Climate Change as a Security Issue in the Indo-Pacific Region: Borders, Environmental Phenomena and Preexisting Vulnerabilities

By Billie R. Trinder
2019, Vol. 11 No. 02 | pg. 1/1

In recent years, climate change has been increasingly framed as a security issue, with some theorists going so far as to call it the most important security issue of the 21st century. This paper will examine the relationship between climate change and human security through the lens of environmental possibilism (Sprout, 1965), recognizing related environmental phenomena as risk intensifiers. It is recognized that climate change acts as a risk multiplier to violent conflict rather than a direct cause, where the vulnerability and ability or inability of populations to adapt to environmental change hinges on the level to which they depend on modes of climate sensitive natural capital as opposed to economic or social capital (Barnett and Adger 2007: 577). Additionally, economic standing, levels of social cohesion and effectiveness of decision-making processes in and around a state are also significant factors in predicting the threat posed by climate change.

It is suggested that the way in which these factors interact with existing borders will determine potential for conflict, as borders remain an important indication of interaction between populations, despite increasingly globalized nature of political, economic and social spheres (Starr 2002). It is also proposed that the conditional nature of environmental conflict indicates that risk can be reduced through strategic legal and political action to adapt to different manifestations of climate threat (Wyman 2013: 337) as well as to help reduce the overarching threat of climate change.

One example of climate change as a risk intensifier is the escalation of already present ethno-cultural tensions in the North of India due to increased inflows of migration from Bangladesh. A significant intensification of natural environmental hazards in Bangladesh including ‘flooding, cyclones, storm surges, water-logging, salinity intrusion, and riverbank erosion and land loss’ is widely attributed to climate change (McAdam 2012: 162), resulting in the migration of between twelve and seventeen million people to India (Bhaumik 2012) to date. The corresponding ethnic redistribution in the North of India (especially Assam) has demonstrated the exemplified by political mobilization and organized violence against migrants (Gupta 2001: 33). The extent of the tensions was revealed in 2012 when a riot in Kokrajhar on the 20th of July resulted in the deaths of almost eighty Bengali Muslim immigrants and destruction of approximately 500 villages through arson, with the Indian army deployed and instructed to ‘shoot on sight’ (Bhaumik 2012). Approximately 400,000 people were displaced and forced to live in makeshift camps, and India maintains a physical wall in an attempt to prevent bangladeshi immigration. The threat associated with climate refugees is also intensified by the fact that people who are forced to move due to changes to local environment are not currently recognized under international law, freeing other nations from obligation to grant ‘climate refugees’ the protections offered to those fleeing war or persecution. The link between climate change induced migration and conflict in this region is drawn by Barnett and Adger, who recognize that ‘conflict can be stimulated by changes in social systems driven by climate impacts’ (2007: 640). In understanding the dynamic between the conflicting groups, Starr’s theory of borders is highly useful, where the proximity and shared border of Bangladesh and India are a pivotal factor in enabling violence (Zipft 1949: 11).

The nature of climate change impacts in northern India is consistent with its present role as a risk intensifier rather than a direct cause of conflict. This is evident in Assam where instances of violent conflict are dependent on both increased levels of migration due to climate change as well as existing ethno-cultural tensions in this area, and autonomous arrangements have ‘always been a matter of contention’ (Barbora 2008: 314). Economic disadvantage and modes of governance also contribute to the area’s volatility, as the local government relies on extremely limited federal fiscal support, leading them to oppose land claims and sources of potential political opposition in order to retain relevance and security in a competitive environment characterized by migrant community opposition (Barbora 2008: 326). The combined threat of social and economic conditions as well as climate-induced migration to human security is also predicted to escalate in this region. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has conducted digital terrain modeling establishing that the habitability of approximately 16% of Bangladeshi territory would be implicated by 1.5-meter sea level rise – displacing an estimated 17 million people (Paskal and House 2007: 599).

Another significant way in which environmental phenomena attributed to climate change influences risk levels within a security paradigm is also demonstrated in the Indo-Pacific region, where reduced access to essential resources acts as a point of contention. The Tibetan Plateau serves as the primary water source to 50% of the world’s population, providing water to nations including Pakistan, India and China. Control over the resource is already a source of discord (Lone, 2015) and control over the resource is recognized as an important source of leverage over neighbors (Chellaney 2013: 45). The increased rate of glacier melt due to rising temperatures is a significant threat to reliant nations, with 7,600 square kilometers (approximately 18 percent of the total) having melted since the 1950s (Dorje, 2015).

The threat of this environmental phenomenon poses to global security is greatly increased by a major population boom which also contributes significant strain on water resources in the region. World Bank figures indicate that in the time since 1981 the population in China has jumped by over 37% by 2015, India’s by 82% and Pakistan by just under 130% (2015). Additionally, threat posed by water tensions is greatly increased by a history of economic competition and disputes over territory in the region. This contributes to a fragile dynamic, in which China is unwilling to consider resource-sharing agreements and India has made controversial action in securing resources (Albert 2016). Across the region, poor water management on both a national and transboundary level also exacerbates the issue. On a national level, water management suffers from a lack of funding and decentralized modes of governance, resulting in a gap between policy and implementation relative to the issue (Price 2014: ix). On an international level, there is presently no binding international legal framework addressing regulation of water resources (Albert 2016: 2). The dynamic between nations competing for water resources in the Tibetan Plateau represents a significant threat to international human security, involving both the second and fourth largest national economies (China and India respectively), both of whom have demonstrated a tendency to protect national water resources at cost to neighboring populations.

The threat of climate change to security in the Indo-Pacific region is also exacerbated by the possible implications of sea level rise on legal territory based on international maritime law. This is a significant potential threat as strategically important regions may be disputed due to topographical changes (Paskal 2007: 3). One example of such a region is the Bay of Bengal, where the nation’s maritime claim is based on a coastline considered highly vulnerable to increased flooding and sea level rise by the UN International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The nation already experiences between 13 centimeters to 2 meters of flooding annually, submerging up to 50% of the nation’s territory (Paskal 2007: 4). The changeable and vulnerable nature of this boundary raises questions about Bangladesh’s claim to the Bay of Bengal which, according to the United Nation Convention on the Law of the Sea, is based on a law granting 200 miles from an area they suggest is already being encroached on by neighbors India and Bengal (Rashid 2006). Implications of sea level rise on claims to maritime territory is also a potential threat to security in the South China Sea, where military outposts have been established on low lying coastlines and land formations. The UNCLOS maritime law tying land to maritime territorial claims means that sea level rise and subsequent flooding would result in legal ambiguity surrounding this strategically important area. Intensity of conflict for the region is also predicted to escalate due to climate change induced energy resource scarcity, with 22% of hydropower stations predicted to drop more than 30% in energy production capabilities worldwide by 2050 (Dodds 2009). The link between legal borders and topographical features in the South China Sea (Starr 2013) manifests in the relationships between borders and conflicting national interests and the subsequent bearing on possible outcomes.

The role of human and factors in security risks in the South China sea is evident in the contentious nature of claims to the region, where interest in abundant oil and gas reserves in the region has served as motivation for overlapping sovereignty claims based on the Parcel Islands (presently controlled by China but also claimed by Taiwan and Vietnam), and the Spratly Islands (subject to claims by six nations), both of which have seen instances of violent conflict. The potential for greater conflict is tied to US/China competition, where US interest in deterring Chinese control lies in impeding their rise as a ‘great power’ (Reed 2015: 5). This is evident in a June statement made by White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer that ‘the US is going to make sure we protect our interests there’, and that islands manufactured by China were not a legitimate, going on to promise that ‘we are going to prevent international waters being taken over by any one country’ (Blanchard and Brunnstrom 2017).

Possible Solutions

Due to the complex and widely ranging implications of climate change on international security, issues must be addressed on both a national and international level. At a national level it is important to address increased migration flows due to implicated inhabitability of some nations. At present, most assumed immigration channels do not have immigration policy to specifically address significantly increased flows of people, however some have provisions for immigrations which could be interpreted as a basis for environmentally related immigration (Wyman 2013: 337). Existing migration channels could be gradually increased to accommodate climate related immigration, helping to avoid sudden and destabilizing influxes of immigrants. In order to encourage such action, the definition of refugee in the international refugee convention should also be amended to address climate refugees, as this is a significant influence on domestic immigration laws (Barnett and Adger 2007: 2).

In order to address competition over scarce resources, focus should be placed on development of resource sharing treaties rather than competition for access for such resources. One instance where this may be considered is amongst countries reliant from water from the Tibetan plateau. As this is an area of contention, with most countries looking to secure national access to resources, negotiations would be best led by an international agency like the United Nations, who could address the lack of binding international legal framework relative to regulation of water resources (Albert 2016: 2).

Conflict related to changed topography and subsequent ambiguity of maritime claims is difficult to address on a national level due to conflicting state interests for example in the South China Sea and the Bay of Bengal. One way in which states could help neutralize competition in such regions is by addressing national reliance on fuel sources found in such areas, through a shift in focus to renewable energy sources (Stern 2006: 92), which would also help neutralize the overarching threat of climate change. On an international level, international maritime law (specifically UNCLOS) should be amended to more specifically address climate change related legal ambiguities to national territorial claims in order to prevent controversy and opportunistic legal interpretation of changed geographical territorial circumstances.

Therefore, using the framework of environmental possibilism and Starr’s theory of borders, it is recognized that the intersection of environmental factors with human and territorial ones is highly effective in understanding conflict as an apparent reaction to environmental phenomena. Climate change is seen as a risk intensifier and thus a significant influence on international security, at times promoting or escalating conflict, especially in areas made vulnerable by preexisting conditions including a high reliance on natural resources, ethno-cultural tensions and contentious borders. The complex and wide-ranging effects of climate change mean that successful mitigation of security threats relies on action at both a national and international level.


Barnett, J and Adger, N (2007) Climate change, human security and vilent conflict. Melbourne: The School of Social and Environmental Enquiry, University of Melbourne

Blanchard, B and Brunnstrom, D (2017) China says will protect South China Sea Sovereignty. In: Reuters. URL:

Chellaney, B (2013) Water: Asia’s new battleground. Washington: Georgetown University Press

Dorje, Y (2015) Tibetan Glacial Melt Threatens Billions. Voice of America News. URL:

Lone, A (2015) How can climate change trigger conflict in South Asia? Foreign Policy URL:

Kaplan, R (1994) The Coming Anarchy. The Atlantic. URL:

McAdam S (2012) Climate change and Australia - warming to the global challenge. In: Climate Change and Australia. Sydney: Federation Press

Pascal, C and House, C (2007) How climate change is pushing the boundaries of security and foreign policy. London: The Royal Institute of International Affairs

Sprout, H (1965) The Ecological Perspective on Human Affairs. Princeton: Princeton University Press

Starr, H (2002) On Geopolitics: Spaces and Places. International Studies Quarterly. 57(1) Carolina: University of South Carolina

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