Fisheries among top 12 threats to global security due to climate change

The constancy of the climate  -- a bedrock of fisheries and human livelihood for millennia -- can no longer be relied upon, a new report suggests.

Conflicts involving global fisheries resources is among 12 key climatic risks to international security that may shape the geostrategic landscape of the 21st century, according to a new report by the Center for Climate and Security and partners titled Epicenters of Climate and Security: The New Geostrategic Landscape of the Anthropocene.

The report includes analysis of 12 significant climate and security epicenters (also presented in a video animation). 

These epicenters were chosen due to their nature as risks to critical parts of the international nation-state system (food, water, trade, health, cities, sovereignty) that can ripple out into serious global security crises, especially if happening in tandem. 

The epicenters span the globe, and many are fundamentally interconnected. These epicenters already exist, and all are likely to continue to intensify if not addressed.  

The 12 epicenters are:  

Eroding state sovereignty: An inability to absorb the stresses of a rapidly-changing climate may erode state sovereignty

Disappearing nations: Many low-lying nations are in danger of being completely submerged by rising seas 

Conflict over melting water towers: Climate change can increase tensions and conflict among the 4 billion people dependent on mountain “water towers” 

Conflict over fisheries: A warming ocean is driving critical fish stocks into contested waters, contributing to conflict between states 

Tensions in a melting Arctic: Increased activity in a melting Arctic raises new security and geopolitical risks 

Weaponized water: As climate change exacerbates water stress, non-state actors, including international terrorist organizations, are increasingly using water as a weapon 

Disrupted strategic trade routes: Climate change will place strains on maritime straits that are critical for global trade and security

Compromised coffee trade: Climate change may also disrupt critical global trading networks such as the coffee trade. which currently supports 125 million people worldwide 

More (and worse) pandemics: Climate change may increase the likelihood and range of pandemics, which could threaten global security 

Flooded coastal megacities: Rapidly expanding coastal megacities are threatened by climate impacts like sea level rise, which can destabilize nations 

Increased displacement and migration: Climate change is becoming a more significant driver of migration and displacement 

Enhanced nuclear risks: Climate change, nuclear security, and policies that are not sensitive to both simultaneously, can increase regional and global security threats 

“This report demonstrates the kind of cross-sectorial thinking needed to anticipate and mitigate climate-related systemic risks -- risks that will be disruptive at local, national, regional and global levels,” said Francesco Femia, co-president of the Center for Climate and Security and editor of the report. “Security risks thousands of miles away can have an effect on us at home. Understanding that can help advance preventive rather than reactive solutions.”

Cod wars

A complex web of national and international laws now manage the sharing of the earth's fisheries resources, but this management is tenuous, said the report.

The study cites the so-called 'cod wars' as an example of how conflicts over access to fisheries resources can escalate.

Between 1952 and 1976 Britain and Iceland repeatedly squared off over disputed access to fishing grounds in the North Atlantic. 

"Characterized by major public demonstrations, ramming of ships at sea, and the deployment of opposing naval forces, the conflict climaxed when Iceland threatened to leave NATO, thereby exposing Europe to Soviet submarines operating across the Greenland-Iceland-UK gap," the report said.

More recently China and Vietnam, among other nations, have sparred over fishing access.

"Despite the seriousness of these disputes and associated structural challenges, one mitigating factor (variability aside) has been the constancy of the climate. But this dependability -- a bedrock of fisheries and human livelihood for millennia -- can no longer be relied upon," the report said.

According to the study, ocean sea-surface temperatures have increased 0.11 degrees Celsius per decade between 1971-2010 for the upper 75 meters of water, and sea-levels are rising as warmer waters melt sea-ice. 

Climate change is also causing the world’s oceans to become more acidic, driving changes in salinity levels, altering oxygen and carbon concentrations, and affecting the variability of the planet’s major ocean surface currents and deepwater circulation systems.

Climate change is also driving more extreme weather events, harming not only to marine habitats but also to the critical infrastructure (vessels and ports) required to support fisheries’ livelihoods, the said the report.  

"Related to this is the prospect of larger and more intense El Nino and La Nina that are harbingers of more extreme droughts, cyclones, floods, wildfires and downpours across the planet. This is also the case in the marine environment, as evinced by the 1972/73, 1982/83 and 1997/98 El Nino that witnessed decreased catch, surging fish prices, and adverse economic consequences."

According to the report, "three global 'fish security epicenters' have emerged where climate change has the potential to significantly impact regional and global security: the South China Sea , the Arctic, and the African great lakes.

The report concludes that "preventing conflict over fisheries and maintaining food security from fish protein will require better understanding and preparation for the confluence of risks. The current international rules in place to regulate fishing do not do enough to accommodate a changing climate. 

"Food and fishery security and the possibility of these conflicts scaling up to higher order security risks, suggests that this issue be prioritized."

The report is published by the Center for Climate and Security in partnership with The American Security Project, Carnegie Mellon University, The Planetary Security Initiative, the Skoll Global Threats Fund, and the Oxford University School of Geography and Environment.

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