The Ticking Time Bomb: Irreversible Global Consequences of Climate Change

L’Association des Jeunes Internationalistes publishes an article written by William Tuckwell, former master’s student in MLitt in Terrorism and Political Violence at Handa Centre for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence (CSTPV), University of St. Andrews. Cet article est publié en coopération avec la rubrique diplomatie de La Gazelle, un journal inter universitaire.

his article presents a ‘whistle-stop tour’ of the security implications posed by climate change. The combination of climate change and growing populations will likely cause a cascade of negative and irreversible security consequences. The broad themes of the article can be extrapolated beyond the examples mentioned in this article. 

Since the Second World War, the world has entered a period of ‘long peace’, marking the longest continual period of modern history without military conflict between great powers. Gaddis, writing in 1986, offered a historical analysis of the Cold War suggesting that the bipolarity underpinned by mutually assured destruction created the conditions for peace [1]. Higher living standards for every continent accompanied this new historical anomaly of an era. Whilst the concept of ‘long peace’ may be challenged by scholars seeking to deepen their understanding of what actually constitutes ‘peace’, it is undeniable that rising standards of living after the Second World War coincided with the absence of great-power military conflict. Although ‘small wars’ have continued, none can compare with The First and Second World Wars which stand as witnesses to the incalculable suffering inflicted when industrialised great powers wage war. The post-war rise in living standards sits firmly within the context of the long peace. 

However, this picture of a mostly safe and more prosperous world is set to change. Climate change and demographic trends strongly suggest that an irreversible pattern of declining standards of living has already been set in motion. Over the next thirty years, climate change is set to make agriculture substantially more challenging, particularly in places that are expected to see population booms.  Economic fragility will also affect traditionally richer countries whose populations are in decline. The combination of long-term trends in climate and demography is likely to produce lower standards of living across the globe and greater chances of conflict.

Irrespective of climate-related security pressures, it is first necessary to understand the importance of demography. Historians have been successful in using demography to indicate periods of political uncertainty. The framework of Peter Turchin’s work on how demographic changes influenced the American Civil War and twentieth-century conflicts has been used to accurately predict growing political instability in the UK and the USA during the past decade [2]. The research concludes that, irrespective of regime type, substantial population changes are indicative of domestic instability. If a country experiences a population boom it quickly develops an abnormally young population which results in a large influx of people into the workforce. In 1940, the world population was 2.3 billion; it is now 7.7 billion. Countries with limited economic freedom are usually poorly equipped to respond to increased demand for work and growing strain on resources. By contrast, liberal political conditions result in the quick creation of new political interest groups who invariably want better life prospects and conditions. The sudden emergence of new political and economic actors’ places new strains on existing systems.

Although this phenomenon is much less well studied, a population decline also presents a nation state with political strain. Goldstone argues that differing types of population change constitute political risk. He argues that population decline presents opportunities for; changes in the labour force, increases in educated youths aspiring to scarce elite positions, unequal growth between ethnic groups and increased urbanisation [3]. In addition, population declines pose a simple economic problem since increasingly fewer workers must provide for an increasingly large non-working population. This trend has been most observed in economically prosperous states, the prime case study being Japan. Hailed by David Attenborough as the prime example of how good depopulation can be, Japan in fact faces an economic time bomb that is providing substantial problems for their economic model, problems which cannot be fixed as long-term declines in population are almost impossible to reverse.

With this framework connecting demographics and political instability established, there are several population changes which will occur over the next few decades worth noting. Firstly, and most importantly, the population in Africa is set to skyrocket. Today, Africa has a population of 1.34 billion people, this is expected to almost double to 2.5 billion by 2050. India is expected to become the world’s most populous country and have around 1.64 billion people by 2050. European population trends are expected to decline slowly, peaking at 747 million in 2022 and declining to 629.5 million by 2100. However, perhaps the most surprising population trend is that of China, which is expected to peak at about 1.4 billion, which will then fall to around 1 billion in 2100. Using our established framework, we can then predict that Africa and India are likely to face political insecurities in their domestic politics. China and Europe are likely to become much more fragile as their economic systems come under increasing strain.  

As the populations of Africa and India boom, the impact of climate change is likely to change the trajectory of regional security for the worse. Whilst demography has been utilised to improve our understanding of domestic instability, we must consider the impact of harvests and agriculture on political instability as well. Whilst harvests were central to economic and political life for much of history, technological changes in the last 250 years have mostly rendered debates about food supply in Europe and America mute, since between more stable agricultural techniques and global shipping, food supplies have been consistent. However, if we take a broader perspective, it is possible to once again predict with a good degree of accuracy political instability alongside severe food shortages. The reason for this is obvious; if a government is unable to feed the population, especially when the elites live luxuriously, the government is often placed under immense domestic pressure to relieve the situation. The impact of climate change presents a good opportunity to use this analysis of food cycles. One impact of climate change explored by the IPCC working group on climate change is that climate change increases extreme weather patterns which increase natural events such as floods, wildfires and droughts [4]. These will disrupt international food supply and lead to lower overall production. The cumulative effect of population growth and food supply disruption means that the world is expected to enter into a calorie deficit, or food shortage, by 2050 [5]. Placing this within the importance afforded to food shortages by historical analysis, it is clear that food disruption will have a negative impact on global security.

The magnitude of the problem is further expanded by a proper understanding of modern security contexts. This article has so far referred to ‘domestic instability’. In practice this means terrorism, insurgency, and war. To understand how this collision of population booms and climate change will impact national securities, I propose we categorise states loosely into ‘weak’ and ‘strong’ states. Strong states are more prosperous and have strong national security institutions and weak states are the inverse of this. As a trend, I would predict that the ‘weaker’ states in Africa (most of which are already dealing with insurgency and terrorism) will experience significantly greater security threats from terrorism and insurgency. As populations grow and as food shortages increase it is likely that existing or new terrorist groups will recruit people on the promises of a solution to food shortages [6]. Further insecurity can lead to more difficulties in production thus creating a vicious cycle such as in the regions controlled by Boko Haram. An interesting problem associated with this is that terrorism can also damage food security, leading to a circular problem of food insecurity and terrorism supporting each other [7].

Strong states by contrast will be well prepared to resist the domestic security challenges posed by food shortages. Whilst these include the traditionally stronger states in the West these will also include regional powers with growing populations who adapt better than neighbours to deteriorating security conditions. This is where the projection of war becomes important. One clear consequence of growing populations and declining resource production is increased competition over resources. The much vaunted ‘climate wars’ will occur in places of growing demand for resources where natural resources are in decline. One key resource that will see competition is water, with an obvious hotspot being the Nile Dam being built by Ethiopia. Egypte is still very much the gift of the Nile River since most of the country  is made up of inhospitable desert [8]. Egypt losing control over its food production could increase the possibility of a war.

These security problems also pose challenges for traditionally safe and well protected European nations. As populations in Europe grow older, the economic foundations of many European states, namely the welfare state, will become increasingly difficult to uphold. Furthermore, the climate crisis discussed will likely cause large numbers of refugees to migrate towards wealthier countries. In particular, the socially democratic countries of Europe are likely to experience high numbers of refugees from north and sub-Saharan Africa. 

Europe will change in two important ways as a result. As Timothy Wilson noted in ‘Killing Strangers’ the European model of state has sought to gradually eliminate risk from a citizen’s life [9]. The European state, in order to do this, has therefore created a substantial national security infrastructure that seeks to exercise state power over a vast array of daily activities. The modern European state is therefore enormously powerful but also increasingly dependent on its ability to protect high standards of living. The high numbers of people immigrating into Europe, and the substantial economic strain this will place on domestic capacity will therefore be interpreted as a threat to this finely kept standard of European living. In response, Europe will invest heavily in border security with the Mediterranean becoming highly securitised. Secondly, Europe will also likely adopt much higher levels of nationalism and xenophobia to provide the ideological justification for increased militarisation of Europe’s borders.  Expect the Europe of 2050 to be much less socially liberal than the Europe of 2021.

The two trends identified within this article, rising populations and climate change have been placed on a collision course. The broad security implications present a bleak and unpleasant picture of the future. The global rise in standard of living experienced across the globe after the Second World War will be challenged and substantially undermined by the security implications of climate change. 

[1] John Lewis Gaddis, ‘The Long Peace: Elements of Stability in the Postwar International System’, International Security, Spring, 1986, Vol. 10, No. 4, pp. 99-142.

[2] Peter Turchin, Andrey Korotayev, The 2010 structural-demographic forecast for the 2010–2020 decade: A retrospective assessment, (Bristol, PLoS One, 2020).

[3] Jack A. Goldstone, ‘Population and Security: How Demographic Change Can Lead to Violent Conflict’, Journal of International Affairs, Autumn 2002, Vol. 56, No. 1, pp. 3-21.

[4] IPCC, Climate Change 2021 The Physical Science Basis, (Geneva, IPCC, 2021).

[5] Gro Intelligence, How Can We Avoid A Food Crisis That’s Less Than A Decade Away, (New York, Gro Intelligence, 2017).

[6] Nisha Bellinger & Kyle T. Kattelman, ‘Domestic terrorism in the developing world: role of food security’, Journal of International Relations and Development, 2020, Issue 24, No. 1 pp. 306-332.

[7] Ogunniyi ADEBAYO, Kehinde OLAGUNJU, Salman K. KABİR, Ogundipe ADEYEMİ, ‘Social Crisis, Terrorism and Food Poverty Dynamics: Evidence from Northern Nigeria’, International Journal of Finance and Economics, 2016, Volume 6, Issue 4, pp. 1865 – 1872.

[8] Fahmy S. Abdelhaleem, Esam Y. Helal, ‘Impacts of Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam on Different Water Usages in Upper Egypt’, British Journal of Applied Science & Technology, 2015, Volume 8 No. 5, pp. 461-483.

[9] Tim Wilson, Killing Strangers, (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2020).