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Exploring the interplay between climate change and cybersecurity

Modern societies have evolved sophisticated mechanisms to resolve challenges that could potentially disrupt our lifestyles or jeopardise lives.  Of all the challenges that humanity faces (or has faced), climate change is perhaps the most unsettling existential crisis. We have already embarked upon an era of ‘global boiling’, with the term ‘global warming’ gradually losing relevance in the face of intense climate chaos. This transformation carries far-reaching consequences with extreme climatic events creating havoc by affecting communities, overwhelming infrastructure and straining resources essential for human survival. Climate change further exacerbates health concerns such as the spread of insect-borne diseases, while the spectre of pandemics looms larger, leaving the economic fabric of our world woven with uncertainty.

In addition, while not on the same scale as climate change, cybersecurity emerges as another critical area under threat that warrants our immediate attention. In layman's terms, cybersecurity is the practice of protecting computer systems, networks and data from theft, damage or unauthorised access. According to the 2022 Data Breach Investigations Report (DBIR) by Verizon, the DBIR team analyzed 23,896 security incidents. Out of these incidents, 5,212 were confirmed data breaches. Furthermore, the alarming frequency of ransomware attacks, occurring every 11 seconds on average, underscores the relentless nature of cyber threats. In the past year alone, 54% of organizations have fallen prey to cyberattacks, with 52% reporting an increase compared to the previous year.

climate change

Although the connection between climate change and cybersecurity may not be immediately apparent, these are two pivotal challenges of our era. These issues are intricately connected in various ways, creating complex and interrelated challenges that require coordinated and holistic solutions.

The intersection between climate change and cybersecurity

  • Increase in cyber threats

We now face yearly occurrences of 100-year weather events, causing social anxiety, unrest, mass migration and displacement, rendering us all more vulnerable. These challenges expand the potential targets and expose business owners, government agencies and individuals to a higher risk of cybercrime. As a case in point, in 2021, a ransomware attack targeted a U.S. Colonial pipeline, coinciding with a severe winter storm in Texas. This cyberattack disrupted the company's operations and hindered the recovery of gas supplies, worsening the already dire situation during the widespread power outages and contributing to the humanitarian crisis

Closer to home, India is more prone to climate change than most other countries. These extreme weather occurrences have the potential to disrupt digital systems and inflict damage on critical infrastructure, including underwater communication cables and off-site servers. Consequently, the risk of cyber threats rises significantly. Moreover, these climatic shifts may trigger geopolitical instability due to factors like famines and population displacement. This scenario could exacerbate tensions between nation-states, potentially leading to a surge in cyber-attacks aimed at rival nations' critical infrastructure and for espionage purposes.

  • Contribution of cybersecurity to climate change

Data centers and their intricate networks are significant consumers of energy, accounting for 1.3% of the world's electricity usage and emitting about 0.6% of total greenhouse gases. Similarly, crypto-asset activities are emerging as a noteworthy contributor to global emissions, responsible for 0.3% of the planet's greenhouse gas output. Furthermore, artificial intelligence(AI), a transformative technology with immense potential, comes at an environmental cost. Training a single AI system can release a staggering 250,000 pounds ( approx 1,30,400 kilograms) of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, equivalent to the emissions generated by the entire aviation industry.

  • Climate change-induced economic challenges and cyber security concerns

Climate change can result in job losses through extreme weather damage, agricultural disruption, health-related productivity declines, transitions to green economies and displacement of communities. The economic theory of crime suggests that when faced with economic hardship, some individuals may turn to illegal activities if the perceived benefits outweigh the costs. On the other hand, while the motivations behind cybercrime can be complex and multifaceted, one such factor that drives cybercriminals is financial gain. Cybercriminals may target individuals, companies and even governments with the intention of causing harm or exploiting their resources. 

These connections show that climate change and cyber security are not separate issues but intertwined dimensions of a complex global challenge. On the domestic front, India confronts substantial challenges in simultaneously addressing climate change and cybersecurity, yet it exhibits the determination and resilience to lead in finding solutions. India has taken decisive action by introducing the National Cyber Security Policy (NCSP) in 2013 emphasising multi-stakeholder collaboration in enhancing cybersecurity, covering legal frameworks, capacity building, and international cooperation. India's establishment of the National Cyber Coordination Centre (NCCC) in 2017 for real-time cyber threat analysis and its active participation in international agreements such as the Paris Agreement and the UN Group of Governmental Experts on Cyberspace underscores its commitment to addressing these pressing global issues

However, these efforts fall short of addressing the complexities between cybersecurity and climate change and the challenges therein. Unravelling these complexities requires a comprehensive and collaborative approach that involves multiple stakeholders from different sectors and disciplines both globally and in India. Some of the possible actions that can be taken to mitigate this challenge are:

  • Creating and enforcing policies and regulations that encourage both environmentally friendly and secure digital transformation. This includes defining energy efficiency and emissions reduction standards for data centres and cloud providers, enforcing stringent data protection and privacy laws, establishing robust cyber resilience frameworks and fostering incentives to drive innovation and investment in clean technologies
  • Strengthening collaboration and alignment among governments, corporations, civil society groups, academia, media and individuals on local, national, regional and global scales. This involves activities such as sharing successful strategies, exchanging information, offering technical support, conducting collaborative research, cultivating trust, resolving conflicts, and forging partnerships. Furthermore, the State of the Connected World 2023 report suggests building an international cybercrime centre, supporting capacity development in developing economies and cooperating on cybersecurity to tackle this issue.
  • Increasing public and professional awareness and knowledge regarding the interconnected challenges and prospects posed by climate change and cybersecurity. This entails initiatives like launching awareness campaigns, designing educational curricula, delivering training programs, hosting events, issuing informative reports and fostering meaningful dialogue.

By adhering to best practices, organisations can enhance their performance, leading the way towards a more sustainable and secure future, benefiting not only themselves but also all stakeholders in the business environment. This will facilitate confronting the twin challenges of climate change and cyber security heads on.

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