Climate Change and Security: The Impending Threat

Climate Change is bad for the planet, most of us agree. But it also presents serious issues as it relates to national security, according to one UK expert. Text and photo by Melissa Low

Singapore, 1 March 2011. Rear Admiral Morisetti, UK, is an expert on Climate and Energy Security, and was invited to address a seminar at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, Singapore, on “Dealing with the Security Threat from Climate Change”.

The UK's Rear Admiral Morisetti has a worrying view of security in the light of current climate change statisticsThe seminar brought a sobering discussion on the geo-strategic implications of climate change, in particular the need to consider ways in which climate change can be expected to introduce conditions for social destabilisation and sources of tension and conflict.

Admiral Morisetti explained that unlike conventional security threats that involve single entities acting in specific ways and points in time, climate change has the potential to result in multiple chronic conditions.

Things like reduced access to fresh water, reduced food production, health catastrophes, land loss and flooding, greater potential for failed states, the growth of terrorism and potential escalation of conflicts over resources are all likely to be aggravated by climate change. This means climate change has become an issue of national security concern. The likelihood of increased social, political and resource stresses could shift the tipping point at which conflicts ignite, even if not directly causing them.

So what does it mean when the UK appoints a senior British Royal Navy officer as the country’s climate and security envoy? There seems to be a clear trend towards military involvement and attention to climate change issues in the UK. In the US,  capabilities of armed forces to respond to climate change are being evaluated. The  U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) is looking at the effect of climate change on department facilities, capabilities and missions. The DoD will be looking at the effects of a 2.8-4.0°C increase in global temperature and 0.6-2.5 metres average sea level rise (see chart).

Future Outlook: Gloomy

Christiana Figueres, Executive Secretary UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) recently warned about the: “ … link between security concerns and climate change” that could result in a scenario that would potentially: “ … demand a defence response that makes even today’s spending burden look light”.

Military missions and tasks will likely be adversely affected by climate change and military personnel need to adapt to the changes that are already happening in some of the most unstable regions in the world today. This is important because operating equipment in extreme environmental conditions increases maintenance requirements – at considerable cost – and dramatically reduces the service life of the equipment. In the future, climate change – whether hotter, drier, or wetter – will add stress to military systems.

Admiral Morisetti also noted that energy management and vulnerability are important, and need to be addressed. There is an imperative to reduce the consumption of operational energy to reduce risk and offer cost savings. He argued for the increased use of simulation technology to reduce fuel usage during training exercises.

“The energy strategy that the military needs are exactly the same as wider society”, he said.

Key Points

Climate change will impact security and:

1.       Result in multiple chronic conditions occurring globally within the same time frame

2.       Create sustained natural and humanitarian disasters on a scale far beyond those we see today

3.       Foster instability where societal demands exceed the capacity of government to cope

4.       Exacerbate already marginal living standards in many Asian, African and Middle Eastern nations, causing widespread political instability and the likelihood of failed states

5.       Foster the conditions for internal conflicts, extremism and movement towards increased authoritarianism and radical ideologies within failed states

6.       Add tensions to stable regions in the form of climate refugees to US and Europe

Key Actions for Military Planners

1.       Consider climate change’s effects on department facilities, capabilities and missions

2.       Build capacity amongst personnel to adapt to more extreme weather patterns and frequent natural disasters through first aid, conflict prevention and resolution training

3.       Conduct full risk analysis on defense infrastructure to develop clear adaptation plans and ensure message trickles down to all personnel

4.       Mitigate climate change by optimizing existing equipment and to invest in energy efficient equipment and weaponry for the future

5.       Engage in lateral (across army divisions) and inter-governmental discussion on climate change