Climate change and global security

by John Ashton and me. Published on openDemocracy, on 16th May 2005. This formed part of openDemocracy’s online debate on the politics of climate change, which was developed in partnership with the British Council.

During the cold war the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists moved the hands of a metaphorical clock towards or away from midnight depending on the state of relations between the superpowers. Today, we face another challenge to our security, potentially as threatening to human well-being as nuclear war but far less dramatic in its imagery. Climate change is a slow burn compared to the light of a thousand suns that Robert Jungk memorably anticipated annihilating civilisation.

But it will be no less devastating even if its slow, sly, shocks take decades rather than days to destroy what it has taken humanity so long to build. Civilisation, the thin film of order that humans cast around the chaos of events, is the product of an unusually benign period in our planet’s climate. It is now clear beyond reasonable doubt that burning coal, oil and gas as carelessly as we do currently will bring this benign period to an end.

There will be no cataclysmic moment to shape and focus our understanding of the rough beast slouching towards us. The day we pass irreversibly from a stable to an unstable climate will go unremarked. Indeed, it may already have passed. But be under no illusions. The climate change that is already melting glaciers and the tundra, rising sea levels, increasing weather extremes and changing the distribution of crops, species and disease vectors, will have economic, social and political consequences that threaten civilisation.

In our global society the consequences of each avalanche, flood, drought, forest fire, hurricane, landslide or epidemic are immediately visible. The stresses of an unstable climate will make each of these diverse kinds of harm more frequent and more severe. They will, over time, displace millions of people, dislocate agriculture, and fuel competing interests within and between nations over access to water, productive land and other resources. They will inhibit investment and unsettle markets. They will spread diseases and disrupt communications. They will create the conditions in which criminals and terrorists thrive and consumers and citizens are demoralised.

An unstable climate will, as the Pentagon pointed out in a widely reported study published in 2003, threaten national security in many parts of the world. Food scarcity and water shortage already fuel conflict both between and within states. Climate change will intensify these conflicts. Massive migrations, particularly in the arid or semi-arid areas in which more than a third of the world’s people live, will turn fragile states into failed states and increase the pressures on regional neighbours – a dynamic that is already apparent in Africa.

Hard rain

In the face of these stresses, countries will seek to preserve their own resources for themselves and to secure access to the resources of others by whatever means they have. In our interconnected world no one will be immune from these consequences.

Loss of meltwater from disappearing glaciers will drive very large numbers of subsistence farmers into India and China’s cities. The relatively affluent middle classes living there will then have to spend more their own security and less on the high value imports from us.

For the world’s poorest people living on unstable, deforested steep hillsides, in the deltas of major rivers, on small islands barely above sea level today or in the low-lying margins of some of the world’s largest cities, climate change threatens their personal security. It is unlikely that we will “make poverty history” in an unstable climate.

Because we see climate change primarily as just another environmental issue, dealt with by environment ministers, about reducing emissions and therefore about regulation, we see it as a constraint on choice and growth. That means we spend next to nothing on protecting ourselves from its effects.

It is right to applaud the British prime minister’s concern about the issue. But that only makes the contrast between his speeches on Africa and those on climate more striking. The former promise significant sums of public money to address the problems, the latter are largely exhortations to do more.

Preserving a stable climate is essential for personal, economic and national security in the 21st century. The maintenance of security in all three modes is the primary task of government. A stable climate, like secure borders, safe streets, a healthy and educated population or efficient transport infrastructure is a public good. It can no more be achieved without public investment than can any other public good.

Today there is a climate clock ticking out the future for us all. Its tick is the 1.8 parts per million (ppm) by which the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere increases each year. This may sound too small an amount to determine the state of the planet, yet that relentless increase means that there are now 378 ppm in our atmosphere – up from 250 ppm in pre-industrial days.

The countries of the European Union believe we must keep the eventual rise in the global average temperature to within 2.0 degrees Centigrade to ensure our safety. Some of our leading climate scientists have suggested that if the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere exceeds 400 ppm there is only a small chance of achieving this goal.

The mathematics are not difficult. We will reach this point in a little over twelve years unless we act with the urgency appropriate to a security issue not our current environmental indolence. In the 21st century, climate security is as urgent and compelling a problem for Europeans as was food security in the 20th century. But there is as yet no sign that we are mobilising on the right scale to meet the challenge.

This is a problem we can still solve. We have the knowledge, technology and capital to do so. We have mobilised on the necessary scale in the past when the threat or opportunity has been clear. It is a challenge more to our wisdom than to our ability, more to our values than to our resources, more to our aspirations than to our fears.

About tomburke

Tom Burke is the Chairman of E3G, Third Generation Environmentalism, and an Environmental Policy Adviser (part time) to Rio Tinto plc. He is a Visiting Professor at both Imperial and University Colleges, London. He is a member of the External Review Committee of Shell and the Sustainable Sourcing Advisory Board of Unilever and a Trustee of the Black-E Community Arts Project, Liverpool. He was a Senior Advisor to the Foreign Secretary’s Special Representative on Climate Change from 2006-12. He was appointed by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland to chair an Independent Review of Environmental Governance in Northern Ireland from 2006-7. He was a member of the Council of English Nature, the statutory advisor to the British Government on biodiversity from 1999-2005. During 2002 he served as an advisor to the Central Policy Group in the Deputy Prime Minister’s Office. He was Special Adviser to three Secretaries of State for the Environment from 1991-97 after serving as Director of the Green Alliance from 1982-1991. He was an environmental advisor (part time) to BP plc from 1999-2001. He was a member of the OECD's High Level Panel on the Environment 1996-98. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts and was a member of the Council from 1990-92 sitting on its Environment Committee 1988-96. He also served on the Executive Committee of the National Council of Voluntary Organisations from 1984-89. He was a Visiting Fellow at the Cranfield Institute of Management and a Senior Visiting Fellow at Manchester Business School. He was formerly Executive Director of Friends of the Earth and a member of the Executive Committee of the European Environmental Bureau 1988-91. He was the Secretary-General of the Bergen 1990 Environment NGO Conference 1988-90. He was a member of the Board of the World Energy Council's Commission 'Energy for Tomorrow's World' 1990-93. He currently serves on the Advisory Board for Conservation International’s Centre for Environmental Leadership in Business in the US. In 2007 he was elected a Fellow of the Energy Institute. In 2010 he was elected an Honorary Fellow of the Society for the Environment. He also serves on the European Advisory Council of the Carbon Disclosure Project. He is a Patron of the United Kingdom Environmental Law Association. In 1993 he was appointed to United Nations Environment Programme's 'Global 500' roll of honour. In 1997, he was appointed CBE for services to the environment. He was awarded Royal Humane Society testimonials on Vellum (1968) and Parchment (1970).
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