by Matthew Ader
I have had two and a half hours of teaching on climate change and security in two years, and I am unlikely to get any more. BA and MA courses at the King’s Department of War Studies do not offer any modules about climate change. Neither do security studies courses at Exeter, St Andrews, Oxford, or Cambridge. The US has equally slim pickings. Where tuition does exist, it tends to focus on human security and development; not strategy and operations.
And yet climate change is reshaping the world in unpredictable ways. Multiple governments even named it as a major security threat. Academics correlate climate change, if a little tentatively, with increased rates of conflict. However, scholars of strategy and war do not seem to focus on it. I surveyed thirty-four International Relations and Security Studies journals – all those with an H-Index above 30. Since 1995, these journals have, between them, published 45 articles about the intersection of climate change and conflict. As a matter of contrast, just one of those journals, International Organization, published 4356 total articles in the same period.
This initial survey reveals a worrying gap in the literature. Security courses that rely on this research are the incubator for future policymakers and analysts, while academics are often called upon to advise governments. A failure to address climate change risks depriving the next generation of security leaders and thinkers of a solid grounding in an important subject. At best, this may leave governments scrambling to cope with unforeseen challenges. At worst, it could lead to the creation of bad policy – or even open the door for malign actors who take advantage of climate change to push other agendas.
Why has security academia not fully engaged in this subject? Partially, it is because academics are very busy and have many existing commitments. Undertaking novel research or designing new courses, especially when the literature is so sparse, is time-consuming. It is also risky; work on climate change may not be valued in the same way as more conventional topics when hunting for jobs. Worse still, there is little research funding in climate change and security. Ministries and Departments of Defence have declared climate change to be a threat but have yet to put their money where their mouth is. These challenges, combined with the broader structural precarity of academic careers, militate against researchers investigating climate change and security.
These generally applicable concerns are worsened by personnel policy. Security studies departments are not hiring climate change experts. For example, of the eighty academics in the Department of War Studies at King’s College London, only two mention climate as a research interest. This makes cross-sectoral research more difficult. Even more concerning still is that such a deficit reduces opportunities for students interested in climate and security to study the issue. This, in turn, perpetuates the existing scarcity, creating a negative feedback loop. Of course, it would be unfair and inaccurate to blame this purely on hiring practices. A department cannot hire scholars who do not exist. However, it is at least partially a chicken-and-egg problem. The lack of cross-sectoral research and limited tuition opportunities addressing climate and security make it harder to attract additional academic talent to the field.
A related challenge is that climate change does not fit within traditional models of security analysis. It is not a human actor, it does not deploy discrete methods, and it is difficult to analyse through the conventional lenses of IR theory or grand strategy. Grappling with the climate requires scientific and geographical knowledge which falls outside the specialisms of most security scholars. For example, the fierce debate among geographers over the linkage between climate and conflict depends on comparing rainfall data against incidences of violence. Unless an academic is trained to a high level in meteorological modelling, they are unlikely to be able to engage with the discussion in depth. The one partial exception to this is the Human Security field. Human security, with its focus on different issues impacting ordinary people, has covered climate change in more detail. However, its perspective has more to do with development and local interventions than big-picture decision-making. While there are absolutely insights to be gained from that discipline for national policymakers, it does not answer the broader questions required to inform strategic decision-making.
Lastly, while we are seeing the impacts of climate change now, its most dramatic impacts lie in the future. Mass climate migration, unprecedented littoral urbanization, and irreversible water scarcity are not science fiction but their true implications are only just emerging. Scholars are understandably reticent to engage in speculation – it is risky and can lead to poor quality research. This is especially true for security studies and international politics, which are wildly unpredictable. As General McMaster noted, “we have a perfect record of predicting future wars…and that record is 0%.”
This is compounded by the creeping nature of climate change. On 12 September 2001, nearly every security scholar turned their attention to terrorism and the Middle East. I’m sure that a similar statistical analysis of journals from 1985 to 2000 would show relatively few articles about Salafi jihadism, but academics were able to apply their existing knowledge to the new problem. It is not clear that this will happen with climate change, because there will probably not be a single dramatic event which changes conversations and research priorities. Rather, it will incrementally alter global conditions over the span of decades, shaping a new normal.
Such a slow-moving emergency is unlikely to attract enough research to effectively inform policy – especially given that great power competition, terrorism, and biosecurity will, among other issues, remain pressing concerns throughout the period. This is worsened, as noted, by the requirement for expert scientific knowledge to properly study climate change. In short, there is unlikely to be a catalyst for the study of climate change, and if there is, security scholars may struggle to obtain the necessary scientific knowledge to properly engage with the issue in a timely fashion.
There is no single policy prescription that can magically fix this deficit. However, it is a problem – and it must be rectified. Climate change is actively reshaping the world. If security academics do not provide perspectives on it, the security implications may be ignored. Worse, they might be dishonestly weaponised to achieve a larger agenda. We have seen this already with alt-right groups using fear of climate migration as a recruiting tactic. The past four years have clearly shown that radical ideologies can find purchase at the highest levels of government. In the absence of informed views from authoritative sources, decisionmakers may turn to confident ideologues for answers.
At the end of that lecture on climate change, I asked the lecturer what the strategic plan was for dealing with the mass migrations, droughts, and water wars he predicted. He said that there was not a single one. The gap in the research is no one’s fault. But catastrophe does not care about intention. Policymakers will require effective advice to navigate the new challenges of this century. The academic community should mobilise to provide it – and security academics should lead the charge.
 This was achieved by searching their archives for all articles from 1995-2020 with “climate change” in the title and manually sorting through. This method is necessarily vulnerable to personal judgement and can exclude work on topics adjacent to climate change & security i.e. food scarcity.
Matthew Ader is a second-year student doing War Studies. He has worked as an intern in a number of security consultancy firms. His academic interests gravitate loosely towards understanding challenges and opportunities for Anglo-American strategy in the 21st century (and also being snide about Captain America’s command ability). He is also an editor for Roar News, and has written for a number of security publications – most especially Wavell Room. You can follow him on Twitter: @AderMatthew.