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The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists’ “Doomsday Clock” has tracked existential threats since 1947. Today, it is the closest it has ever been to global catastrophe. The scientists behind the symbolic timepiece, once including J. Robert Oppenheimer, recently announced that it is lingering a mere 90 seconds to “midnight.” 

Chief among the reasons for this state of urgency is the climate crisis, which has accelerated to make 2023 the hottest year on record. The climate crisis is not just driving rising temperatures, but also rising conflicts that are destabilizing regions, uprooting communities, and putting humanity in growing peril. 

To turn back the clock, our leaders must abandon the failed militarized security approaches of the past.

Fortunately, turning back the clock is a real possibility if world leaders find the will to see it through. But to do so, our leaders must abandon the failed militarized security approaches of the past. As climate change drives further instability, responding with more weapons and war will only deepen these crises and make us less, not more safe. 

The Cyclical Relationship Between War and Environmental Degradation

There is a cyclical relationship between violence and the environmental degradation wrought by climate change. Armed conflicts contribute to climate change through deforestation, resource exploitation, pollution, and more. In turn, climate change is driving growing resource scarcity, leading communities to face increased competition that heightens tensions and the potential for violence.

The World Bank and World Food Program estimate that by 2050, climate change could force more than 200 million people from their homes and raise the risk of famine and malnutrition by up to 20%. As we’ve seen in Syria, Gaza, Yemen, South Sudan, Ethiopia and now Ukraine, competition over dwindling resources can aggravate existing conflicts, trigger new ones, and make it that much harder to rebuild when the dust settles. Hence, climate change is known as a threat multiplier, pushing political instability over the brink into violent conflict. 

Climate change is known as a threat multiplier, pushing instability over the brink into conflict. 

Meanwhile, we need look no further than the war in Ukraine to see the consequences of war for the environment. Polesia, a forest belt straddling the Ukraine-Belarus border, is considered Europe’s equivalent of the Serengeti. The forest acts as an air purifying protective barrier that’s home to various endemic species. Russian tanks have devastated this natural barrier, contributing to the tragic surge in global deforestation that’s contributing to climate change. 

Military activity also harms the environment even when there is not an active conflict. The upkeep of military forces demands substantial natural resources and energy, frequently sourced from fossil fuels. The U.S. Department of Defense stands out as the globe’s leading institutional oil consumer, making it one of the biggest contributors to greenhouse gas pollution worldwide. 

A Better Security Approach

So long as we see national security as solely the military’s domain, we will not be truly safe. There are no military solutions to the greatest security threats we face, both as a country and a planet.

The U.S. must direct resources toward addressing the roots of global instability.

The post-9/11 wars have shown the limits of militarism in facing global crises. Even former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates argued that “The United States cannot expect to eliminate national security risks through higher defense budgets.”

The current administration’s vision of national security acknowledges that certain climate effects are “irreversible” and climate disasters can cost “entire futures.” Pursuant to this strategy the U.S. government must direct resources towards addressing the roots of global instability by facilitating the transition to sustainable energy, investing in community resilience programs, and scaling up international climate assistance.

The paradigm shift necessary to ensure a sustainable, peaceful future is possible. But only if we act before the proverbial clock strikes midnight. 

Sofia Guerra

Sofia Guerra

Program Assistant for Nuclear Disarmament and Pentagon Spending (2023-2024)

Sofia is FCNL’s 2023-2024 program assistant for nuclear disarmament and Pentagon spending.

Carla Montilla

Carla Montilla

Program Assistant for Sustainable Energy and the Environment (2023-2024)

Carla Montilla is the program assistant for sustainable energy and environment for 2023-2024.