The Three Global Hotspots of the Climate-Security Century

By Professor Mark Nevitt

Adapted from an article first published in the Tufts Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy’s Fletcher Security Review.

“Humanity is waging war on nature. This is suicidal. Nature always strikes back, and it is increasingly doing so with growing force and fury … we must use 2021 to address our planetary emergency.
—António Guterres, State of the Planet Speech, Columbia University (December 2020)
Professor Mark Nevitt
Professor Mark Nevitt

The climate-security century is here. With global temperatures rising, climate change is poised to massively destabilize the physical environment.2  This century may well be defined by our ability (or inability) to reduce our collective greenhouse gas emissions. We must also adapt and respond to climate change’s multivariate security impacts. From raging wildfires in Australia and California to melting ice sheets and permafrost in the Arctic, climate change acts as both a threat accelerant and a catalyst for conflict.3

Climate change is also unlike any other traditional security threat. It accelerates and exacerbates existing environmental stressors, such as sea level rise, extreme weather, drought, and food insecurity, leading to greater instability.4  Climate change impacts are already taking center stage this century, forcing us to think more broadly about climate change’s relationship with human security and national security.5

The Climate Security Century

Complicating matters, climate-driven temperature increases do not rise in a neat, uniform fashion around the globe. The pace of climatic change unfolds unevenly and erratically. Some parts of the world—such as the Arctic—are warming at a rate two to three times faster than the rest of the world. 

Three specific climate-security “hotspots” foreshadow greater destabilization and serve as climate “canaries in a coal mine”—a sneak preview of our climate-destabilized future:

  1. The Arctic—transformed by climate change and a new operational environment, opening trade routes and sparking a potential race for natural resource extraction in the High North.
  2. Pacific Small Island Developing States—where climate-driven sea level rise is swallowing nations whole, raising the specter of climate refugees and possible nation extinction.
  3. The African Sahel—where climate change is leading to increased drought and food insecurity, serving as a tinderbox for resource conflicts. 


Global Hotspot #1

Due in large part to the pace of climate change, the Arctic is quickly emerging as a region of increasing military and economic importance. The Arctic is warming faster than the rest of the planet, driven by a self-reinforcing feedback loop known as the albedo effect, which accelerates the melting of polar ice caps and permafrost.

In turn, melting polar ice sheets are forming new trade routes through Canada (the Northwest Passage) and along the Russian border (the Northern Sea Route). Along the Arctic’s continental shelf, climate change is renewing interest in natural resource extraction, where close to 30% of the world’s untapped natural gas resides. 

The “Law of the Arctic” is largely governed by the work of the Arctic Council, the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), and an assortment of laws and bilateral agreements among the eight Arctic states. 

In contrast to its South Pole cousin—governed by the comprehensive Antarctic Treaty System (ATS)6 —there is no Arctic Treaty. The Arctic Council is characterized by an evolving “soft law” system of collaboration among the eight Arctic Council states: Canada, Denmark (via Greenland), Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden, and the United States. Critically, China is not a voting member of the Arctic Council, although China has declared itself a “near-Arctic” nation and has increasing ambitions in the region. Of these eight members, Denmark, Russia, United States, Norway, and Canada are Arctic “coastal states”—with a continental shelf in the Arctic Ocean—and can potentially extract natural resources. 

Despite the potential for conflict and tension, the Arctic Council has enjoyed some success in managing competing Arctic interests. It has demonstrated a remarkable capacity to tackle increasingly complex issues, such as an agreement addressing unregulated fishing and Arctic search and rescue. 

However, in the face of climate change, tension points are starting to emerge. By its own mandate, the Arctic Council is prohibited from addressing matters of military security.7  This is largely left to NATO and individual nations to navigate. Canada, Denmark, Iceland, Norway, and the US are original NATO members, providing a counterweight to growing Russian militarization. As Russia has invested heavily in Arctic military infrastructure, the NATO members of the Arctic Council have shown a renewed interest in military exercises in the region. 

While the Arctic Council’s 2008 Ilulissat Declaration reaffirmed the Arctic Council’s commitment to the Law of the Sea framework, one key Arctic Council member—the United States—remains an outlier as a non-party to UNCLOS.8 This international treaty, often referred to as the “Constitution of the Oceans,” largely governs maritime issues in the Arctic Ocean to include the increasingly important rights of Arctic innocent and transit passage.9  Additionally, UNCLOS establishes the Commission for the Limits on the Continental Shelf (CLCS), which provides technical expertise to help ascertain the breadth of each individual nation’s continental shelf claims.10  

Four of the five Arctic coastal states have submitted information to CLCS in support of continental shelf claims. The United States has not made a similar submission for its enormous Alaskan continental shelf. As a non-party to UNCLOS, the US likely will not be able to avail itself of the CLCS process.

In 2007, Russia shocked the world by planting its flag on the North Pole. This was an act of no legal significance but nevertheless signaled broader Russian ambitions in the Arctic. Today, Russia claims an outer continental shelf that extends to the Lomonosov Ridge—an enormous area with vast untapped oil and natural gas resources that overlaps with the North Pole. 

While remaining a non-party to UNCLOS, the US has nevertheless served as a good law of the sea partner. For example, the US views UNCLOS’s key navigational provisions as binding customary international law. Additionally, the US Navy has complemented and enforced many key UNCLOS provisions via freedom of navigation operations and diplomatic assertions around the world. 

Despite the US Senate’s failure to provide its advice and consent to UNCLOS ratification, a remarkably diverse coalition of American national security experts, environmentalists, and business interests support the US becoming a party to the convention. The U.S. should ratify UNCLOS as it is contrary to our long-term national security and economic interests in the Arctic and elsewhere.11 

Outside of natural resource extraction, two seasonal waterways—the Northwest Passage and the Northern Sea Route—are both found in the Arctic. Canada has long viewed the Northwest Passage as their internal territorial waters.12  While the US and Canada have “agreed to disagree” on the legal status of the Northwest Passage, tensions have risen regarding Russia’s authority to regulate shipping along the Northern Sea Route. Russia has increasingly asserted an expansive view of its authority over ice-covered areas along the route, requiring prior notification from foreign ships before transiting.

Perhaps most importantly, what happens in the Arctic does not stay in the Arctic. The melting permafrost in Greenland and Arctic tundra increases the possibility for cataclysmic “green swan” events causing dramatic sea level rise, impacting coastlines and small islands, as discussed below.


Global Hotspot #2

Far away from the Arctic, scientists predict that four Pacific Small Island Developing States (SIDS) may become uninhabitable by mid-century due to climate change-driven sea level rise and wave-driven flooding.13

The specter of potentially “stateless” UN member states—Kiribati, Maldives, Republic of Marshall Islands, and Tuvalu—strikes at the core of the UN Charter system, raising novel questions of both international law and environmental justice. It also exposes a governance gap in international law, which does not adequately protect climate migrants fleeing from climate-driven weather impacts and uninhabitability. The 1954 World Refugee Convention, for example, is silent on migrants fleeing environmental or climate disasters.

Since  World War II, the UN Charter has played an important role in stabilizing international order by upholding national territorial integrity and the sovereign equality of each member nation.14  While SIDS are relatively small, they have equal standing as sovereign nations. 

Several questions now arise: With climate change undermining the territorial integrity and sovereignty of these nations, what is the responsibility of developing nations to alleviate this slow-moving tragedy? Can international governance institutions afford to remain silent while nations face climate-driven statelessness? What are the legitimate costs of both action and inaction?

The plight of global climate migrants is an issue of increasingly grave concern.15  By one estimate, more than 150 million people will be displaced by rising sea levels by the year 2050.16  One recent study found that two-thirds of the world’s population faces severe water shortages, a catalyst for cross-border human migration.17  

In addition, many small island nations are uniquely vulnerable to extreme weather patterns. Scientists now link climate change, rising temperatures, and the increased likelihood of extreme weather,18 to which small island nations often lack the capacity to adapt and respond. In 2020, when Cyclone Harold struck several Pacific island nations, it triggered an estimated 99,500 displacements.19 

Finally, critical US national security infrastructure in the region is increasingly at risk. The US operates a key military installation and radar facility at Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands that helps protect the US from North Korean missiles. Rising seas may cause parts of the Marshall Islands to become uninhabitable as early as 2035.


Global Hotspot #3

In a cruel twist, climate change disproportionately harms nations that contributed the least to global greenhouse gas emissions and have the fewest resources to adapt to climate change’s impacts. This includes both SIDS and the poverty-stricken African Sahel, an area already suffering from climate-exacerbated food insecurity and conflict.20

The Sahel region of West Africa, for example, is one of the poorest regions in the world with 40% of the population living on less than US$1.90 per day. The region’s population is growing at an astonishing rate, expected to double by 2045,21 yet the climate is warming in the Sahel far faster than in the rest of the world.

In a recent Security Council debate on climate and security, the World Meteorological Chief Scientist stated that climate change has a multitude of security impacts “increasing the potential for water conflict; leading to more internal displacement and migrations … it is increasingly regarded as a national security threat.” 22 

There is a growing body of scholarship that connects climate change’s multivariate impacts and violent conflict.23  In 2020, the International Committee of the Red Cross estimated that 12 of the 20 most vulnerable countries to climate change were in a state of conflict.24  An estimated 1.25 million people have been displaced in Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger due to extreme rainfall and flooding.25 

Climate change’s destabilizing role in the African Sahel is forcing international legal institutions to reimagine what role they might play in addressing underlying causes of conflict and instability.  

Consistent with its mission to maintain international peace and security,26 the UN Security Council (UNSC) has begun to address climate change. It first recognized the link between environmental security and international security in the aftermath of the Persian Gulf War (1992) and the destruction of oil fields.27  Recognition of other non-traditional security threats followed, such as HIV/AIDS (2000) and Ebola (2014).

In 2017, UNSC took the historical step of linking climate change with the deteriorating security situation in the African Sahel. In Resolution 2349, the “adverse effects of climate change and ecological change” in destabilizing the security situation in the Lake Chad Basin is specifically highlighted.28  Since this Resolution was issued, the Council followed up with additional resolutions for Somalia, Darfur, West Africa, and the Sahel, and Mali.29

While it has yet to make the formal determination that climate change effects are a “threat to the peace” within the meaning of UN Charter Article 39,30  there is a growing precedent for UNSC to use its authorities to address non-traditional security threats. 

As the earth warms, climate hotspots such as the African Sahel will increasingly bear the brunt of climate change’s impacts. In the coming years, the UN will be under increasing pressure to address climate-driven security matters in some fashion.31  An Article 39 declaration serves as the legal key, opening the door for the Council to use its awesome Chapter VII authorities.  


United States Reset

Within a month of taking office, President Joseph R. Biden Jr. L’68 released two important executive orders on climate-security matters: (1) “Executive Order on Tackling the Climate Crisis at Home and Abroad” and (2) “Rebuilding and Enhancing Programs to Resettle Refugees and Planning for the Impact of Climate Change on Migration.”

“Tackling the Climate Crisis at Home and Abroad” makes clear that the world faces a “profound climate crisis” and that US international engagement “is more necessary and urgent than ever.” 32 In the EO, President Biden makes it clear that climate considerations “shall be an essential element of US foreign policy and national security.” In re-energizing climate-security matters, the new Administration understands that it is simply too important to be left solely in the hands of the defense or state departments. 

By elevating several people within his Cabinet who have deep experience in climate change and security matters, and by favoring a whole-of-government approach, President Biden acknowledges that climate change requires integrated national security planning. For example, as Special Envoy for Climate former Secretary of State John Kerry will have a seat on the National Security Council—a historic first. Additionally, former EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy serves as the nation’s first National Climate Advisor, leading a new interagency National Climate Task Force.

President Biden’s EO on resettling refugees emphasizes that human migration is often due to climate change impacts.33  This order reinvigorates the role of the United States Refugee Assistance Program throughout the immigration process “in a manner that furthers [American] values as a Nation.” 

This EO also requires that National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan develop a comprehensive report for the President on climate change’s impact on migration as well as its international security implications. While it remains unclear how the results of this report will be implemented, this signals an important willingness to think broadly about the relationship between climate change and immigration patterns.  

Relatedly, a reinvigorated role for climate-security matters in the forthcoming National Security Strategy (NSS) is expected, a document that sets the tone for the new administration’s national security policies. 

Since President George H.W. Bush, every US president has issued an NSS that squarely addresses climate change and national security. For example, President Barack Obama’s 2015 NSS stated that “The present-day effects of climate change are being felt from the Arctic to the Midwest. Increased sea levels and storm surges threaten coastal regions, infrastructure, and property. In turn, the global economy suffers, compounding the growing costs of preparing and restoring infrastructure.”34 

In a prescient nod to the importance of recognizing non-traditional security threats, the 2015 NSS made clear the high priority of “meet[ing] the urgent challenges posed by climate change and infectious disease.” 

While climate change was omitted from the Trump Administration’s 2017 NSS, the Biden Administration’s Interim NSS states that “The climate crisis has been centuries in the making … if we fail to act now, we will miss our last opportunity to avert the direst consequences of climate change for the health of our people, our economy, our security, and our planet.”35


[1] Quoted in The Washington Post (Dec. 15, 2020).[2] J.B. Ruhl and Robin Kundis Craig, (2021 manuscript).[3] “Threat Multiplier: The Growing Security Implications of Climate Change—A Conversation with Sherri Goodman,” Fletcher Security Review (July 2018); Center for Naval Analyses, “National Security and the Threat of Climate Change,” (2007).[4] Marwa Daoudy, The Origins of the Syrian Conflict: Climate Change and Human Security (Cambridge 2020).[5] “Climate Tipping Points: Too Risky to Bet Against,” Nature Vol. 575 (2019, corrected April 2020).[6] “Polar Opposites: Assessing the State of Environmental Law in the World’s Polar Regions,“ Boston College Law Review Vol. 59 (2018).[7] Declaration on the Establishment of the Arctic Council/Ottawa Declaration (1996).[8] The Ilulissat Declaration, Arctic Ocean Conference (May 2008).[9] UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, Art. 17 (Right of Innocent Passage) and Art. 38 (Right of Transit Passage).[10] UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, Art. 76 (Definition of the Continental Shelf).[11] “Polar Opposites: Assessing the State of Environmental Law in the World’s Polar Regions,“ Boston College Law Review Vol. 59 (2018).[12] “The US-Canada Northwest Passage Dispute,” Brown Political Review (April 8, 2020).[13] “Most Atolls Will Be Uninhabitable by the Mid-21st Century Because of Sea Level Rise Exacerbating Wave Driven Flooding,” Science Advances Vol. 4, No. 4 (2018).  [14] UN Charter, Art. 2, Para. 1.[15] “Forced Migration After Paris Cop21: Evaluating the ‘Climate Change Displacement Coordination Facility,’” Columbia Law Review Vol. 116, No. 8 (Dec. 2016).[16] “Refugees Flee from the Earth,” The New York Times Magazine (July 26, 2020).[17] “Two-Thirds of the World Faces Severe Water Shortages,” The New York Times (Feb. 12, 2016); Human Rights Commission, Figures at a Glance (August 2020).[18] “Explaining Extreme Events of 2017 from a Climate Perspective,” Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society Vol. 100, No. 1 (January 2019).[19] World Meteorological Organization, Provisional Report on the State of the Global Climate 2020 (December 2020).[20] “Addressing Security Council, Pacific Island President Calls Climate Change Defining Issue of Next Century, Calls for Special Representative on Issue,” United Nations (July 11, 2018).[21] “Climate Change in the Sahel: How Can Cash Transfers Help Protect the Poor?” Brookings Future Development (Dec. 4, 2019).[22] “Climate Change Recognized as ‘Threat Multiplier’, UN Security Council Debates Its Impact on Peace,” UN News (Jan. 25, 2019).[23] “Climate Wars? A Systematic Review of Empirical Analyses on the Links between Climate Change and Violent Conflict,” International Studies Review Vol. 19, No. 4 (December 2017).[24] “Climate Change and Conflict Are a Cruel Combo that Stalk the World’s Most Vulnerable,” ICRC (July 9, 2020).[25] WMO, State of the Global Climate 2020.[26] UN Charter, Art. 24.[27] UN Security Council, “Provisional Verbatim Record of the Three Thousand and Forty-Sixth Meeting” (Jan. 31, 1992).[28] UN Security Council, Res. 2349 (March 31, 2017).[29] UN Security Council, Res. 2408 (March 27, 2018).[30] UN Charter, Art. 39.[31] “Is Climate Change a Threat to International Peace & Security?” Michigan Journal of International Law (forthcoming 2021).[32] “Executive Order on Tackling the Climate Crisis at Home and Abroad,” Executive Office of the President (January 2021).[33] “Executive Order 14013: Rebuilding and Enhancing Programs To Resettle Refugees and Planning for the Impact of Climate Change on Migration,” Executive Office of the President (February 2021).[34] “National Security Strategy,” Executive Office of the President (February 2015).[35] “Interim National Security Strategic Guidance,” Executive Office of the President (March 2021).