Foreign Policy Blogs

Climate Change: Fragile States Spillage

Courstesy of the Thomson Reuters Foundation

Courstesy of the Thomson Reuters Foundation

“The physical features of the Somali country are much the same wherever the traveler may land. Bereft of all vegetation but a few scattered thorn- bushes bristling like hedgehogs, it is destitute of wealth and forbidding in aspect. The fine sand is driven by rainless storms into innumerable drifts. All the world seems ablaze; and it is but seldom that a cloud obstructs the pitiless sun. [1]

— Douglas Jadine, the British Secretary to the Administration for Somaliland in the early 1920s

Jadine’s description of the East African state whose name has become synonymous with chronic state failure hasn’t change much since his day. Today, Somalia remains the kind of place that doesn’t entice anyone to want to stay much longer than it takes for a Mogadishu custom officer’s stamp to dry on a passport. However, Somalia and other severely economically and politically challenged countries on strategically important squares on the geopolitical chessboard are very consequential in the creation of a more stable global security order. Developed nations will have to help failing states to build institutional capacities to effectively oversee, manage and protect their territories to prevent insecurity spillage into bordering states.

However, there is one under-appreciated force that threatens to exacerbate the failing state challenge. It is a slow moving effect with multidimensional impacts that is persistently in the blind spot of national security practitioners. Climate variation is a threat-multiplier, worsening existing conditions and conflicts especially in sub-regions of strategic economic and political importance to the West. This emerging long term stressor must become understood as a consequential force in the maintenance of global stability and security.

Canary in the coal mine

In addition to the harmful impacts of sharp political divisions, water and food scarcity – all human security factors – we can add climate variability as an underappreciated force that continues to erode the capacities of fragile states like Somalia, Mali, Libya, Egypt and Syria to deliver on national and human security promises. Somalia is the proverbial canary in the coal mine that illustrates how the  interplay between climate variation (long term and cyclic) and persistent state dysfunction can lead to insecurity spillage.  Somalia is the sad worst case example of what can occur when states on the edge are pushed over the edge by the strengthening hand of climate change.

Somali soldiers

Somali soldiers

Southern Somalia for example has become a hotbed for both indigenous and foreign violent extremist actors. Al-Shabaab, an indigenous violent religio-political organization, has in recent months demonstrated its capacity to mount attacks across Somalia’s border.  In late January 2014, the Obama administration ordered drone strikes targeting Ahmed Abdi Godane, the leader of al-Shabaab, stating that “Godane posed an imminent threat to U.S. interests in the region.” Godane’s group of youngsters (the English translation of al-Shabaab) expressed in recent months that they intend to follow up their murderous attack on a mall in neighboring Kenya late last year with similar strikes on regional enemies in the near future.

Partially because of the global jihadist movement, it is in the security interests of regional governments in particular, and Western governments more generally, to assist states-on-the-brink to strengthen their capacities to deliver on both state and human security. In support of local efforts, it is critical that as multi-disciplinary foreign assistance formulations are developed that there also be a sharp focus on developing resiliencies to the direct and indirect impacts of climate variation. Neglecting to address this indirect causal factor of instability is ill-advised at best, and foolhardy at worst.

The “Pitiless sun” Harming More than Somalia 

The “pitiless sun” that Douglas Jadine described in his foreboding description of  Somalia is not actually getting any hotter. According to the Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) – the United Nations’ subject matter expert panel studying climate variability  – the planet’s natural thermostat has been adjusted upwards a few clicks due to anthropogenic global warming.

Some climatologists suggest that this warming trend significantly contributed to the unusually aggressive cycles of drought and famine that much of Somalia suffered though during the 1990s and the early 2000s. These prolonged instances of precipitation variation, combined with the ineffectiveness of the institutions responsible to help people cope with crisis, turned an already low quality of life for the people of rural Somalia into a long and torturous fight for survival.

Without adequate food, water, medicines or any sort of timely state assistance, hundreds of thousands of Somalis perished under the “pitiless sun.” This breakdown of state functions in general, and law and order in particular, created the conditions that made it possible for all flavors of illicit and violent enterprises to thrive, and mass abuses to occur during Somalia’s worst years of famine. These are the vexing conditions that persist – albeit in varying degrees – in many of the world’s failing states.

Unfortunately, Somalia is only one of many countries likely to experience extreme water and food stress in coming years. Some climate change projections predict that by 2025 the percentage of the world living in countries under water stress will increase from 34 percent to 63 percent. A few states on the brink across Africa and the Middle East [2] are likely to be disproportionately impacted by the effects of prolonged climate variability (e.g., more drought days).  Francesco Femia and Caitlin Werrell of the Center for Climate and Security reported in 2012 that in Syria, a combination of “social, economic, environmental and climatic changes … eroded the social contract between citizen and government in the country, strengthened the case for the opposition movement, and irreparably damaged the legitimacy of the regime.” [3] What happened next in Syria is well known, and there is  ample evidence that Syrian insecurity has spilled over into neighboring states further destabilizing an already volatile region.


Although the Arab Spring’s largest and most prominent sprout – the Egyptian revolution – is generally perceived to have been a social eruption instigated by political oppression and other abuses, new studies point to a persistent drought as a key “stressor.”  Experts argue that by late 2010, global food prices had increased by 40% over the year, largely due to drought and wildfire in grain-exporting regions of Russia and Eastern Europe. This dramatic increase in the price of imported grain, elevated food prices in the Arab world, fueling popular unrest and general instability. The essay compilation The Arab Spring and Climate Change includes research that posits that although climate change did not cause this decade’s revolutions across the Arab world,  it  is evident that it “can ignite a volatile mix of underlying causes that erupt into revolution.”

A New Axis for International Security Thought Needed

Developed nations like the U.S. and much of Western Europe are far more capable of absorbing the shocks of sudden crop reductions or the types of events that would rapidly destabilize less politically and economically resilient nations. Fragile states simply do not have the capacity to weather the effects of rapid or gradual onset national emergencies. And as has been observed in North and East Africa, climate variation is a stressor that has the potential to tip the scales towards instability and chaos in states of strategic political and economic importance to the West.

From the vantage point of many marginalized and victimized people living in failing or failed states all the world seems ablaze.”  More foreign assistance modes should be channeled towards helping the most strategically important volatile states to build resiliency and mitigate the ongoing destabilizing impacts of environmental shifts.  Indeed, if we are to address insecurity spillage, a broader concept of security must emerge. One that incorporates non-traditional considerations into  national and regional security conversations. Western policy makers in particular must resist the bias towards the familiar (e.g., conventional threats), and instead begin to appreciate the strengthening hand of Mother Nature in international security affairs.


1) The Mad Mullah Of Somaliland”, Douglas Jadine, the Secretary to the Administration, for Somaliland,

2) “Up in Smoke: Threats from, and response to, the impact of global warming on human development.” Working Group on Climate Change and Development Reports, October 2004

3) The Arab Spring and Climate Change, A Climate and Security Correlations Series



Oliver Barrett

Oliver Leighton-Barrett is a multi-lingual researcher and a decorated retired military officer specializing in the inter-play between fragile states and national security matters. A former U.S. Marine, and Naval aviator, Oliver is a veteran of several notable U.S. military operations, to include: Operation Restore Hope (Somalia); and Operation Enduring Freedom (Afghanistan and Philippines). His functional areas of focus include: U.S. Diplomacy; U.S. Defense; and Climate Change. His geographic areas of focus include: Latin America and the Caribbean and the Middle East and North Africa (MENA).