20.

[5]        Ibid. pp. 35–6, 38, 42, and 44.

[6]        Ibid. p. 49.

[7]        Ibid. pp. 56–58.

[8]        Ibid. p. 56.

[9]        Ibid. p. 68; “The Russian Federation.” Arctic Council. 2024,

[10]     For more information regarding Arctic security and Russian strategy, see: Elizabeth Buchanan, Red Arctic: Russian Strategy Under Putin. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press, 2023.

[11]      Op. cit., Climate Change, Conflict and (In)Security, p.p 78 and 83 at Note 1.

[12]     Ibid. p. 89.

[13]     Ibid. pp.101, 106, and 110.

[14]     Ibid. pp.121 and 123.

[15]     Ibid. p.124.

[16]     Ibid. p.134.

[17]     Ibid. pp. 136–141.

[18]     Ibid. p. 153.

[19]     “1987: Brundtland Report.” Federal Office for Spatial Development ARE, Swiss Confederation.

[20]     Op. cit., Climate Change, Conflict and (In)Security, pp.174–175, 177, 180, and 182 at Note 1.

[21]     Ibid. p. 180.

[22]     Ibid. p. 189.

[23]     Ibid. pp. 190–194.

[24]     Ibid. pp. 196 and 200.

[25]     Ibid. p. 203.

[26]     Ibid. p. 232.

[27]     Ibid. p. 234.

[28]     Ibid. p. 250.

[29]     Ibid. p. 254.

[30]     Ibid. p. 257.

[31]     For an interesting and relevant discussion regarding this topic, see the two final chapters of: Antoine J. Bousquet, The Scientific Way of Warfare: Order and Chaos on the Battlefields of Modernity. New York: Columbia University Press, 2009.  

[32]     Op. cit., Climate Change, Conflict and (In)Security, pp. 284-85 at Note 1.

[33]     Jurriaan M. De Vos, Lucas N. Joppa, John L. Gittleman, Patrick R. Stephens, and Stuart L. Pimm, “Estimating the normal background rate of species extinction.” Conservation Biology. Vol. 29, no. 2, 26 August 2014, pp. 452–462,

[34]     Op. cit., Climate Change, Conflict and (In)Security, p. 311 at Note 1.

[35]     Ibid. pp. 315 and 318.

[36]     Ibid. p.319.

[37]     Ibid. p.344.

Categories: SWJ Book Review

About the Author(s)

Zachary Z. Horsington has been involved with The Global Security Initiative ( since 2020 and plans to pursue a doctoral program in the future. He holds a Bachelor of International Security Studies from the Australian National University and just completed a Master of Sciences in Counterterrorism, Risk Management and Resilience from Cranfield University. He wrote his Masters thesis on unconventional counterterrorism red-teaming exercises, has language proficiency in Mandarin and Swiss German, and has traveled to over thirty countries. His SWJ-El Centro internship broadly focuses on Criminal Armed Groups (CAGs), Climate Conflict, Hybrid Threats and Transnational Organized Crime, and the Use of Generative AI to Counter Threats related to these issues.