Security risks of climate change prompt military review

By Ed King

Over 100 countries now regard climate change as a national security concern and are taking steps to assess their ability to manage new threats.

That’s the key finding of a new report by US analysts American Security Project (ASP) who also warn many African and Middle East nations have not fully appreciated the potential risks of rising temperatures.

“The states share the view that climate change and its effects should no longer be treated purely as an environmental threat, but rather a full-blown national security issue,” says author Xander Vagg.

Based on analysis of 155 countries’ defence strategies, the study reveals a growing concern among military experts over conflicts that could break out as a result of drought, resource scarcity and various extreme weather events.

The potential impacts of climate change are forcing military strategists to think more creatively about their role and capability (Pic: UK MOD)

The consensus in defence establishments is interesting as it spans political or ideological divides. Military leaders in nations as diverse as China, Kiribati, Rwanda, Canada and Belarus are all in agreement on the threat climate change poses.

Despite well-publicised scepticism over climate science and the costs of making a transition to a low carbon energy system, the UK’s 2010 Strategic Defence Review and USA’s Quadrennial Defense Review warn that unchecked rises in temperatures will have a devastating impact on the global economy.

China’s 2010 Defense White Paper lists global warming as one of several “non-traditional” security threats, while Russia’s 2009 National Security Strategy refers to constraints on biodiversity and water.

The UK’s new chief climate diplomat Neil Morisetti is also a Rear Admiral in the Royal Navy, who commanded the aircraft carrier HMS Invincible in 2004.

“Climate change will act as a potential threat multiplier in the sense that it will add stress in parts of the world where people already have problems in terms of food and water shortages – and health problems,” he told RTCC.

“The consequences of a changing climate adds to the stresses, particularly in a belt that runs in a belt north and south of the Equator – Africa, Middle East and on into Asia.

“You could argue in Northern Europe it doesn’t affect us, but the reality is we live in a globalised world, and we are dependent on what happens in other parts of the world for our own wellbeing and prosperity.”

Morisetti, who sees the engagement of the security establishment in this issue as critical, has an ally in the head of US Pacific Command, Admiral Sam Locklear, who recently warned that climate change could “cripple the security environment” in his area of operations.

“In many nations the armed forces are the most respected arm of government, and their action on climate change can raise awareness throughout a country,” ASP’s Andrew Holland told the Inter Press Service.

The military in ‘green’ nations take the issue seriously; yellow = an environmental issue; red = no concern; grey = no data (ASP Index)

The military is often called on to pick up the pieces in national emergencies – evidenced in the UK this week where Royal Navy helicopters have dropped food to farming communities stranded by heavy snowfalls.

And yet a report by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) published on Monday indicates that even the most advanced forces can struggle when faced with extreme weather events.

This year the Australian Defence Force (ADF) was brought in to help combat bushfires sweeping through parts of the country as a result of searing temperatures. In 2011 it was called upon to help evacuate citizens stranded as a result of the floods in Brisbane.

“The ADF of course have been heavily involved in deploying to regional disasters, but one of the points that the report makes is that Defence will need to factor in concurrent disasters,” ASPI deputy director Antony Bergin told ABC.

“While we’ve been pretty good at dealing with offshore disasters without anything happening on the home front, I think we’re now going to see the ADF really stretched in dealing with extreme weather events in the region and at home.”

Often the military needs to prepare better for how it could be directly affected by extreme weather. In 1992, Hurricane Andrew nearly wiped out Homestead Air Force Base in Florida while Hurricane Katrina in 2005 destroyed 95% of Keesler Air Force Base in Mississippi.

Evidence base

Given the politically sensitive nature of climate change, efforts to draw attention to its security implications have proved problematic.

A move by the UK and Pakistan to have climate change debated at UN Security Council level at the start of this year was rejected by Russia and China – despite military leaders in both countries recognising the threats.

But the evidence base is building. In February the think tank American Progress released a study examining links between the Arab Spring and climate change.

One of the most interesting observations was the connection between China’s dreadful wheat harvest in 2010 and the toppling of President Hosni Mubarak.

“Government legitimacy and civil society in Egypt were upset by protests that focused on poverty, bread, and political discontent,” author Troy Sternberg contends.

“The doubling of global wheat prices – from $157/metric ton in June 2010 to $326/metric ton in February 2011 – thus significantly impacted the country’s food supply and availability.

He adds: “This is particularly pertinent to Egypt, a country that spends 3% of its gross domestic product on wheat subsidies and that experienced the 1977 “bread intifada” that killed 77 people and the bread riots in 2008.”

And as former State Department head of planning Anne-Marie Slaughter notes in the report’s preface, while it is impossible to make direct links between climate change and conflict: “the interplay of factors that will demand an increasing amount of our attention going forward”, a fact not lost on military establishments across the planet.

VIDEO: Rear Admiral Neil Morisetti on climate challenge

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