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Climate Change and Security

An editorial by Human Security Cluster Leader, Anna Brach

Let’s do a mental exercise. Close your eyes, and think of your immediate geographic area – whether you live in a bustling, coastal megalopolis; an idyllic, isolated farm; or the mountaintops or savannas between them. 

Now zoom out, and envision your home in context: your region, your country, your continent, and, in the end, your corner of the globe. Once you have this imprint, start imagining how the same areas will look with average temperatures rising. How much could the sea level in your city rise, how much rain will your land receive, how will your neighbouring rivers flow? Will they dry out, or will they overflow? Understanding how climate change will impact the life of every single human being is key when preparing for future security challenges.

From natural disasters, to internal displacement and refugees, to conflicts fuelled by resource constraints, climate change has already had a dramatic impact on the security landscape – and will do so increasingly in the years to come. The election-cycle, short-sighted focus of many politicians rarely results in sustainable environmental protection – despite the voting public’s increased understanding of what is at stake, and what needs to be done swiftly. Every country on earth will be in some way affected by the changing climate, starting with extreme existential threats to island nations and to countries with long, densely populated coastlines. There are only 48 countries that will not face raising sea levels, but these land-locked countries will most probably face other challenges – from water scarcity to flooding; from changing rainfall to changing snowfall patterns; from melting glaciers to avalanches, landslides, mudslides, rock falls, and rock slides.

With access to information and official reports by renowned institutions such as the United Nations, the World Bank, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), Brookings Institution, Adelphi, and others, the threat multiplier effect of climate change should be common knowledge for policy makers and general public. However, in spite of this information, there are a number of influential countries and individuals, including those beholden to corporate interests and parroting so-called “fake news,” who choose to ignore the science. Yet, the multifaceted nature of security threats driven by climate change must be addressed by all serious decision makers. First, there are numerous examples of the interlinkages, such as: conflict emerging from constraints on natural resources; food/water insecurity and forced migration; natural disasters and nuclear safety; health and urban security. Second, there is an undeniable impact on the geopolitical landscape, with its multifarious security consequences – the case of the future of the Arctic being only one of many. Lastly, vulnerable groups will pay the highest price. In short, climate change is the defining security challenge of our time.

Although state and human security challenges vary across regions and individual countries, solutions must be found collectively. This year, climate action is more important than ever – with the imperative of implementing the Paris Agreement (despite the reluctance to do so by some countries).

Let’s stop climate action?

Current nationally determined contributions (NDCs) of parties to the Paris Agreement put us on a trajectory to achieve by the year 2100 between 2.7 to 3.5 degrees Celsius, which is well above the ambitious goal of 1.5 to 2 degrees Celsius. Majority of countries’ insufficient pledges to decrease greenhouse gases emissions combined with the U.S. withdrawal from the Paris Agreement can have disastrous consequences for the feasibility of climate action. Shall we drop it altogether, prepare for a worst-case scenario, and focus our efforts on adaptation to the future warmer world – or should we continue mitigation efforts, such as limiting emissions of greenhouse gases? If we stop climate action, how would it change the work of security professionals, be they from the public or private sectors?

Going even further, let’s imagine for a moment that climate change is indeed a hoax, invented to cripple economies around the world. Business as usual is here to stay. Fossil fuels are going to burn; Earth’s natural resources are going to be consumed until they are no more. Combined with rising populations globally, this is a recipe for a disaster – no matter who causes climate change. What is the landscape of security in 20, 30, 50 years to come? What can security professionals expect to deal with by the end of the century?

Future trends and patterns of security challenges will be tainted by changes in the environment. The Lake Chad region is said to be the next hot spot (no pun intended) – with shrinking natural resources, local conflicts, and fertile ground for radicalisation to violent extremism. Who knows how many more hot spots can be expected in the coming decades? The Gulf States? MENA region? Southern Asia? North America? Virtually every continent is ravaged by natural disasters that are directly or indirectly linked to climate change. Combined with stress on natural resources – especially water – and political unrest, we have a formula for a catastrophe.  

What are our options?

In spite of the milestone Sustainable Development Goals, including SDG 13 and the Paris Agreement, we seem to be on our way to a warmer world, no matter what we do now. What are our options for the future warmer world? Here are some propositions below:

Prepare – People who prepare make better decisions. Whatever our climate action now, the inertia of global warming is already significant, and the consequences of climate change, including on human security, will have an impact on our lives regardless of our geographic location, and regardless of our economic, political, and social status. Think of possible futures, and plan for them.

Communicate - There is a crucial role for the security sector to play in informing governments and the public on security challenges posed by climate change. Well-researched, evidence-based, fact-based news – in opposition fake news – must present an objective, science-based picture of what’s happening now and what’s ahead of us. This narrative should not only address the negative potential outcomes of ignoring climate change, but also promote opportunities to transition to a cleaner and more circular economy. Such communications strategies should echo SDG 13 on Climate Action: “Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts.”

Be creative –Think out of the box, and adopt an innovative approach to solving shared challenges. Being creative is not only about the actions we take, but also with whom we take them. Creative and innovative partnerships are a must, especially those between private and public actors. Partners will have to develop trans-sectoral and holistic approaches to address these multiple threats and reduce the impact of climate change on security.

Virtuous circle?

Understanding current and potential security implications of climate change allows decision makers and leaders to better prepare and design more effective security policies for their governments, companies, and organisations. The road to achieving a green and circular economy is not a burden but, rather, an opportunity that can create wealth both material and social. However, the responsibility rests with current power players in government and the private sector, as we do not have time for incremental changes. Transformation is the only option, and humanity must urgently adopt a prevention mind-set, and become increasingly forward-looking and agile. In spite of the official position coming from across the Atlantic, major actors like mayors and private companies are committing to upholding their commitments to the Paris Agreement, and are prepared to proactively address challenges posed by climate change.

Like other pressing challenges, the work starts with educating oneself. The Geneva Centre for Security Policy (GCSP) offers this opportunity at our “Climate Change: Security Challenges and Solutions” course, taking place from 17 to 19 October 2017. Over three days, you will have an opportunity to work with world-class experts to better understand the security implications of climate change. We will look into possible futures and design creative solutions to address this monumental challenge. You will gain not only knowledge, but also a network of professionals for future climate action. It is only by reaching across silos, to draw on the influence, knowledge, and talents of a wide spectrum of stakeholders, that we can safeguard the future that our diverse, evolving planet deserves.