Climate change: implications for security
Security is an overworked word. It can be global, national and individual. One definition is "the assurance people have that they will continue to enjoy those things that are most important to their survival and well-being". This at least underlines the somewhat subjective character of security, and the way it differs according to different circumstances.
Fears about environmental, in particular climatic, change seem almost to have replaced the equally apocalyptic fears of nuclear annihilation during the Cold War. It is therefore no wonder that military authorities have taken more interest in it than others who find it hard to come to grips with its complex implications. Yet not many governments have so far taken seriously the papers written by such people as the Pentagon or the British Ministry of Defence, and incorporated into their strategic planning. Perhaps things are now changing with President Bush's State of the Union speech last night.
You have already heard about the climatic prospects. Some of you will have seen David Attenborough's television programme last Sunday. If you found that worrying, remember Al Gore's phrase that we face "a planetary emergency". Today I simply emphasise
- the continuing uncertainties
- the tipping points between one climatic regime and another
- dislocation of weather patterns worldwide.
A recent paper by the European Commission brought things together very well, fully reported in the Financial Times of 6/7 January. Interestingly its predictions for Europe are exactly opposite to those made by the Pentagon! In any case climate change has to be seen interlinked directly or indirectly with the other great issues of our time. Here are the main ones:
- human population growth, and resulting patterns of migration whether for environmental or political reasons
- land degradation, resource depletion, waste accumulation and deforestation, with manifest effects on agriculture and supply of food
- pollution and supply of water, both fresh and salt, with the prospect of sea level rise affecting many of the world's major cities
- destruction of biodiversity or the other living organisms, large and small, on which humans wholly depend
- human health and control of possible pandemics
- the effects of a switch to non-fossil fuel sources of energy, in particular biofuels and feed stocks. So far the consequences of what Lester Brown has called a "grain-brain" have not been thought through
- the human propensity to use violence big or small, to settle disputes.
We also have to reckon with the consequences of possible mistakes in technology. There was a near miss in the 1960s over the development of technologies which would have done still more damage than chlorofluorocarbons to the cover of atmospheric ozone which protects all forms of life from dangerous wavelengths of ultraviolet radiation. Innovation in technology is very important. But please don't think that technology can provide all the answers.
Work on the impacts of climate change inevitably needs to take account of these other issues with which climate is intertwined:
- first some history. As well brought out in Jared Diamond's book Collapse, the degradation of Ruanda and genocide of much of its population was due to a lethal mixture of over-population, deterioration of soils and recurrent droughts. The same may also be said of current events in Darfur, themselves precipitated in part by drought, in turn precipitated by changes in the Indian monsoon, in turn precipitated by ocean warming. In the long past the collapse of the civilizations of the Indus Valley and of cultures in pre-Columbian Mexico were caused by a comparable mix of circumstances.
- all complex societies are vulnerable, especially those led by cities where about half the human species now lives. They can be likened to organisms, drawing in water, food and other materials, and emitting wastes. Once supplies are cut off, they and their apparatus of institutions can easily become destabilized. For more rural societies dependent on one or two crops, there are even more serious hazards.
- depletion of resources, including consumption of fossil water from aquifers, over-cultivation and deforestation can again be linked to changes in rainfall, and be a lively source of conflict.
- even opening up new resources is not always benign. There are already burgeoning disputes between the United States and Canada over the North-West Passage and the fossil fuel deposits hitherto covered by ice.
Reactions to change cover many possibilities:
- defensive reactions can lead to the building of virtual fortresses round relatively rich countries to keep out intruders and protect resources. But walls of this kind are never effective for long. The Israelis will be no more capable of keeping out Palestinians than the Americans of keeping out Mexicans
- offensive reactions, particularly in countries worst hit by change, include invasion of others, movement of refugees, ethnic rivalries and terrorist/guerrilla action against rich countries. Globalization cuts both ways;
- in the recent Pentagon paper some possible scenarios were explored for 2010-2020 and 2020-2030. They included large movements of population driven north or south by changes in climate, conflict over water and other essential resources, and competition for fuel resources, whether in Europe, Asia, or North America. In the past when human numbers were small, people could and did move as circumstances changed but we are no longer hunter gatherers. A chilling conclusion of the Pentagon paper is that the results of climate change "could be a significant drop in the carrying capacity of the Earth's environment".
- inequities between different countries may become even less tolerable than today, and a potent source of conflict. In well-favoured countries climate change may be largely a problem of adaptation, but for poor ones it is a matter of survival:
- for example millions of people could be uprooted in Bangladesh and the Sahel;
- half the world's population depends directly on local renewable sources for their day-to-day wellbeing;
- the current redistribution of power and wealth means a redistribution of soft as well as hard power. The primacy enjoyed by the early industrial countries and now the United States and Europe is unlikely to last much longer.
- the implications for defence policy go far and wide, from protection of key facilities to global humanitarian action.
Taking effective action to cope with this disparate collection of problems, some global, some national, and some individual, will require a new international framework, or at least a substantial adaptation of the existing framework. We all will have to recognize the porous nature of sovereignty, seen in the declining power of nation states, and to learn to think more globally.
- the UN Security Council, whose fundamental task is the preservation of peace and security, could be called upon to cope with new but unfamiliar threats to security. This is well within the Council's authority, if it can agree to exercise it. But there would be uncomfortable problems such as an increasing need for permanent peacekeeping forces. There might for example be a further development of links with the International Criminal Court. Already when national authorities are unable or unwilling to cope with offenders, the international community, through the Security Council, has the obligation to refer the situation to the Court. It has already done so in respect of the situation in the Sudan. Another possibility is increasing delegation of problems to regional authorities:
- a less satisfactory alternative would be to build on the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change of 1992, which might anyway be called upon to regulate, monitor and enforce any global treaty to reduce carbon emissions;
- a more ambitious idea would be to create a World Environment Organization to bring together all the existing UN environmental bodies and agreements, and become the partner and counterpart of the World Trade Organization.
None of this will be easy. Looking ahead at the prospects for security, we seem to be in for a bumpy ride. Violence within and between communities and between nation states could well increase. Global arrangements are always fraught with difficulties. There has already been disheartening experience over implementation of Law of the Sea. Who knows whether we shall be able to put together a Kyoto 2 which can be monitored and enforced?
Major change is usually the product of three main factors:
- leadership from above in the form of governments and institutions
- pressure from below in the form of non-governmental and community organizations of all kinds
- benign catastrophes where cause and effect can be clearly identified, and the appropriate lessons learnt, for example Zhu Ronghi over the Yangtze floods in 1998.
Most important is to go for the true and underlying causes of conflict, understand what is at stake for all concerned, and try to diminish to mitigate the consequences. Old Adam and Old Eve are still with us - competitive, docile, peaceful, violent, creative, wasteful, various, and restless - now as in the future.