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Climate change is becoming a security issue, says this expert

National security and natural security are inextricably linked in a world where the impacts of climate change are growing, says Andrew Zolli, Chief Impact Officer at Planet.

National security and natural security are inextricably linked in a world where the impacts of climate change are growing, says Andrew Zolli, Chief Impact Officer at Planet. Image: Unsplash/NASA

Kate Whiting
Senior Writer, Forum Agenda
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Davos Agenda

  • National security and natural security are inextricably linked in a world where the impacts of climate change are growing, says Andrew Zolli, Chief Impact Officer at Planet.
  • Planet is a space and AI organization that uses satellites to observe Earth – and the changes that humans are bringing about upon it.
  • Environmental risks dominated the top 5 long-term global risks in the World Economic Forum Global Risks Report 2023.

“All of the human economy, all of human society and therefore all of human safety is nestled within nature. All of us are a subset of the larger planet, not the other way around.”

So says Andrew Zolli, Chief Impact Officer at Planet, a space and AI organization that uses satellites to observe Earth – and the changes that humans are bringing about upon it.

“Today, in a world where we are facing unprecedented stresses on nature, a global ecocide and a changing climate, things that happen in the natural world can have a profound impact on our daily lives.

“That comes in the form of shocks to the weather that drives changes in the amounts of crops that are grown that enable us to feed everybody,” adds Zolli, who sits on the World Economic Forum’s Global Future Council on the Future of Nature and Security.

‘Everything is connected’

“If you create an environment where people are hungry, suddenly they become restless, so they begin to move. And then you have migration changes. And those migration changes can show up in complicated ways geopolitically, and they can be sources of stress and tension and change. So everything is connected to everything else.”

The scale of these interconnections are captured in the Forum’s Global Risks Report 2023, which identified failure to mitigate climate change as the biggest long-term risk facing the world.

Infographic illustrating the landscape of risks.
How environmental risks are connected to other big risks facing the world. Image: World Economic Forum

Failure of climate change adaptation, natural disasters and extreme weather events, biodiversity loss and ecosystem collapse and large-scale involuntary migration completed the top 5.

‘National security’ and ‘natural security’ are inextricably linked, says Zolli, and we need to rethink what security means for the future of the planet and its people.

Some of this work is already in progress. In 2021, NATO recognized climate change as a ‘threat multiplier’ in its Climate Change and Security Action Plan and introduced an annual High-Level Dialogue on Climate Change and Security.

In June 2023, the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre and the European Defence Agency published a report on the ‘climate-energy-defence nexus’ that included actions for EU defence to ensure climate resilience and energy sustainability.

Here, in an edited interview with the Forum, Zolli explains the connections between climate change and security – and what needs to happen.

What is the connection between climate and nature and security?

Historically, we have two communities: one that thinks about international peace and security, and maintains the force of arms and the resources to ensure a durable peace among nations. And we also have people who are thinking about the natural world, scientists and conservationists and people who are thinking about climate change. They are really two different kinds of cultures, different kinds of people.

But today, things that happen in the natural world can be the sources of security crises, and they can go from small triggers to big effects very, very quickly. That means we need to create bridges between the national security world and the natural security world. Bridges of culture and shared understanding, because you can't shoot a missile at climate change. You can't invade a sandstorm. We do ask the international peace and security community to deal with the aftermath of all these crises. So we need to make sure that in addition to being able to protect and defend and support peace and security as we understood it in the 20th century, we're ready to reimagine it in the 21st century.

Discover

How is the World Economic Forum fighting the climate crisis?

What are the biggest security risks from climate change?

We see threats coming from the natural world that have to be responded to from the peace and security community. We also see the threats of conflict creating consequences for the natural world and feedback loops between the two systems.

On a warming planet, we see changes in the way that crops are grown and we need crops that are more drought tolerant and use less water, because in some places we're going to see less water. We see forces of change happening in the food system. We see it happening in the consequences of major new natural disasters and the frequency, intensity, duration and impact of those disasters.

One of the concepts that's useful to remember is that the human community is growing really dramatically. Imagine a city that, in 1950, had a million people and by the time you get to 2025, it has 10 million people. If you take the same disaster, whether it's an earthquake or a typhoon exacerbated by climate change or whether it's a shock to the food security system, it's going to have a much bigger effect in 2025 than the exact same problem would have had in 1950. A solvable problem yesterday becomes a major global crisis tomorrow.

What needs to happen?

We live in this era of connected shocks. So a food crisis in one community can become a migration crisis in another context, can become a security context crisis in the third. There's pain for the people disrupted and then they're dislocated. Then they can become disgruntled and pretty soon they are on the move in ways that become problems for the global peace and security community. The more we can help those actors understand and anticipate those shocks, the more we can help them embolden and improve the state of natural security.

The story that we tell about a lot of this stuff is like a filmstrip of doom. All the problems are moving in the wrong direction. They're moving away from us. They're moving further and faster away from us every day. So we need to rethink the nature of security. And that is not just about building bonds of solidarity between people, but building bonds of solidarity between people and the ecosystems that they tend and the climate that we share and the larger web of life that we're all a part of.

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What are the commonalities between national security and natural security?

Researchers in the past have posited that no two countries with a sufficient number of McDonald's restaurants would ever go to war with each other because they were too interdependent. Then they thought no two countries that share a certain volume of email would ever go to war together because they're too interconnected. If those things are true, then maybe it's also true that we expand that notion of security. If we are ecologically interdependent, maybe our security is found in our shared understanding of that ecological interdependence. In addition to building the bonds of human solidarity, we build the bonds of solidarity among all the different parts of the web of life.

We have a fundamental, shared cultural bond. We're all interested in understanding risk. We're all interested in understanding how to preserve the capacity of societies to flourish, not just survive shocks and disruptions, but prosper. I think the first piece is in expanding our understanding of risk, expanding our understanding of what the consequential actions we could take might be to reduce those risks and to building new kinds of tribes and listening to new sources of information about how we reduce those risks over time.

How does monitoring the Earth with satellites help?

We need systems that allow us to understand changes and disruptions that are moving as fast as those changes and disruptions are occurring. As a consequence, one of the most powerful tools we can use is instruments in space. They let us see every act of deforestation, the growth or the lack of growth of every crop in every field around the world. They let us see disruptions to global supply chains. They let us see the quieting of the Earth when we all go into COVID lockdown and the resurgence when we come back.

Satellites also allow us to see when malevolent actors often abuse the rights of their fellow citizens. Whether that's watching governments burn villages after they've kicked people out of their communities or whether it's connecting information that we see from space to mobile phone records to patterns of change on the ground that allow us to attribute actions to specific actors. We're seeing a world in which greater transparency is enabling greater accountability. So one of the bridges between natural security, national security, human rights and human flourishing is the ability to watch what's happening on the ground. And because we know that when people understand that the world is watching, their behaviour changes accordingly.

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