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China and Climate Security

China faces grave environmental security risks from sea level rise, increased water scarcity, and projected temperature change. If China takes no measures in meeting these challenges, it will potentially face a humanitarian crisis that will destabilize the population.

Date & Time

Oct. 6, 2009
4:00pm – 5:30pm ET


The June 2008 U.S. National Intelligence Council's report on security threats ranks countries in accordance to the degree of environmental security risks that they face in sea level rise, increased water scarcity and aggregate measure of vulnerability from projected temperature change. Linda Jakobson, a senior researcher at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute concluded in an October 6, 2009 Kissinger Institute event that China faces immense challenges on all three fronts. If China takes no measures in meeting these challenges, it will potentially face a humanitarian crisis leading to an outbreak of epidemic diseases that will destabilize the population.

From Jakobson's recent interviews in China, she noted that the country still views climate security as a "threat multiplier for instability" though it would not trigger state failure. This dominant view is manifested in the shortage of crisis management capability pervasive in Chinese political institutions. Nonetheless, Beijing is taking more active measures to address climate change. Recently, the National Defense University of China was commissioned to write an internal report on climate change from a security perspective. In addition, the General Staff Headquarters of the PLA established a new Military Climatic Change Expert Committee that includes academics and experts inside and outside the military.

In terms of policy, even though the Chinese government has acknowledged the severity of climate change, and has put in place a formal set of measures to address it, China will maintain its position holding developed countries responsible for uncontrolled greenhouse gas emissions, thus arguing for them to "foot the bill" for technology development to control emissions. In making this point, China continues to position itself as a developing nation, distinct from industrialized countries.

In the near term, Jakobson foresees increasing Chinese domestic and foreign policy shifts on climate change. Domestically, the view of climate change as a threat multiplier will push for much needed energy sector reform. But China may harden its position in opposing a carbon tax or an obligatory cap-and-trade regime. On the other hand, China will be more open to engage in multilateral efforts to improve disaster-relief capabilities and readiness to combat the spread of disease.

Scot Tanner, a research analyst with CNA, discussed climate change as an emerging social threat and the growing role of the People's Liberation Army (PLA) in addressing it. Climate change had frequently set off social unrest. Officially, 5-10% of public protests are related to environmental issues, the most serious of which is the limited availability of arable land and about 30 percent related to relocation and compensation complaints. Due to climate change, the adjustments made in the distribution, supply, and quality of arable land will also alter the production structure for energy production and factories. Closing factories will eliminate jobs and communities.

According to Tanner, climate change represents a growing concern for the PLA as they turn more attention to "military operations other than war" (MOOTW) including a growing list of non-traditional security missions. Included in this list and related to climate change are: rescue assistance, or "suddenly occurring instances" (e.g. floods, earthquakes, typhoons, and social unrest). Tanner noted the PLA's organizational short-comings hindered achieving these goals, particularly the lack of a unified Chinese Coast Guard (relevant functions currently fall to numerous overlapping and competing departments). Lastly, climate change affects China's security diplomacy since countries in South and Southeast Asia, whose rivers have origins in the Himalayas, will be making more demands on China.


Hosted By

Kissinger Institute on China and the United States

The Kissinger Institute works to ensure that China policy serves American long-term interests and is founded in understanding of historical and cultural factors in bilateral relations and in accurate assessment of the aspirations of China’s government and people.  Read more

Environmental Change and Security Program

The Environmental Change and Security Program (ECSP) explores the connections between environmental change, health, and population dynamics and their links to conflict, human insecurity, and foreign policy.  Read more

Indo-Pacific Program

The Indo-Pacific Program promotes policy debate and intellectual discussions on US interests in the Asia-Pacific as well as political, economic, security, and social issues relating to the world’s most populous and economically dynamic region.   Read more

China Environment Forum

Since 1997, the China Environment Forum's mission has been to forge US-China cooperation on energy, environment, and sustainable development challenges. We play a unique nonpartisan role in creating multi-stakeholder dialogues around these issues.  Read more

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