Security implications of climate change impacts on the ocean

Source(s): Stockholm Environment Institute

According to a recent article in the Guardian, scientists reported that “the world’s oceans reached their hottest level in recorded history in 2020, supercharging the extreme weather impacts of the climate emergency”.

But what does this mean for global security issues? Experts and agents of change gathered to explore the intersection of climate change, oceans and security.

By Karina Barquet and Ylva Rylander

The profound impacts of global warming on ocean temperature and acidity, and of the accelerated melting of the cryosphere on sea-level rise, are increasingly evident. Sea-level rise will increase storm water surges, coastal erosion, and saltwater intrusion and thus threaten coastal communities and areas crucial for food production, such as large deltas. The territorial consequences of sea-level rise could jeopardize international cooperation, leading to tension and conflict. At the same time, changes in ocean temperatures are threatening marine ecosystems and food security.

The Stockholm Climate Security Hub is an initiative led by the Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI), Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), Stockholm International Water Institute (SIWI), and Stockholm Resilience Centre (SRC).

The workshop was organized in cooperation with the Swedish Agency for Marine and Water Management (SWAM) and the Ministry for Foreign Affairs of Sweden (MFA), and chaired by Karina Barquet (SEI) and Mats Eriksson (SIWI).


On 6 November 2020, the Stockholm Climate Security Hub organized a science-policy dialogue for invited experts and agents of change on the links between climate change, ocean, and security. The workshop brought together key scientists and decision-makers from northern Europe to present the latest research on the topic and to discuss how science-based policy could help to address global ocean-related security challenges driven by climate change.

The event highlighted that the security implications of climate change impacts on the ocean follow two main pathways: the consequences of sea-level rise on coastal landscapes and communities, and the consequences of sea-level rise and warmer temperatures for resource security and marine territorial boundaries.

The first speaker, Jochen Hinkel, Head of Adaptation and Social Learning at the Global Climate Forum and one of the authors of the IPCC’s Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate, explained that “we can surely expect that much suffering in society will take place during this century, and this suffering will be uneven.” In fact, it can already be seen that coastal defences have been developed in many rich urban centres, while people in poor rural coastal areas are increasingly face challenges to their security as climate impacts undermine their livelihoods.

Climate-driven insecurities in coastal areas

Beatrice Mosello, Senior Project Manager at Adelphi, pointed to the challenges faced by Bangladesh: “Bangladesh is a country experiencing all possible types of vulnerabilities, apart from climate change, including political risks, refugee camps, rapid urbanization, and high rates of poverty and inequality. Here, climate-driven insecurities in coastal areas stem from loss of land and livelihood from sea-level rise. A one-metre increase will cause saline intrusion in half of Bangladesh and inevitably lead to massive displacement of people, which could lead to local, national and regional security risks.”

Rising sea levels also have other security implications. As rising seas encroach on coastlines, it potentially impacts legal baselines. The location of borders at sea are defined by the coastline, so inundating the coast will lead to loss of land territory as well as shifting maritime limits inland, and will affect the extent of, for example, Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ).

Clive Schofield, Head of Research at the World Maritime University-Sasakawa Global Ocean Institute, said: “Countries have the exclusive right to manage and use all natural resources within their EEZ, including fish, minerals, oil, and natural gas. EEZ cover about 39% of the ocean’s surface and account for more than 95% of global marine fish catch. So, you could say they are pretty important.”

In addition, half of the world’s 512 potential maritime boundaries have yet to be defined. This means that the combination of sea-level rise with unresolved jurisdiction issues is potentially explosive and deserves greater attention.

Global warming also has a direct impact on the ocean, leading to higher water temperatures and changes in pH levels. This in turn will have profound impacts on marine ecosystems and food webs. Professor Anna Gårdmark of the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences showed that, due to warmer oceans, sea water acidity has increased by over 25% since preindustrial times. Warmer and more acidic seas are, in turn, altering food webs by causing shifts in population structures that favour smaller individuals such as fish, putting populations of larger predators at risk of collapse.

The alteration of food webs is causing an overall reduction in global fishery production, but regional changes can also be observed, as illustrated in Figure 1. The areas shown in red will experience decreases in primary fish production, whilst blue areas will experience increases. The red areas coincide with the world’s most populated areas, which are also forecasted to experience large population increases.

“Warmer oceans are already impacting global fish markets and local fish industries, which millions of people globally depend on for survival,” explained Gårdmark.

What are the options for dealing with these challenges?

“Mitigation and adaptation will not stop climate change but can dampen its impacts. But mitigating and adapting will cost money, which means it is important to assess where interventions might be most effective,” said Hinkel.

Mitigation and adaptation efforts would be most effective on 13% of the world’s coasts — areas which are inhabited by 90% of the global coastal population, according to a study by Hinkel and colleagues. But are these mitigation and adaptation measures affordable? And, more importantly, who can afford to mitigate or adapt?

Economic efficiency

Hinkel warns that ensuring climate change security will increasingly be a matter of wealth. With a projected sea-level rise of 0.4-2m during the 21st century, we can expect the world to become even more divided in terms of climate adaptation and security issues.

Cooperation and policy actions

International and regional cooperation will be important in preparing for these anticipated scenarios. One important global cooperation mechanism is the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR), also known as the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources which will turn 40 years old in 2021. CCAMLR is an international commission with 26 members; a further 10 countries have acceded to the Convention.

“The sudden ocean changes and the Antarctic ice sheet play a very important role in the global ecosystem,” explained Jakob Granit, Director General at SWAM, and the new chair of CCAMLR. “Over past years, we have seen significant events, including 20°C in Antarctica and large calving of icebergs. These events are happening much more rapidly than we previously have seen.”

“To improve our understanding of the impacts climate change will have on the ocean globally, it’s crucial to continue carrying out research in cooperation with all member countries. CCAMLR has and will continue to be an important vehicle for this,” said Granit.

Also in attendance at the workshop was His Excellency Andrew Jenks, New Zealand’s ambassador to the Nordic countries, who noted that for low-lying countries and atolls, the consequences of sea-level rise could be severe. States that have very small land masses face becoming uninhabitable islands, he pointed out, with some, such as Fiji and Tarawa, already under direct threat from sea-level rise.

Her Excellency Helen Ågren, Ambassador for the Ocean, Swedish Ministry for Foreign Affairs, emphasized that international cooperation is a key feature of Sweden’s official stance towards ocean governance. By incorporating conflict prevention, gender and social equity into broader discussions on ocean sustainability and adaptation to climate change, Sweden intends to raise the level of ambition in international cooperation on these issues.

“When we talk about climate, the ocean and security, we need research on investment needs for adaptation, but also aligning global work to national policies and measures. We need to take into consideration consumption and production patterns when we think about ocean sustainability and the blue economy and ensure coordination within ministries and governments, as well as with local communities,” concluded Ågren.

Explore further

Share this

Please note: Content is displayed as last posted by a PreventionWeb community member or editor. The views expressed therein are not necessarily those of UNDRR, PreventionWeb, or its sponsors. See our terms of use

Is this page useful?

Yes No Report an issue on this page

Thank you. If you have 2 minutes, we would benefit from additional feedback (link opens in a new window).