Climate change is a ‘national security’ issue say military experts

UK and other developed countries cannot afford to “pull up drawbridge” says retired Royal Navy Rear Admiral

(Pic: UK Defence Images/Flickr)

(Pic: UK Defence Images/Flickr)

By Ed King

Climate change should be treated as an issue of national security, say military analysts familiar with links between environmental degradation and conflict.

Rear Admiral Neil Morisetti, a former Royal Navy aircraft carrier commander and chief UK climate envoy in 2013, told RTCC no one country could afford to ignore the risks linked to rising temperatures.

“We live in a globalised world where you can’t pull up the drawbridge in Dover, or in the Med. The reality is that what we’ve seen…the impacts of events being felt thousands of miles away,” he said.

“I think we have become increasingly focused on Beachy Head rather than Ras Al-Hadd in the Middle East, in the Gulf, which is really our backyard.”

UK focus

UK opposition leader Ed Miliband was criticised earlier this week after warning that unchecked rises in global carbon emissions could lead to “destabilisation of entire regions of the world.”

His remarks came after weeks of storms, heavy rainfall and flooding across the UK, which scientists say were a once in 250-year event. Train lines were washed away by the water, around 5,800 homes partially submerged and power lines knocked out.

The country’s Met Office said that while it is difficult to link individual events to man-made climate change, “all the evidence suggests there is a link.”

Miliband told the Observer newspaper: “The science is clear. The public know there is a problem. But, because of political division in Westminster, we are sleepwalking into a national security crisis on climate change. The terrible events of the last few weeks should serve as a wake-up call for us all.”

Earlier this week US Secretary of State John Kerry also involved ‘national security’, comparing rising carbon emissions to terrorism or a nuclear bomb: “Climate change can now be considered another weapon of mass destruction, perhaps the world’s most fearsome weapon of mass destruction,” he said.

Kerry added: “I’ve seen a lot of places in war and out of war and places that have been destroyed, but in all the time of my life, I don’t think I’ve ever seen devastation like.”

Remote impacts

Morisetti said the UK cannot afford to ignore the issue, since its long supply chains, used to import 40% of its food and over 50% of its gas, rely on shipping ‘choke points’ like the Straits of Hormuz, Strait of Malacca and Suez Canal being open and operating smoothly.

He also said that military planners were already starting to work out what capabilities they could deploy alongside traditional fighting units, in the event of further floods, droughts and natural disasters.

“You can see the military being more involved in extreme weather relief – and you’ve got the equivalent going on in the UK at the moment…military aid in the Somerset levels and the Thames Valley. That sort of thought process is the sort of thinking that is definitely going on in London and Washington.”

RAF personnel strap in JCB heavy lifting equipment bound for the Philippines post Typhoon Haiyan (Pic: UK Defence Images/Flickr)

RAF personnel strap in JCB heavy lifting equipment bound for the Philippines post Typhoon Haiyan (Pic: UK Defence Images/Flickr)

Hartmund Behrend, a climate risks expert in Germany’s Army, the Bundeswehr, says climate change and land degradation is so important it should be treated as a foreign policy rather than environmental issue.

He told RTCC staff at NATO headquarters now regard the issue as one of their priorities, and have started work on a crisis management centre at Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe that will identify longer term risks.

“Key environmental and resource constraints, including  health risks,  climate change, water security and increasing energy needs will further shape the future  security environment in areas of concern to NATO and have the potential to significantly affect NATO  planning and operations,” he said.

Behrend identifies the Sahel region in North Africa and parts of Pakistan as areas at particular risk. One dry rainy season or prolonged deluge can wipe out fertile farmlands and key infrastructure, making countries with already weak central governments vulnerable to disintegration.

He cites the 2010 floods that hit Pakistan and the 2011-2012 drought in the Horn of Africa as events that gave terrorist organisations operating in those regions a boost.

In the case of the latter, Al-Qaida reportedly targeted Somalian drought victims with cash handouts, while in Pakistan, the floods allowed extremist organisations like Lashkar-e-Taiba (LET), which carried out the 2008 Mumbai attacks, to step into the vacuum left by state agencies and give food and aid to victims.

Morisetti acknowledged the links between climate-related impacts and conflict are not always obvious, but points to the growing wealth of studies by government departments as evidence the ‘top brass’ are engaged.

The 2011 release of the UK Military’s Global Strategic Trends – Out To 2040 study warned it would “amplify” conflicts, while the UK Department of Business’s 2011 Foresight Report warned “our security is vulnerable to the effects of climate change and its impacts on food  and water.”

In 2012 the US Department of Defense issued its Climate Change Adaptation Roadmap, claiming it is “one of four key  priority areas for the Department”, citing dangers linked to rising sea-levels, storm surges and storm intensity.

Morisetti is clear that the consequences of inaction present an unacceptable risk, even to militaries used to working under tough conditions. 

“The issue of addressing climate change is a risk management exercise. The judgement today based on evidence is that at 2C we can manage the risks posed, and develop a society that is resilient enough to manage those risks and exploit the opportunities through low carbon clean tech.”

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