Climate, Peace, and Security in the Pacific-Asia Region

Navigating the intersecting challenges of climate change, environmental security threats, and conflict by uplifting positive peacebuilding solutions that will turn the tide towards just, sustainable, and resilient futures.

By Katherine Waters and Kealoha Fox

Climate change and global security are inherently linked. Climate-driven extreme weather destroys food supplies and infrastructure, rising sea levels submerge coastal communities, and biodiversity loss undermines livelihoods and cultures that center around certain foods, plants, and animals. As climate change worsens, it interacts with and becomes the framework for every security issue we face today, including diminished access to resources, forced displacement, heightened geopolitical friction, and increased conflict. A half-degree Celsius increase in temperature is associated with a 10–20% heightened risk of deadly conflict, including a heightened risk of wars, armed insurgencies, genocides, gang violence, riots, terrorist attacks, crime, and interpersonal abuse.

Certain regions and communities, however, are forced to bear a disproportionate burden of these security consequences due to global systems of colonialism, exploitation, and oppression. Even though many smaller nations in the Pacific-Asia region have contributed little to the creation of climate change, the region bears the brunt of compounded consequences. The Pacific-Asia region is also heavily under-resourced in its work toward climate mitigation, adaptation, and resilience.

The Institute for Climate and Peace (ICP) published a new paper this month examining the nexus of climate change, security, and positive peacebuilding in the Pacific-Asia region. This research categorizes six environmental security threats that disproportionately impact and jeopardize the livelihoods and survival of communities across the region. In turn, findings provide specific and regional examples that uplift emerging and important patterns, suggesting that we must center justice, peace, and reciprocity in our responses to environmental security threats in order to build climate mitigation, adaptation, and resilience. This blog will share highlights from our larger body of research and infographic, both of which can be found on our website.

Environmental Security Threats in the Pacific-Asia Region

The United Nations Security Council declared climate change a “threat multiplier” in 2019, indicating that climate change threatens the conditions that sustain peace by driving instability and interacting with other pre-existing security threats. In this research, we characterize these drivers of instability and interactions with pre-existing security threats as “environmental security threats,” consisting of: global systems of disposability, exploitative global fishing trends, insecure food systems, military spending and occupation in regions like the Pacific, climate-induced geopolitical consequences, and climate-related displacement.

This paper explores several intersectional examples like the relationship between climate and security in rising tensions over the South China Sea, where depleting fish populations provoke conflict amongst the many nations who operate fishing vessels in the region. The South China Sea generates 12% of the world’s fish production, employs 4 million, and feeds hundreds of millions, making its global reach particularly pertinent to the climate change and security nexus. Furthermore, in international waters, illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing accounts for half the catch in the global ocean. This unregulated system not only deprives ocean countries of income and weakens their food security, like many Pacific Island and South Asian nations, but it also ignores sustainability and ecological safeguards, exacerbating the effects of climate change on fish populations through overexploitation. IUU fishing is also a direct cause of global conflict and insecurity, including piracy, human trafficking, and drug running.

Legacies of colonization are also deeply intertwined with anthropogenic climate change, security threats, and the disproportionate burden borne by many regions across the globe, including the Pacific-Asia region. Here, ICP looks at the United States occupying the island of Guam since World War II, when it first seized ancestral lands from Chamorro peoples with little compensation. Since occupation, the United States military occupation of Guam has not only forced Chamorros from their land and homes but simultaneously aided in the destruction of native limestone forests. As the “largest institutional contributor to global warming on planet Earth,” the United States Department of Defense is one of many institutions and governing bodies in the Global North that has actively exacerbated environmental degradation. Today, Guam faces devastation in the wake of Super Typhoon Mawar, one of many rapidly intensifying storms that has been made more likely due to climate change. The storm’s torrential rain and destructive winds have threatened coastal communities and disrupted water and power supplies across the island.

Climate change also affects the fabric of geopolitical relationships, both domestically and internationally. These geopolitical consequences can occur on the local, national, and transnational levels. Taiwan, for instance, is projected to have a disproportionately high negative economic impact due to climate change. As a nearshore island with geopolitical boundaries close to China, the disproportionately high climate-fueled economic decline will weaken its “capacity to resist Chinese pressure for reunification,” eliminating its decision-making autonomy as an independent nation.

Justice, Capacity Building, and Positive Peace

Today, environmental security threats are at the cornerstone of our global disorder. With warming temperatures, rising sea levels, decimated species, extreme weather, lost livelihoods, and more, climate and insecurity are inherently linked. By refusing to respond to the warming world with intentional holistic solutions, we pave the way for increased fighting over resources, lower levels of health and wellbeing, millions displaced around the globe, and environmental injustice weighing heavier on frontline communities.

“We have to turn the tide of destructive climate change towards swells of peace and connection, not only to each other but to the lands and waters that sustain us.”

Yet, ICP imagines a world that responds in kind to these known shocks and stressors. This paper helps envision our just futures in a region of the world where communities and their solutions are uplifted. By understanding the climate, peace, and security nexus, this paper investigates associations between those who have caused a high proportion of the negative impacts of climate change and the ways in which they exacerbate and accelerate the climate crisis and insecurity. This type of research review provides a lens from the civil society sector where responsible actors might take accountability, lower their greenhouse gas emissions, and cease the overexploitation of earth’s resources in the near term.

In order to resist the security threats of climate change and build a truly peaceful world, we must work to form institutions and reform systems grounded in justice. By acting on principles of positive peacebuilding, we are able to directly contrast the threat multiplier of climate change and instead work as a justice multiplier, mitigating conflict at its root. Methods for reducing climate-conflict risks can and must include actions like state capacity building, economic diversification, formal human rights laws, and resilience building. These approaches, among others, can be summarized by a larger overarching framework: positive peace.

Uplifting Positive Peacebuilding Solutions to Environmental Security Threats

Women, BIPOC communities, local coalitions of changemakers, and many others are building brilliant pathways to peace throughout the Pacific-Asia region. Women and Indigenous communities are not only some of the communities most impacted by the consequences of climate change–and thus should be given a say in how climate change is dealt with–but are also the most effective at peacebuilding and efforts towards sustainability.

Within Indigenous communities, Indigenous women are “keepers of ancestral traditions, stewards of the land and natural resources, defenders of human rights, and pivotal caretakers of their families and communities,” and thus hold a critical position in elevating positive peace and just climate solutions. In Nepal, 50,000 female-identifying individuals across the country have organized the Himalayan Grassroots Women’s Natural Resource Management Association (HIMAWANTI). This association works to resist poor governance and corruption by elevating the role of women in sustainable natural resource management, who rely heavily on Nepalese forest resources.

Community-based coalitions are also essential to forming a more reciprocal relationship with the land, a relationship that pushes against the extractivist, exploitative global system of disposability that wealthy nations in the Global North have created. In Hā‘ena, Kaua‘i, Hawai‘i’s first community-based subsistence fishing area (CBSFA) was officially signed into law in 2015. This community-based system of governance allows for the communities that most directly interact with the resource and are most deeply impacted by its overexploitation to make the decisions regarding its management, thus amplifying the voices of local communities and more effectively managing resources. Even just a year after the CBSFA rules were adopted in 2015, data had begun to show an “enhanced abundance of most fish species.” These are but a couple of examples of bright spots explored in this research that illustrate emerging patterns about how we can truly build towards peaceful and just futures with fewer security threats or environmental hazards.

New areas of research that broaden opportunities and entry points for women, youth, frontline, BIPOC, and gender-diverse communities must be resourced and funded.

Implications and Conclusions Found Within this New Publication

The climate crisis signifies the urgency to work across sectors to recognize and respond to intersectional implications where security alone stops short. To achieve peaceful and just climate mitigation, resilience, and adaptation, we must collaborate inside and beyond borders. We must envision a society where positive peace, rather than environmental security threats, is the foundation of our global system.

The Pacific-Asia region is not alone in experiencing climate change consequences, but the disproportionate burden its people carry must be recognized in our global response to avoid climate catastrophe. As a non-profit founded and operating in the Pacific-Asia region, ICP organizes human-centered solutions through our programs, research, leadership collaboration, and policy transformation. Founded and operated in Hawai‘i, our team knows too well about the perils and possibilities that encircle the climate, peace, and security nexus in this region. We also understand the gaps in conventional securitization and disarmament frameworks whose goals focus mainly on negative peace, if at all. Our portfolio of work, such as this research, seeks to fill such gaps and build bridges where we see opportunity.

We invite you to read and share this paper and its infographic with those in your network. Consider how you are working to uplift peaceful, just, and resilient responses in the face of the climate crisis. Creating programs and spaces that center these intersectional attributes promotes efficiency for how we respond to the climate crisis — especially for those most affected yet primed and positioned to lead strategy solutions.

. . .

Katherine Waters is a Program Analyst for the Institute for Climate and Peace and a recent International and Global Studies graduate from Middlebury College. She has worked for EPA, campaigned for political candidates back home in Virginia, and centered her undergraduate work around understanding climate security, climate justice and policy-making at the local, national, and international level. She is pursuing a career in climate justice and hopes to continue to advocate for and create just, peaceful, and climate resilient futures.

Kealoha Fox is the President and Senior Advisor with the Institute for Climate and Peace in Hawai‘i. A graduate of the John A. Burns School of Medicine, Dr. Fox is the recipient of more than 50 awards and distinctions, including being named one of the 20 leaders to follow for the next 20 years in 2022 by Hawaii Business Magazine and a 2022 candidate for the prestigious Pritzker Environmental Genius Award. As a Native Hawaiian woman, Kealoha has been deeply and purposefully trained by esteemed community elders in traditional and ancient Native Hawaiian practices and protocol such as ho‘oponopono, hāhā, and lā‘au lapa‘au.

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The Nexus of Climate Change, Fragility, and PeacebuildingWilson Center (2021)

Climate Change as a “Threat Multiplier”: History, Uses, And Future of the ConceptCenter for Climate and Security (2023)

Environment of Peace: Security in a New Era of RiskStockholm International Peace Research Institute (2022)

Positive Peace Report 2022, Institute for Economics and Peace (2022)

RELEASE: Decarbonized Defense: Kicking off the World Climate and Security Report 2022The Center for Climate and Security (2022)

A Climate Finance Rethink Can Help Those Most Affected by Climate ChangeNew Security Beat (2022)

The Climate-Gender-Conflict NexusGeorgetown Institute for Women, Peace, and Security (2021)

Fish, Food Security, and Future Conflict EpicentersThe Center for Climate and Security (2017)

Is super-polluting Pentagon’s climate plan just ‘military-grade greenwash?’The Guardian (2022)

Chapter 12: The Climate Crisis and Asia-Pacific SecurityAsia Pacific Regional Security Assessment (2022)

Significance of Women and Mother-led Social Change in the Pacific-Asia RegionInstitute for Climate and Peace (2022)

HRS 188–22.9 Hā‘ena Community-Based Subsistence Fishing AreaState of Hawai‘i (2015)

Recognizing “reciprocal relations” to restore community access to land and water, International Journal of the Commons (2019)

Climate change makes Typhoon Mawar more dangerousNPR (2023)

Powerful Typhoon Mawar slams Guam with heavy rain and damaging winds, CNN (2023)