Small Wars Journal

Threat Multipliers and the Need for a Comprehensive Climate Change Strategy

Mon, 07/02/2018 - 3:20am

Threat Multipliers and the Need for a Comprehensive Climate Change Strategy

Spencer Phillips


The National Security Strategy (NSS) of the United States released by the White House in December 2017 was a sharp departure from the idealism of other recent administrations. In recognition of the realities of a highly competitive world, and to ensure its continued standing in the world, the U.S. would now be more willing to use its political, economic, and military power to confront potential rivals. This strategy strongly focuses on the dangers posed by traditional state actors and violent extremist organizations, and the tools they may use to threaten U.S. security interests.[1] While the dangers posed by hostile nation states, weapons of mass destruction, drones, and cyber weapons are significant enough to justify a robust U.S. response, the current strategy completely omits other equally urgent security threats. Neither the NSS nor the Defense Department’s National Defense Strategy (NDS) make any mention of the risks associated with global climate change, to include the widespread instability and conflict that it is likely to cause in the coming decades.

This exclusion is not a minor one, and the failure of the U.S. to prepare for climate change related threats could have disastrous repercussions. In its 2016 Global Risks report, the World Economic Forum stated that the top global risk in terms of impact is a failure to respond to climate change, and that four out of five of the top threats the world will face in the next ten years are climate change related.[2] Another report commissioned by several U.S. intelligence agencies and the National Research Council, warned that climate change will eventually lead to “consequences that exceed the capacity of the affected societies or global system to manage and that have global security implications serious enough to compel international response.”[3]

By failing to take a proactive approach towards a danger almost universally recognized by allies, enemies, and even its own intelligence agencies as a major emerging threat, the United States has left itself vulnerable. In their current states, the NSS, NDS, and other subsequent plans that various departments of the U.S. government will draft based off their guidance, are inadequate. To resolve this deficiency, the U.S. must develop a national strategy that includes a detailed, long-term plan for mitigating the security threats associated with global climate change. A continued failure to do so will likely have catastrophic consequences for global stability and peace.

“Threat Multipliers”

The dire predictions associated with climate change are well known. By the year 2100, mean global temperatures will have risen an additional 2.5°F to 10°F. Drought and heat waves will become more frequent and a shift in precipitation patterns will cause increased flooding and drought in many locations across the globe. Hurricanes and other major storms will become larger, more intense, and increasingly common.[4] Ocean levels will also likely rise another 1-4 feet by the end of the century as seawater warms and expands and land ice melts at an increasingly rapid rate.[5]  

While these statistics are themselves alarming, the most serious threats will emerge from the human response to these environmental changes. The 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) warned that climate change will likely act as a “threat multiplier” that will “aggravate stressors abroad such as poverty, environmental degradation, political instability, and social tensions – conditions that can enable terrorist activity and other forms of violence.”[6] These threat multipliers will be at their most destructive when numerous events occur in a short period of time, or kick off a sequence of cascading crises that have far reaching implications that negatively impact U.S. national security interests in unexpected ways.[7]  

Mass Migration and Urbanization

Mass human migration will be a continuous humanitarian crisis throughout this century as rising sea levels and other environmental changes push tens of millions of people out of their homes, towns, and villages. Some Island nations like the Maldives must prepare for the possibility of being submerged by rising oceans over the next 50 years. Many “climate refugees” will move to urban areas - upending existing social orders and demographics and placing immense strain on already limited resources. By 2050, the population of the world’s cities will increase by an additional 2.5 billion people.[8]

Rapid urbanization is and will continue to be a major concern as climate refugees flow into cities in large numbers. This phenomenon has been a precursor to conflict in the past. In the 1960’s, the Shah of Iran ordered a series of modernization efforts that came to be known as the White Revolution. These policies included land reforms designed to break the influence of rural landlords, but also greatly increased the migration of rural peasants into Iran’s urban areas. Many of these poor migrants struggled to adapt to life in large cities like Tehran, and often lived in extreme poverty in slums, or in tents on the outskirts of the city. The discontent of these displaced people played a key role in the revolutionary fervor that would lead to the fall of the Shah in 1979.[9]

Millions of other refugees will likely seek sanctuary in other developing countries. In 2014, 86% of the world’s refugees lived in a developing country. The costs associated with providing for these migrants are often extreme. The UN estimates that the cost to feed and house Syrian refugees in Jordan will exceed 7% of Jordanian GDP.[10] A massive influx of migrants could overwhelm the limited resources of neighboring states, and feasibly aggravate ethnic or religious tensions within the country. In the Indian state of Assam in the late 1970’s and 1980’s, concerns that migrants were diluting the local culture and competing with native Assamese for limited resources, led to violent riots that killed 3,000 Bangladeshi immigrants.[11] With the recent increase of Hindu nationalist sentiment in India, anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim tensions are once again rising in the border areas with Bangladesh.[12]In 2012, accusations that Muslim “infiltrators” were a threat to the livelihood, land, and political influence of indigenous tribes led to widespread sectarian violence, once again leaving dozens of Bengalis dead.[13] A future influx of Muslim Bangladeshi climate migrants is likely to once again aggravate the sectarian and ethnic tensions that have plagued the region for decades.  

Food and Water Security

Changes in climate will also severely impact food production and prices. In addition to flood and drought, the gradual depletion of vital glaciers will reduce the flow of water to many of the world’s most critical river systems, negatively impacting food production and water availability. At the Global Security Forum in 2015, CIA director John Brennen warned that, “sharply reduced crop yields in multiple places simultaneously could trigger a shock in food prices with devastating effect, especially in already-fragile regions such as Africa, the Middle East and South Asia.”[14]  

The World Food Programme has echoed these concerns and cautions one of the most significant impacts of climate change will be that of increased food insecurity and malnutrition.[15] The destruction of farmlands by extreme weather events, flooding, and drought will acutely affect the availability and pricing of food in many parts of the world.[16] Such conditions have often acted as a catalyst for instability and conflict. Countries across the Middle East such as Bahrain, Yemen, Jordan, Egypt and Morocco, saw violent riots after a dramatic rise in food prices in 2007 and 2008.[17] Increases in the price of sugar, oil, and flour in Algeria and Tunisia in 2011 also prompted unrest, and was followed by the transformative Arab Spring protests a short time later.[18] While this increase in food prices was by no means the primary factor that led to the Arab Spring uprisings, it was likely one of several variables that aggravated the discontent that would fuel the protests of 2010 and 2011.

In addition to increased instability and civil unrest, violent extremist and criminal organizations may also exploit opportunities created by increased food insecurity. As recently as March 2018, United States Africa Command (AFRICOM) Commander, Marine Corps General Thomas D. Waldhauser testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee on the danger that climate change poses to Africa. The Sahel is turning to desert at the rate of about a mile a year he warned, placing 6 million Somalis at risk. This has had “a significant impact on the herders who have to fight, if you will, for grassland, waterholes and the like. So, these environmental challenges put pressure on these different organizations -- some are [Violent Extremist Organizations] some are criminal, but it puts pressure on these organizations just for their own livelihood.” Gen. Waldhauser then went on to state that close U.S. cooperation with African states would be necessary to prevent this situation from affecting security conditions throughout the central and western parts of continent. He closed by stating that, “there are some significant challenges, and the numbers sometimes in Africa can overwhelm you.”[19]

Mass migration and urbanization prompted by climate change will also exacerbate food and water shortages as bloated populations in many cities will begin to exceed what available resources can sustain. A combination of population growth and drought has forced Cape Town, South Africa, to face the very real possibility that it will run out of water in 2019.[20] In preparation the city has established emergency water stations and plans to shut off the taps to 4 million homes once reservoirs become critically low. Price gouging on bottled water has already begun as has water theft and fighting at local natural springs.[21] Many other high population cities across the developing world to include Cairo, Bangalore, Beijing, São Paulo, Jakarta, and Mexico City are likely to experience severe water shortages in the coming years.[22]

Limited Capabilities of Most Vulnerable States

These compounding issues will be further exacerbated by limitations in the countries that will be most severely impacted by climate change. Many of the governments across sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, and the Middle East are plagued by problems that will leave their ability to respond to a major climate induced crisis severely diminished. Researchers at the Notre Dame Global Adaptive Initiative (ND-GAIN) report that many populous nations like Congo, Bangladesh, and Kenya, among others, are not only highly vulnerable to the immediate effects of global climate change, but also lack the strong government institutions, economic readiness, or social conditions necessary to withstand and effectively respond to the crises these changes will bring.[23]

The refusal or inability of a government to respond to these “threat multipliers” quickly and effectively could have catastrophic consequences. By failing to adequately act on issues such as rising ethnic tensions, food security issues, mass internal migration, or natural disaster, governments run the risk of exacerbating these problems. The perception of an incompetent, corrupt, or indifferent national leadership during a time of immense suffering could also easily act as the impetus for violent civil unrest and violence.

An Unpredictable Threat

Perhaps one of the more significant difficulties that commanders and policy makers will encounter when preparing for, or anticipating climate induced violence or instability, is accounting for the unpredictable nature of the threat. Climate refugees, or the population of a city that suffering from a food shortage, cannot be expected to act as unitary actors or to always behave in a manner that is rational or in their best interest. Additionally, whether a state will be able to withstand, or the people willing to tolerate the hardships that climate change will bring may not be easy to determine by merely analyzing the strength and capabilities of a respective government’s institutions. Numerous intangible variables such as complex cultural, religious, and societal factors may act as unseen sources of strength for an ostensibly weak state, or an explosive point of conflict for a seemingly stable country.

Experts have been predicting the imminent demise of Pakistan for over 70 years. Plagued by ethnic conflict, coups, weak political institutions, and extremist violence, Pakistan’s first peaceful transition of power between political parties did not occur until the election of 2013 – 66 years after its independence from Great Britain.[24] Yet despite these challenges, the Pakistani state remains remarkably resilient, due in large part to a culture built of strong societal and kinship groups that interweave through the country’s political fabric and provide the nation with a durability that belies expectations.[25]

Conversely, between December 2010 and January 2011, a popular uprising ousted the seemingly stable Tunisian dictatorship of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali who protesters blamed for a stagnant economy, high food prices, and rampant corruption. These events took the world by surprise. Tunisia was considered a relatively stable corner of the North African region and President Bin Ali’s 23-year hold on power seemed stable. However, within a few short weeks the Tunisian regime collapsed.[26] Just as policy-makers, scholars, and military leaders failed to foresee the fall of the Tunisian government or erroneously predicted the collapse of the Pakistani state, forecasting exactly where and how these climate induced social and political conditions will manifest themselves, and therefore plan or allocate resources accordingly, may prove to be an immensely difficult yet necessary task.


To defend U.S. interests against these threats, the U.S. defense policy must once again acknowledge global climate change as a stated national security priority, and policy makers should develop a strategy specifically focused on combating its effects. In this context, the U.S. must be careful not to conflate military strength with safety and security. Unlike a traditional threat, the United States cannot rely on deterrence, or respond with overwhelming force if that deterrence fails. Therefore, any effective national climate change strategy must focus on preparation, and the mitigation of threats, and should use all the instruments of national power with the military playing only a supporting role.

Military Role and Limitations 

There is no military solution to the political and social upheaval that global climate change will bring. Armed intervention cannot resolve issues such as civil unrest, rapid urbanization, displaced people, or shortages of food and water, and a careless attempt by leaders to use military force in an attempt to extinguish these crises is likely to only exacerbate them further. However, the U.S. military will need to perform several key functions focused primarily on building the military capacity of vulnerable states, with counter-terrorism, humanitarian assistance, and disaster response being a top priority. To develop these capabilities, funding for security cooperation programs should be significantly increased for nations at high risk of climate induced instability. Due to the unpredictable and chaotic nature of the climate change threat, the deployment of U.S. combat forces may also be necessary on occasion to protect vital U.S. national security interests. However, policy makers and senior military leadership should use extreme caution when making the decision to commit troops and consider the potential second and third order effects that such an escalation would have.

Resilience and Capacity Building

Though no single strategy will eliminate the dangers associated with climate change, the U.S. must act to minimize this phenomenon’s most disruptive attributes. Working closely with partner nations, NGOs, and the private sector, the United State government should create and expand programs designed to combat the conditions that cause mass migration. Such initiatives include the development of new agricultural technologies that allow rural farmers to adapt with the climate and continue to maintain a livelihood in their home villages. In Bangladesh, for example, the introduction of salt resistant rice has made it possible for subsistence farmers to continue living in rural villages even as rising sea levels have made the soil inhospitable to all other crops.[27] This one solution has helped slow the flow of climate refugees in the country while also making progress towards a solution to the food security problem in Bangladesh.

Other initiatives should be enacted with the goal of neutralizing the sources of conflict and increasing vulnerable governments’ capability to recognize and respond to emerging or potential climate induced crises. Such programs should include government institutional development and conflict resolution in areas prone to ethnic and religious strife. NGOs and the private sector should be utilized wherever possible. These solutions are not unique and each of these recommendations already exists in some form. What is missing however is a coherent national strategy and the resources necessary to accomplish it. For a national climate change strategy to succeed, it will require political will, unity of effort, and the full staffing and funding of critical government agencies to include the State Department and USAID.


As the U.S. faces an increasingly complex and perilous security environment, it must be careful not to become too fixated on traditional threats like state actors, WMDs, and terrorism, while failing to acknowledge the dangers posed by global climate change. The continued refusal of the U.S. to prepare for the impact that climate change will have on many societies and governments across the globe will likely have severe negative consequences as instability and conflict becomes more frequent and unpredictable. Many feasible solutions that would significantly mitigate the security threats associated with climate change have already been identified. However, the United States currently lacks a clear long-term national strategy and the resolve to allocate the resources necessary to achieve success. Until these conditions change, the U.S. will continue to be unprepared for the security challenges it will face in the coming decades.

End Notes

[1] Donald Trump, “The National Security Strategy of the United States of America” (The White House, December 2017),

[2] “The Global Risks Report 2016 11th Edition” (Geneva: World Economic Forum, 2016),, 11-13.

[3] John D. Steinbruner et al., eds., Climate and Social Stress: Implications for Security Analysis (Washington, D.C: National Academies Press, 2013), 5.

[4] Randal Jackson, “Global Climate Change: Effects,” Climate Change: Vital Signs of the Planet, accessed February 19, 2018,

[5] Brady Dennis and Chris Mooney, “Antarctic Loss Could Double Expected Sea Level Rise by 2100, Scientists Say,” Washington Post, March 30, 2016, sec. Energy and Environment,

[6] “2014 Quadrennial Defense Review” (Department of Defense, March 4, 2014),, 8.

[7] Steinbruner et al., Climate and Social Stress., 3-4.

[8] “Rapid Urbanization Increases Climate Risk for Billions of People,” accessed March 1, 2018,

[9] Center for Cultural and International Studies (Iran), Islamic Revolution of Iran: A Sociological Study (Tehran: Alhoda Publishers, 2001), 221-223.

[10] “The Global Risks Report 2016 11th Edition.”, 16.

[11] Subir Bhaumik, “Anti-Migrant Rhetoric Alarms Assam Muslims,” accessed April 2, 2017,

[12] Ibid.

[13] Subir Bhaumik, “What Lies behind Assam Violence?,” BBC News, July 26, 2012,

[14] Charles Mandel, “Climate Change Drives Political Instability: CIA Director,” National Observer, November 17, 2015,

[15] “Climate Impacts on Food Security,” United Nations World Food Programme - Fighting Hunger Worldwide, accessed March 1, 2018,

[16] Ibid.

[17] “Let Them Eat Baklava,” The Economist, March 17, 2012,

[18] Kimberly Flowers, “Food Insecurity, Conflict, and Stability,” November 16, 2015,

[19] “13 Mar 18: V4 Testimony Before the Senate Armed Services Committee Transcript,” § Senate Armed Services Committee (2018), 48.

[20] Ed Stoddard, “Cape Town ‘Day Zero’ Pushed Back to 2019 as Dams Fill up in South...,” Reuters, April 3, 2018,

[21] Craig Welch, “Why Cape Town Is Running Out of Water, and Who’s Next,” National Geographic News, March 5, 2018,

[22] David Shukman, “The 11 Cities Most Likely to Run out of Drinking Water,” BBC News, February 11, 2018, sec. World,

[23] “The Notre Dame Global Adaptation Initiative,” Notre Dame Global Adaptation Initiative, accessed March 4, 2018,

[24] “Aitzaz Praises First Ever Peaceful Power Transition in Pakistan,” DAWN.COM, August 27, 2013,

[25] Anatol Lieven, Pakistan: A Hard Country (New York: PublicAffairs, 2012), 215-218.

[26] Liz Sly and Leila Fadel, “Overthrow of Tunisian President Jolts Arab Region,” January 16, 2011,

[27] Ari Shapiro, “Salt-Resistant Rice Offers Hope For Farmers Clinging To Disappearing Islands,”, May 18, 2016,

Categories: national security

About the Author(s)

Major Spencer Phillips is a U.S. Army Aviator and Central and South Asian Foreign Area Officer (FAO) currently assigned to U.S. Army Central. He has a M.A. in International Relations from the Frederick S. Pardee School of Global Studies at Boston University, and a M.Sc. in Military Studies from the Bangladesh University of Professionals in Dhaka, Bangladesh. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of USARCENT, Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.