Managing climate security (1)

Climate change –- and our responses to it -– will fundamentally change the world’s strategic security environment. Nick Mabey introduces Frontline Earth, a new project that examines the unprecedented challenges that lie ahead.

Food price riots across the world, a new geopolitical “Great Game” in the Arctic, a global race to secure cropland and the official predictions of peak oil by 2012; the past year has seen the politics of resource scarcity rise to the top of the global security agenda. Though currently overshadowed by the impact of the global economic downturn, there has been a fundamental shift in perceptions away from the unrealistic assumption of never-ending future abundance towards a grudging recognition of the rapid approach of natural limits.

Above all, the full implications of climate change are beginning to enter into mainstream security analysis — from the abstraction of discussions in the United Nations Security Council in April 2007 to the brutal reality of drought-driven conflict in Africa. These are just the first signs of how climate change -– and our responses to it -– will fundamentally change the strategic-security context in the coming decades.

Perhaps the most compelling evidence of this shift has come from the most unexpected source: the United States intelligence community. After eight years of ideologically driven climate-change denial by the administration of George W Bush, the final months of the Bush presidency saw the appearance of two different pieces of analysis by the National Intelligence Council. Both of these highlighted climate change and resource scarcity as critical strategic threats to American security and interests. Without the useful shield of US climate denial, many other countries will have no excuse not to take a more clear-headed look at the implications of climate change for their national security and future prosperity.

Conflict over natural resources, whether driven by need or greed, has always been a part of human society. The past shows us that social tensions driven by climatic change destroyed many advanced societies, such as the droughts which drove the collapse of early civilisations in Mesopotamia and Peru. The coming decades will see rising resource scarcity, greater environmental degradation and increasingly disruptive climatic change at levels never experienced before in human history. In an increasingly uncertain world, these trends are disturbingly predictable.

Climate change already is creating hard security threats, but it has no hard security solutions. Climate change is like a ticking clock: every increase in greenhouse gases in the atmosphere permanently alters the climate, and we can never move the clock’s hands back to reclaim the past. Even if we stopped emitting pollution tomorrow, the world already is committed to levels of climate change unseen for hundreds of thousands of years. If we fail to stop polluting, we will be committed to catastrophic and irreversible changes over the next century, which will directly displace hundreds of millions of people and critically undermine the livelihoods of billions.

There is some scientific uncertainty over these impacts; but the uncertainty is over when they will occur, not if they will occur, unless climate change is slowed. Preventing catastrophic and runaway climate change will require a global mobilisation of effort and co-operation seldom seen in peacetime.

In the next decades, climate change will drive as significant a change in the strategic security environment as the end of the cold war. If uncontrolled, climate change will have security implications of similar magnitude to the world wars, but which will last for centuries. The past will provide no guide to this coming future; a robust response will require clear assessments based on the best scientific projections.

Despite these threats, current responses to climate change are slow and inadequate. Even Europe, which leads global efforts to move to a low-carbon economy, is spending only the equivalent of around 0.5% of its combined defence budget on tackling climate change, though this does not count the action achieved through direct regulation. There is a need for more direct and interventionist action to prevent climate risks. One reason for this is that economic analysis has systematically undervalued the potential extreme impacts of climate change, underplaying to policy makers the implication of the most severe risks. But a failure to acknowledge and prepare for the worst-case scenario is as dangerous in the case of climate change as it is for managing the risks of terrorism or nuclear weapons proliferation.

Security-sector actors must not just prepare to respond to the security challenges of climate change; they also must be part of the solution. Partly, this means reducing the climate impact of their operations and activities. Much more importantly, it means communicating the security implications and costs of uncontrolled and extreme climate change to political leaders and the public. Unless achieving climate security is seen as a vital and existential national interest, it will be too easy to delay action on the basis of avoiding immediate costs and perceived threats to economic competitiveness.

But climate change is also a security opportunity. A low-carbon global economy will be a far more energy-secure economy. Trillions of dollars — otherwise would be invested in oil and gas production increasingly concentrated in unstable regions – instead will deliver new technology and local clean-energy sources. This will lower geopolitical tensions over fossil-fuel reserves and greatly reduce the security impact of “peak oil” when it arrives.

The security sector also has the vital -– and expensively acquired –- experience of how government can drive technological development and infrastructure deployment at a similar scale to that needed to respond to climate change. Security actors should promote dramatically increased investment in the development and deployment of technologies critical for energy and climate security. This will be expensive, but is achievable. Recent estimates suggest this would require technology investment commensurate with current spending on the “war on terror”, and if a crash response is needed in response to extreme climate-change scenarios, investment at levels similar to the Apollo moon-landing programme.

The reality of climate change will require fundamental changes in how international relations are conducted, and will alter much of the focus of international security policy. It will change strategic interests, alliances, borders, threats, economic relationships, comparative advantages and the nature of international co-operation, and will help determine the continued legitimacy of the United Nations in the eyes of much of the world. Climate change geopolitics will extend far outside the environmental sphere, and will link old problems in new ways.

Managing the complexity of our collective climate security will become an ever more important part of foreign policy. Climate change will require member countries of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) to revisit their international industrial policies by sharing advanced energy technologies and funding large-scale investment in economic competitors such as China and India. OECD countries must recognise that achieving climate security is a more vital national interest than the narrow maximisation of domestic company profits.

Energy security interests will be increasingly delivered through co-operation with energy consuming countries on technology development and diffusion, rather than through relationships with producing countries on fossil-fuel discoveries and delivery. Declining use of imported fossil fuels may cause tensions with many producer countries, and instability inside them. Countries will not be able to achieve national energy security through undermining other countries’ climate security by using coal without capturing the carbon. There will be no agreement on climate security without guaranteeing all countries’ energy security.

Nuclear proliferation mechanisms will need to be greatly strengthened if nuclear power is to be deployed at a scale which would make a real difference to climate change. Climate change will be used as a political mask for some states to acquire nuclear technology for military purposes, and development and sharing of more benign energy alternatives is the best protection against this. A major climate-change-driven disaster in the next decade would drive pressure for a “crash programme” of rapid deployment of nuclear power worldwide — at rates which would compromise the ability of the current nuclear industry supply chain to preserve safety or security.

NEXT: Geopolitics, justice and instability


Nick Mabey is a founding director and the chief executive of E3G, an independent not-for-profit organisation working in the public interest to accelerate the global transition to sustainable development. He is the author of Delivering Climate Security: International Security Responses to a Climate Changed World, a report published on behalf of the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI).

Homepage photo by Alex Lichtenberger