By Tim Sullivan, University of Ottawa
There is a new national security concern on Canada’s horizon. No, I’m not talking about “jihadi terrorism” or cyber-security. I’m talking about climate change. While the effects of climate change are becoming more evident across the globe – think water scarcity, droughts, and mass migration – a new form of national security concern comes along with it. This is a concern that the Canadian government and political leaders previously appeared unwilling or unable to address.
The situation in Syria demonstrates the very real national security implications of climate-change. In 2006, Syria began to experience the worst drought in centuries. This drought was a result of the accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere since the industrial revolution. As the drought persisted, farmers, no longer able to make a living, moved into urban centres. These cities were already ripe with anger over political disenfranchisement and economic strain. In 2011, tensions broke and a revolution materialized. The revolution has since devolved into a protracted civil war that has become a focal point of national security concerns in the West.
The Syrian example is not put forth as evidence that climate change causes conflict or instability to appear out of nowhere. Instead, I describe it to show how events associated with climate-change can exacerbate already tense situations. Massive internal displacement, such as those seen in Syria, can aggravate already stressed situations. Hungry people get angry. Poor people get angry. In states without the capacity to deal with these issues, people are left without options and often turn to extreme measures. The Canadian government needs to open its eyes to this reality.
Viewing climate change as a national security concern is not a stretch. This isn’t tree-hugger politicking or an attempt to steal the national security spotlight to turn attention towards environmental protection. Climate change is a serious national security problem. By trying to detect and solve threats to Canada without taking climate change into account, our government is fighting blind. Our leaders owe it to us to take this seriously.
According to a July 2015 report released by The United States Department of Defence, climate change should be considered a contributor to domestic instability in countries across the globe. This domestic and regional instability in turn exacerbates national security concerns for all states.
The United States is not alone in this view either. The European Union’s Institute for Security Studies described climate change as “the ultimate threat multiplier: it will aggravate already fragile situations and may contribute to social upheaval and even violent conflict”. So why isn’t Canada following the lead of some of our strongest allies?
Acknowledging climate change was not in the Conservative government’s interest. The outgoing Conservative government spared no effort in trying to avoid addressing climate change, from pulling out of the Kyoto Protocol to muzzling Environment Canada scientists. Canada’s economy is deeply invested in resource extraction and, as such, recognizing climate change as a problem in any form does not do any favours to our extractive industries. Better to turn a blind eye to climate change. Unfortunately, in the realm of national security, turning a blind eye is not an acceptable policy choice.
To date, our national security policies make no mention of taking climate-change into account. Compared to our allies, Canada is falling woefully behind. Rather than continuing on the path set by the Conservatives, our new government must establish a national security policy that takes climate change into account.
National security is not an area for governments to pull punches. The Conservative government steered clear of addressing the impacts of climate change, but if Canada wants an effective national security policy, this has to change. Successful national security programs depend on anticipation. You need to predict threats before they arrive on your doorstep. To do this, you look for the factors that contribute to these threats. In our world today, climate change is one of those factors.
Our leaders need to pay attention to climate change and they need to do it now, before the factor they decided to ignore becomes the threat they failed to catch.