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In the fight against climate change, don’t overlook its security implications

Climate change, rising sea levels and the state of our environment have very much been in the news in recent weeks. This ranges from Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s National Day Rally, to Indonesian President Joko Widodo’s announcement on moving the country’s capital out of Jakarta, and the raging fires in the Amazon.

A settlement for Rohingya refugees in Thang Khali, Bangladesh. An influx of refugees can lead to an increase in conflict and extremist ideologies, says the author.

A settlement for Rohingya refugees in Thang Khali, Bangladesh. An influx of refugees can lead to an increase in conflict and extremist ideologies, says the author.

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Climate change, rising sea levels and the state of our environment have very much been in the news in recent weeks. This ranges from Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s National Day Rally, to Indonesian President Joko Widodo’s announcement on moving the country’s capital out of Jakarta, and the raging fires in the Amazon. 

Yet, the environmental crisis has many secondary implications which have not been explored or researched enough. For one thing, the security implications are quite profound and will be expected to escalate in the coming years in a number of ways.

First, the global warming crisis is projected to impact agriculture across the region, with the erosion of soil and the drying up of much farmland (called slow onset disasters) leading to increased urbanisation as well as a drain in government resources. This has the potential to ignite conflicts. Just look at how the Syrian conflict was sparked by droughts and increased urbanisation.

In South and South-east Asia — regions that are both highly dependent on agriculture as a source of income and teeming with multiple terrorist and insurgent groups — this is likely going to hit hard.

For instance, groups like the Naxalites, an insurgent group based in the rural parts of India, as well as the Barisan Revolusi Nasional Coordinate rebels in Thailand, have fought with their respective governments for control of agricultural resources during global-warming-induced droughts in a number of conflicts.

Second, global warming also brings with it a number of natural rapid-onset disasters as witnessed in the floods in Bangladesh this year and Typhoon Mangkhut in the Philippines last year. These disasters often increase constraints on counter insurgency operations, finances and army personnel who would otherwise be stationed in conflict-ridden areas.

For instance, the glut of natural disasters that are hitting the Philippines has led the army to incorporate disaster response training. This could affect the effectiveness of its security establishment when it has to deal with disasters instead of insurgencies, such as those occurring in Mindanao and other places.

Moreover, such disasters can also help boost the credentials of terrorist groups which are involved in disaster relief. For example, during the 2015 and 2005 earthquakes in Pakistan, the Jamaat ud-Daawa (charity arm of terrorist group Lashkar e-Taiba) was involved in rescue and relief efforts which boosted support for its activities and branding.

This would not have escaped the attention of terrorist and insurgent groups elsewhere in South-east and South Asia, and they could try similar tactics.

Lastly, the most inevitable effects of the global warming crisis will be the widespread migration of people to areas that are less affected by the issue.

Indeed, a United Nations report highlighted that the number of environmental migrants/refugees in the year 2050 could hit up to one billion, most of whom will be in parts of Asia. This is more than 10 times the global total of refugees in the world. Such an influx of refugees could lead to an increase in conflict and extremist ideologies.

This has already played out with the Rohingya refugee crisis in South-east Asia. Some countries in the region as well as India and Bangladesh have had to deal with terrorists trying to recruit members of the Rohingya community.

These sort of refugee crises have a significantly worse impact on anti-refugee vigilantism. Hindu and Buddhist extremists in India and Myanmar respectively have demonised refugees and blamed them for socio-economic issues which have led to increased polarisation in the nations.

Even Bangladeshis have called for the return of Rohingya refugees. Accordingly, it is safe to say that the presence of environmental refugees will increase such polarisation and religious extremism.

In sum, the effects of global warming on security, conflicts and terrorist groups are indisputable. Much research on the subject is warranted but more importantly, policy makers have to deal with crafting sound policies that can help deal with environmental crises and their secondary effects on security.

What stands apart is that governments can take cheaper preventative steps rather than more expensive remedial measures post disasters.

For instance, apart from spending billions of dollars on restoring disaster-hit infrastructure and buildings (which are still prone to further natural disasters), governments can and should spend much more on afforestation, subsidising renewable energy sources, cracking down on wasteful practices and penalising offenders.

Climate change has multiple run-on effects on various different aspects of life and security, and governments can do much to pre-emptively mitigate the threat.

However, at present, most institutions are not aware of such links between global warming and security and as such are likely quite unprepared for the full-blown impact.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Mohammed Sinan Siyech is a Senior Analyst with the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research, a constituent unit of the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University.

Related topics

climate change terrorism security National Day Rally Rohingya

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