The Impact of Climate Change on Travel Risk and Global Security

July 8, 2019

Few independent commentators doubt that climate change is already upon us, with more extreme weather events and conditions having occurred in the last twenty years than in the previous 200. In addition to the environmental, social and economic disasters that human populations will face around the globe, every single climate change issue will increase the risk of violence and insecurity in some way – whether by population displacement, territorial annexation or civil unrest. While governments need to collaborate to respond to the most serious effects of climate change, individual travellers and company security managers need to consider the security challenges they face when planning overseas travel. This article looks at how all climate change issues ultimately compound security risks, and considers how security managers can mitigate these risks.






Changes in weather patterns will lead to more drought in vulnerable countries, increasing the risk of major civil unrest. Higher temperatures will result in dryer conditions, reducing the availability of drinking water for communities in hotter areas. Not only will this increase the demand for water (not just for human consumption, but also for crops, livestock and machinery) but also for energy (in attempts to keep engines and buildings cool). For instance, at the time of writing, there is a drought ongoing in northern Bihar: more than 100 people are reported to have died from heat stroke, with another 200 undergoing treatment. In Tamil Nadu, a poor monsoon season and drying reservoirs have left Chennai residents (more than 10 million) foraging for water. However, of greater concern to global security managers will be that, at the same time, more than 500 people have been arrested for violence in the region, after protesters hit the streets demanding access to drinking water. Given that this access is not necessarily something that the regional (or state) government can easily provide, there is a high risk that violent civil unrest will endure for as long as the demands for water persist. A similar drought currently ongoing in Maysan province has resulted in Iraqi police exchanging small arms fire with locals who had been protesting over the issues of local flood water management and the subsequent cholera epidemic. The latest drought in Somalia has now been ongoing for more than one year, exponentially fuelling national insecurity and violence.






Climate change will lead to an increase in the frequency and severity of food shortages, which will ultimately result in localised violence and full-scale state conflicts. Global agricultural cycles rely upon weather patterns that dictate the crops grown, and the optimum regions and seasons in which to grow them. Changes in these patterns are already starting to have an effect upon crop yields, forcing farmers to reconsider principal crops, particularly where they are best grown: as ideal latitudes for crops and livestock rearing change, agricultural communities (especially subsistence farmers) are forced to change long-established working patterns and seek new crops or new methods of production. Subsistence farmers in central and west Africa are at particular risk, and the populations of DR Congo, Niger and Nigeria also face violence stemming from the inter-communal and inter-ethnic rivalries that are already manifest in poorer rural areas.

Shortages in productive arable land will spread wider insecurity and increase the risk of interstate military conflict. In the same way that the price of oil grew throughout the twentieth century, a decrease in staple production will put a premium on “breadbasket” zones in countries that are less well-protected than, for instance, the United States and Canada. Ukraine, recognised for decades as a European breadbasket, has become increasingly vulnerable to Putin’s Russia, a regime that seeks food security for its own population and has employed state-sponsored force to guarantee this security. This accounts for Russian support for separatists in the Donbas region, as well as for the annexation of Crimea in 2014. Increasingly, hungry nation states that may not be able to afford the prices demanded by food producers will seek to seize the nutritional output of nearby nations by force. This will be seen particularly in African countries, where breadbaskets such as Zimbabwe and Namibia do not have the state infrastructure to defend themselves against aggressive state armed forces or militant groups seeking regional food security.




Local natural disasters


Very high rainfall, a possible result of changing weather patterns, will lead to flooding and a greater risk of landslides and mudslides. These will lead to massive infrastructure damage, particularly the destruction of homes and community buildings, but their ultimate outcome will be unprecedented population movements. As the size of land that can be successfully cultivated is reduced, and as the infrastructure needed for safe living is destroyed, communities from the developing world will increasingly take their families away from areas where day-to-day living is a hazardous, hand-to-mouth operation, to seek destinations that provide the infrastructure and peaceful environments for families to survive. Such migrations have recently sparked political violence and civil unrest, and have even contributed to terrorism. The rise of populist governments in Europe and the Americas is linked very closely to a fear of immigrants. Huge numbers of sub-Saharan Africans crossing the Mediterranean into Europe (numbers peaked at 1m in 2015) have sparked debates (particularly in Italy and Hungary) about which national organisations should be responsible for rescuing marooned travellers, and how such populations can be integrated into society. The rise of parties such as the Five Star Movement in Italy, PVV in Holland, the AfD in Germany and Fidesz in Hungary is based on the feeling that these countries have no responsibility for the welfare of immigrant populations. In the UK, immigration was a major factor behind the vote to leave the EU, whilst the rise of President Trump in the United States can be attributed to his strong stance in preventing further immigration from Latin America. All such movements are very closely associated with violent demonstrations, counter-demonstrations and disruption. State security forces have been needed to control major riots in Germany in 2018, Denmark in 2019, Sweden in 2018 and Belgium in 2018 – all countries well known for their liberal values and outlook.




Rising sea levels


In addition to local environmental hazards, the problems relating to rising sea levels must be considered. This issue is more fundamental than the local hazards, given the more permanent outcomes. After time, damaged infrastructure can be rebuilt, and flooded arable landscapes can be re-cultivated, but melting polar ice caps pose a permanent threat to low-lying island states and coastal regions. The risk to vulnerable communities is existential, and emigrants from these regions will have no expectations of returning. Pacific islands are particularly at risk, as are densely-populated low-lying delta regions such as in West Africa or the Bay of Bengal. The pressure on local governments to find solutions for endangered populations will be made worse by the fact that the national governments of Fiji, Bangladesh, Myanmar and Nigeria, for example, face short-term security and political pressures that prevent them from solving longer-term social and security problems. When rising sea levels reach these areas, emigration will be massive, and regional governments will not be adequately prepared: the inevitable result for those who remain being civil unrest and political violence.






An issue not mentioned as often as it should be is the increased risk of disease. When a region suffering from water shortages has a very high density of malnourished people, diseases are more likely to spread. At present, diseases that previous generations had considered to be almost extinct are breaking out at an unprecedented rate, such as polio in Asia, measles and mumps in the Americas, and influenza, cholera and meningitis globally. A measles outbreak in DR Congo is becoming an epidemic alongside the Ebola virus outbreak; although this may not directly lead to violence, it will cause panic in local populations, possibly resulting in unrest and protesters demanding treatment or international aid. If violence is not the net result, then it will seriously hamper the movement of employees throughout particularly regions and across borders, maybe even limiting the support that can be provided by international assistance companies.


The issue of disease will be compounded by the likelihood that future crop yields will be of significantly lower quality than those we enjoy today. Higher atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide will result in deficiencies of essential nutrients, particularly iron, zinc and critical proteins, resulting in damage to the immune and digestion systems, muscle weakness and cognitive damage. Protein deficiencies will affect all bodily structures and functions. This decline in food quality will put greater pressure on those crops of good quality, raising their prices, and ensuring that they are only consumed by wealthier populations, probably those in the west. Poorer populations in the developing and the third world will suffer most, putting a higher premium on good agricultural land, and increasing the risk of annexation and conflict, whilst the health of these populations will decline.


The factors that lead to global insecurity are compounded by numerous issues that can also be traced back to climate change. Firstly, every risk related to global warming is compounded by the population growth expected in the approaching decades. A desire for agricultural land to provide for booming populations has been a root cause of violent conflict since agriculture began 10,000 years ago. In 30 years’ time, the global population is expected to reach 10 billion, a steep rise that will put unmanageable pressure on food supplies and prices, encouraging aggressive hungry states to seek solutions by annexing neighbouring territories. By cruel happenstance, the states expected to experience the greatest population growth are those already vulnerable to rising sea levels and political insecurity, such as the aforementioned Bangladesh, Myanmar and Nigeria, where individuals facing food shortages will either become migrants or seek short-term criminal solutions.


Secondly, any international conflict will contribute to environmental deterioration, just on its own. Although no reliable independent research has been conducted, the environmental impact of aerial and artillery bombardments in Yemen, Syria and Iraq is believed to have been significant, with massive amounts of carbon dioxide and toxins released by exploding munitions. Armies are themselves major polluters, using fossil fuels at a rate not seen in other industries. Soldiers garrisoned in insecure territory need fuel and water, so their operating bases invariably drain water away from vulnerable local populations, while their need for petrol prices local users out of the fuel market. The damage inflicted upon those areas (principally in developing and third world countries) will only progressively deteriorate local climates.


Thirdly, the impacts of climate change in the short- to medium-term will contribute to recruitment for terrorist groups. Inevitably, the effects of climate change have a much greater impact on developing countries with weak state structures and institutions. It is no coincidence that these countries already overlap with terrorist exporters. In countries across North Africa, for instance, militant groups allied with Al Qaeda and Islamic State offer their communities a populist alternative system of government. Parallel governments under IS control in Syria and Yemen have used their own structures to annexe arable land and receive taxes in the form of money and food. Such groups would never allow foreign militaries or large NGOs to operate on territory that it controls. As a result of the vision that these organisations propose, they are attractive to young men seeking to provide food for their families. A growth in militant groups with parallel authorities will also have an impact on western foreign policy, changing likely future targets for overseas military operations.


Shrewd travellers should consider the risk of violence and insecurity in western countries as well. The “Extinction Rebellion” protests in London in April 2019 may not have been violent, but they had a noticeable impact on traffic and operations in the city centre. Ten days of peaceful protests, the main intent of which was to garner media attention for their cause, involved blocking traffic on three main roads into the city centre, and on Oxford Street, Marble Arch, Waterloo Bridge, Parliament Square and at the entrance to the Stock Exchange. Protesters also disrupted railway routes into the city. Hundreds of thousands of commuters had their work disrupted, while hundreds of police officers were redeployed to London from regional constabularies. Any climate change protest in western cities (and protests were experienced everywhere from Barcelona to Perth) will result in major transport disruption. Not only does this lead to a high risk of violent unrest, but the risk of crime increases in those areas that have offered up police officers to reinforce those in the capital. These developed-world protests can also be associated with cyber-crime, as protesters might prefer to conduct hacking attacks against global corporations rather than physically block streets. At the same time, security forces may close down metropolitan wi-fi or internet services (as happened in London) to limit protester operations. The impact of such protests to unsuspecting travellers could be extremely challenging from both a security and operational point of view.




Corporate security managers need, from now, to consider the increased risk of climate change-related violence when they conduct risk assessments, and must manage the effects of this evolving security environment over the next ten years and beyond. Security managers will need to consider:


 – security of staff (mobile and static security, technological security, risk assessments, route planning, emergency evacuation options)

 – other terrorist mitigation measures (vetting of staff, incident response management, human intelligence)

 – security of resupply (how to ensure that food, water and medicine can reach staff)

 – community liaison (building positive relationships while using local fixers to provide insightful human intelligence and updates)

 – authority liaison (with local government and security forces for early warnings and reliable local intelligence)

 – monitoring of the media for security alerts (considering threats from neighbouring militaries, or of militant violence)

 – monitoring health risks (particularly the regional movement of outbreaks)

 – static security of corporate offices in western capitals

 – protection against corporate cybercrime (including financial crime)


Travellers to developing countries without any corporate oversight will need to consider:


 – employing a vetted and trusted individual to act as a local agent

 – employing a tracking and evacuation service by an international service provider

 – ensuring their static and mobile security, including risk and route assessments

 – vaccinations and mitigation against local health threats

 – receiving local intelligence feeds from trusted sources, to include security developments and health warnings


Without some management at an international level, environmental problems will snowball and overlap, with one problem contributing to another. It remains a complex, unpredictable problem, but it will have an impact on security environments across the world. Within 30 years, geopolitical security is likely to look very different from how it did 30 years ago, and security staff will experience the changes in the ensuing decades – they will need to ensure that they consider and mitigate all the risks to guarantee the security of their staff.







Author:  Jamie Thomson, NGS Senior Risk Analyst


NGS is an emergency evacuation company that runs tracking, remote medical and security operations for global clients.