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Climate change: implications for security

A lecture to the Royal United Services Institute for Defence & Security Studies (RUSI) Conference on "Climate Change: The Global Security Impact". At RUSI, Whitehall, London; 24 January 2007.

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

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:

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:

Reactions to change cover many possibilities:

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.

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:

  1. leadership from above in the form of governments and institutions
  2. pressure from below in the form of non-governmental and community organizations of all kinds
  3. 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.

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