How Climate Change is a Threat to U.S. National Security

May 8, 2023 By Roisin O’Carroll

What happens overseas can have a direct impact on us here at home. Climate change increasingly poses a direct national security threat to the United States due to extreme weather, droughts, crop failure, and more. These environmental changes can contribute to instability in the most vulnerable countries, and eventually to a rise in human trafficking and terrorism that threaten the U.S. 

Unstable Agricultural Industries Threaten People’s Economic Security 

According to the UN, one of the leading factors contributing to instability is loss of food and income from agriculture. Climate change has already impacted agricultural outputs in many parts of the world. In India and Pakistan, extreme heat led to a decline in wheat and rice production, threatening food supply in countries already struggling with food insecurity. This problem will only get worse: projected rises in temperature, changes in rainfall patterns, and increased carbon dioxide concentrations from greenhouse gas emissions will cause a substantial loss of crops over the next decade, impacting primarily low-income states, particularly Small Island Developing States. Crop loss causes not only food insecurity, but also losses of income for those working in the agricultural and food supply sector, furthering individual, family, and community vulnerability. In low income countries, an average of 80% of people work in the agriculture sector. With such a large population at risk, the ripple effects of hunger and job loss will be significant. 

Climate-related food insecurity and unemployment drive people to flee their communities into unfamiliar and potentially dangerous places, forcing victims to depend on informal and unregulated economies that rely on human exploitation to make a living. For example, ISIS used promises of food and money to recruit young Syrian refugees and children to join their ranks. In a recently released UN Development Program study, a series of interviews with 2,200 recruits and former members of extremist organizations in Sub-Saharan Africa determined that lack of employment opportunities was the most common reason for joining a terrorist group, accounting for 25% of the total responses. 

Environmental Disasters Leave People Vulnerable

Another contributing factor to regional instability in vulnerable states is the sheer number of victims of environmental disasters. Over the past 50 years, there have been more than 11,000 climate disasters, resulting in over two million deaths, with 91% of these deaths occurring in developing countries. Due to these disasters, 23.7 million people have been forced out of their homes. The impacts of extreme climate are most noticeable in developing countries, like Bangladesh, where we have seen increases in severe flooding in recent years due to climate change. A particularly extreme flood last spring left four million people, including 1.6 million children, stranded. Much of the country lost electricity, and many were left without food or drinking water. These vulnerable circumstances put people in Bangladesh, particularly women and children, at a high risk of being trafficked, according to UN officials

Developing countries are ill-equipped to prepare for and respond to climate emergencies, resulting in huge portions of their populations falling victim to disaster and becoming vulnerable to exploitation. As vulnerability rises, people are more likely to be trafficked or recruited to terrorist organizations.

Crime Abroad Threatens the U.S.

The majority of traffickers are members of large, highly organized crime groups based abroad. The labor of trafficked individuals contributes to illegal economies, such as drug and weapon trade, that support crime organizations and terrorist groups. The illegal activities of these criminal groups and terrorist organizations promote corruption and insurrection and threaten global political and economic stability. Terrorist organizations remain one of the greatest threats to the United States and its interests abroad. If climate change is not addressed by the global community, agricultural instability and climate disasters will push vulnerable people into the crime economy, empowering criminals and terrorists and endangering national security.

Sustainable Solutions

To get to the root of the problem, climate vulnerability must be replaced with resilience. Diversified economies, sustainable agricultural sectors, reliable supply chains, and durable infrastructure in developed countries can help reduce the impact of climate change and create a more stable and safer world. The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) is a global leader in sustainable development. After the floods in Bangladesh last year, USAID provided $120 million in humanitarian assistance and $200 million to improve the lives of people in Bangladesh and to increase resilience to climate change. Additionally, USAID plans to mobilize both private and public funding to support improved climate resilience for 500 million people by 2023 around the world. 

Through smart investments like these, the United States can reduce the impact of climate change abroad, creating a more secure world.