New Report: Climate Change, Security and Political Coherence in the South and East China Seas

By Rachel Fleishman

Which socio-political, technological, demographic, diplomatic, military, and economic drivers will shape the converging threats of climate change and national security in the South and East China Seas?  This is the motivating question for a new report, from the Center for Climate and Security (CCS), entitled Climate Change, Security and Political Coherence in the South and East China Seas: a Scenarios-based Assessment.

To address the question, the Center for Climate and Security convened a group of regional experts in science, politics, security and adjacent fields to tease out the cascading threats that climate change poses in the region.  This expert input informed four future scenarios for the countries bordering the South and East China Seas.

Scenario exercises of this type are not predictive, but instructive. The aim of the CCS analysis is to help policymakers prepare for a future marked by dispersed, non-linear systemic threats.

The exercise identified regional political cohesion and food price volatility as two key drivers of climate security: the impact of climate change on the precursors to human suffering and conflict.  Starting with these vectors, each scenario played out different outcomes for human health and well-being, societal attitudes, government stability, the ability of regional countries to work together, and U.S.-China relations.

Some of the results were arresting. Yet one theme was clear. How governments respond to the intersectional and security implications of climate change could determine the course of regional development for decades to come. Failure to halt climate change, and to prepare for its increasingly predictable impacts, will imperil lives, livelihoods and the fundamental political structure of the South and East China Sea region.  

Recognizing that a comprehensive response to climate change will require unprecedented levels of investment and systems redesign, the report offers specific focal areas for diplomatic, defense, development and investment.

Recommendations for regional governments include:

  • Halt the criminalization of environmental activism witnessed in the Philippines, Cambodia, Thailand and elsewhere;
  • Equitably and comprehensively enforce regulations to safeguard land and sea territories from unsustainable use;
  • Acknowledge the cascading effects climate change will have on food, energy, water, commerce, and other essential infrastructure for modern civilization, and develop an “intersecting systems” approach to analysis and policy development;
  • Taking these systems intersections and dependencies into account, implement policies to leverage low-tech and new-tech resilience strategies for agricultural areas, cities and industrial areas.
  • Recognize that governments will succeed or fail on their ability to provide food security, physical security and a smooth transition to a clean-energy future;
  • Anticipate an uptick in conflict over scarce resources such as rich agricultural soil and fish stocks in and around the South China Sea.  Take steps to institutionalize appropriate dispute mediation and adjudication mechanisms; and
  • Invest collectively with neighboring states in large scale adaptive efforts that bolster regional governance bodies’ ability to cope with the turbulent weather and political environment to come.

Recognizing that extreme weather can have a threat multiplier effect on many sources of sub-national and regional tension, regional defense forces are advised to:

  • Recognize that the advent of climate-induced crises requires systemic responses to determine the levels of extreme weather, resource depletion or other factors that could trigger adverse security situations; 
  • Put warning systems in place to mark and help mitigate such threats;
  • Equip and train relevant forces;
  • Ensure coordination across defense, civilian, and first responder communities to achieve interoperability in emergency response; 
  • Contribute to whole-of-government communications campaigns for potentially affected populations to help them prepare, prevent and respond when necessary;
  • Be aware of the potential for separatist or violent extremist groups to position themselves as providers of aid in times of crisis; and
  • Prepare for climate-induced complications in disputed land and sea areas. 

“It is an ‘emperor has no clothes’ moment,” said Rachel Fleishman, report author and Senior Fellow Asia Pacific for the Center for Climate and Security. “Climate security is a real and growing danger in Asia Pacific.  It’s increasingly predictable and thus addressable.  Yet it has no organizational home at the national or regional level.  We continue to neglect it at our peril.”

Read the full report: Here.

Direct inquiries to: Francesco Femia, ffemia at climateandsecurity dot org


The Center for Climate and Security (CCS) is a non-partisan security policy institute of the Council on Strategic Risks, with a distinguished team and Advisory Board of military, national security, intelligence and foreign policy experts.

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