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Michael Stephens

Why climate change is the great security challenge of our time

Human security issues in the 21st century are increasing in scale and scope, and it is undoubtedly true that the effects of climate change will make these problems worse. It is time for the security community to understand how and why this is so, or else we face a world that we may no longer be able to secure.

Today’s world is more insecure than any time since the end of the Cold War. Great power competition is once again increasing, the rules-based order that the UK helped create from the ashes of the Second World War is fraying. All of which has been exacerbated by the spread of Covid-19 which will pressure economies across the world, and push governments to the very limits of their capacity to maintain social order and stability.

So, when thinking about the critical security interests of a nation, concern for the polar bears in the melting ice caps may not be the first thing that springs to mind. But security and climate change are becoming intertwined in more intimate ways, and to consider the full spectrum of security challenges of the future, climate change must be central to how security practitioners conceive of the world around them, and how they mobilise resources to meet emerging threats.

The trade-off can often appear black and white, with security almost always winning out. After all, what government would ever admit that they compromised on national security for the sake of a coral reef, or the wellbeing of a forest? One need only recall the numerous times in which naval sonars have been blamed for the increasing frequency of beached whales to be reminded that when it comes to any trade off between the environment and security, the submarines always take precedence over the whales.

The problem stems from how we conceive security in a world driven by states. All of us (whether we agree or not) tacitly understand that the primary reason we club together into larger groups is for our own safety. We pay taxes to a state so that in return we are protected, and our welfare is maintained. Security above all is the most important task of a state, and the failure to deliver it is usually the first sign that a state is headed toward failure.

Humans tend to think about security in terms of the immediacy of priorities; a sudden spike in crime produces calls for more police on the street, for example, because we need to feel safe. We rarely consider the systemic causes of what caused the spike in the first place, but the moment the problem emerges we demand action. Invariably such calls are too little, too late and at best ameliorate the problem or delay its effects. Security thinkers in the 21st century cannot afford to think like this.

The warnings are all around us. For example, people often miss the fact that the Syrian War (now well into its tenth year) was preceded by years of unusually low rainfall, leading to a severe extended drought. Caused, it is claimed, by long term warming trends in the Eastern Mediterranean. Agrarian areas of the country saw large scale depopulation as farmers moved into the cities to find work, only to find that the cronyism of Assad’s government and the general malaise of Europe’s economy prevented them from doing so. Syria quite literally and metaphorically became a tinder box, ripe for revolution, which only needed the spark of protests in neighbouring nations to set the country ablaze.

The point here should be obvious: it is easy to focus on the bombs, the bloodshed and the black flags of ISIS. Stories of war make for compelling newsreels and horrify both citizens and governments into taking action. But reading stories about Syrian farmers struggling to tend their crops isn’t quite so interesting, and the problems are infinitely harder, and take far longer to solve.

The point here should be obvious: it is easy to focus on the bombs, the bloodshed and the black flags of ISIS. Stories of war make for compelling newsreels and horrify both citizens and governments into taking action. But reading stories about Syrian farmers struggling to tend their crops isn’t quite so interesting, and the problems are infinitely harder, and take far longer to solve. After all, you can’t solve poor crop management and government corruption with a 1000lb laser guided bomb. 

Syria is an extreme example, but much of the security problems in our world today-- ranging from population movements through the Sahara to the Mediterranean affecting the border security of European nations, to piracy off the coast of Somalia, to the (not so simple) maintenance of high end military equipment in ever more extreme weather conditions-- are in some form or another climate related. And these are just the problems that exist now: the challenges of the future are even more complex.

Take for instance research which warns that many cities in the Persian Gulf will regularly experience day time temperatures of about 60 Celsius before the end of this century. Such norms would be punctuated by extreme heat waves leading to parts of the Arabian Peninsula reaching a staggering 75 degrees (or 170 Fahrenheit). This will effectively render such countries unliveable for humans for long stretches of the year, and would severely disrupt industrial activity in the area, not to mention having serious implications for the world’s largest annual pilgrimage, the Hajj, which may have to be postponed for years at a time owing to extreme heat.

What has this to do with us in Europe or America? Well the answer is a lot. The UK, the US and France forward deploy large numbers of military personnel, advanced signals intelligence and command and control facilities to the Persian Gulf. The reasons for this extensive deployment are various, including the need to maintain alliances, protect shipping lanes, and perhaps most importantly, being much cheaper to operate troops overseas in the Gulf than it is to station them at home. If Britain seeks to remain a global power, then it must contend with this problem. Moving basing infrastructure is possible, but ultimately Britain’s most important defence-industrial partnerships could be jeopardised if this problem is not taken seriously soon, and appropriate mitigation efforts put in place. 

This is but one example of why security professionals worrying about tomorrow need to be the climate advocates of today, or else we may face a range of threats that can no longer be solved with the tools available. Human security issues in the 21st century are increasing in scale and scope, and it is undoubtedly true that the effects of climate change will make these problems worse. It is time for the security community to understand how and why this is so, or else we face a world that we may no longer be able to secure.