- Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School

Climate and Security: Critical Connections

Spring 2021

To mark Earth Day 2021, a number of climate, security, and intelligence experts took part in two Belfer Center conferences that identified and discussed the impacts of climate change not only on the environment and well-being of the world’s people, but also on international security and political stability throughout the world.

“Climate change is an unprecedented security threat,” Special Presidential Envoy on Climate John Kerry said in his keynote address at the Belfer Center’s Climate Change, Intelligence, and Global Security conference to mark Earth Day. Iceland’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Gudlaugur Thór Thórdarson shared a similar warning during a Belfer Center-Wilson Center Earth Day Dialogue on Arctic Sustainability: rapid climate change is increasing conflicts in the Arctic. His concern was underscored by a student Arctic data study, The Quest for Arctic Power, on increasing international tensions around the island of Svalbard in a Norwegian archipelago.  

In the half-day virtual climate and security conference, senior climate experts, current and former intelligence officers, and leaders in academia and the private sector explored the global security threats posed by climate change. Organized by the Belfer Center’s Intelligence Project and Environment and Natural Resources Program, along with the Center for Climate and Security, the conference focused discussion around four panels looking at the role of the intelligence community in monitoring and mitigating the threats, and ways in which academia, the private sector, and the international community could cooperate on innovative solutions.

The experts on four panels agreed that climate change is a threat multiplier that will create untold numbers of refugees and migrants, disrupt food supplies, put military installations around the world at risk, increase territorial conflicts, and create increasingly fragile states and societies where extremists and terrorists can flourish.

In his keynote address, Secretary Kerry stressed that intelligence is critical to negotiating successful climate agreements. Climate pact negotiators, for instance, will look to the Intelligence Community for answering questions about the intentions and capabilities of foreign states on combatting the shared climate threat.

That shared climate threat is especially obvious in the Arctic, which is warming twice as fast as the rest of the globe and experiencing an increasing number of climate-displaced communities. The Arctic's melting ice and geographical position also make it a hotspot for global conflict as Russia, the United States, China, and other actors jostle for influence.

As Iceland’s Minister of Foreign Affairs pointed out during the Arctic Initiative’s Earth Day Dialogue on Arctic Sustainability, rapid climate change is increasing the possibility of international conflict in the Arctic. At the event, which was co-hosted by the Belfer Center and the Polar Institute at the Woodrow Wilson Center, Thórdarson noted that a sustainable Arctic is key for global stability. Successful international collaboration through the Arctic Council has kept the Arctic peaceful and stable since its establishment 25 years ago and is essential for the future, he said.

The need for cooperation to maintain international stability is exemplified in Svalbard, Norway, an archipelago island 800 kilometers from Norway that includes a population 58 percent Norwegian and the remainder Russian, Thai, Swedish, Filipino, and Ukrainian. A Kennedy School student data study, The Quest for Arctic Power, shows how changing dynamics in the region as a result of climate change have presented serious challenges to Norway’s sovereignty on the archipelago and Svalbard’s status as a demilitarized and free economic zone.

Summing up the necessity for international cooperation in tackling climate change and its critical impacts in the Arctic, Thórdarson predicted: "We will see more international agreements, managed tensions, and continued collaborations because none of the Arctic countries will solve this alone.”

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation:

"Climate and Security: Critical Connections." Belfer Center Newsletter, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School. (Spring 2021)