Action on climate change is self-defence not altruism

Increasingly there is a need to see the challenges associated with climate change as issues not just of energy policy and environmental protection but also as major defence and security challenges. Nick Butler, visiting professor at the Policy Institute, Kings College London, explores these issues in a recent column in the Financial Times.


Climate change needs boots on the ground

The potential impact of climate change is beginning to receive serious attention. Last week at the Ecole Militaire in Paris, the elite college for the French defence forces, military and civilian leaders debated the risks and the defence and security implications at a seminar organised jointly by the French Senate and the defence ministry.

Many of the risks are well known — such as the possibility of desertification in particular regions, of water shortages leading to inadequate harvests and a lack of food supplies and on the other hand the prospect of floods or sudden surges in temperature; and the risk of diseases and epidemics spread by dirty water. The problems are concentrated in areas such as Africa, where climate change will compound problems such as inadequate healthcare, poverty and weak governments.

The greatest difficulty for anyone preparing plans to meet such risks is unpredictability. “Change” sounds too mild a description and implies a gradual, linear shift over decades to a temperature two degrees higher than we are used to. The more likely reality, however, is climate disruption — erratic shifts in one direction or another. That change may already have begun.

We do not know how, when or where climate conditions will change. It is impossible to construct a Maginot line of defence against such risks; preparations must be broad and flexible. Specialist equipment will be essential, as will trained staff. Flexibility does not come cheap. Nor can it come at the expense of conventional defence. Climate change does not reduce the risk of conventional conflict or terrorism and in some areas it could make both problems worse. Any expenditure on what the French call “green defence” will have to be in addition to existing budgets that are already stretched. Fighter jets can do little to relieve a famine in Mali but equally experts in water supply cannot deter Russian special forces in their balaclavas or the Muslim fundamentalists of Isis.

Walking around the Ecole Militaire it is impossible not to be reminded of the history and the multiple wars fought by the men and women trained there — wars to protect France from German aggression in the 19th and 20th centuries but also the modern antiterrorist conflicts in Algeria and now Syria. The means of engagement may have changed but, as the French ministers made clear, the concern with climate change is not simply humanitarian.

The changing climate would drive even more people from Africa and the Middle East to attempt to migrate across the Mediterranean or through the Balkans. Epidemics can spread rapidly in an age of global travel and trade.

The latest news and analysis on the world’s changing climate and the political moves afoot to tackle the problem

In these circumstances it is hard to see how national and European security can be preserved without active intervention to deal with the problems at source. That means that European and possibly other countries will have to put people on the ground, and invest seriously in a process of development which helps to manage each of the risks and encourages the local population to stay instead of migrating. That too will have a cost.

There is one other outcome that cannot be ignored. We are slowly beginning to see the energy system move away from hydrocarbons. The timescale of the move is measured in decades but the pace will pick up if technical advances put real impetus behind the broad commitments which will be made at the Paris conference. That will reduce emissions but it could also destabilise those countries from Russia to the Gulf whose economies remain totally dependent on the production and export of oil and gas.

The French are right to see the challenges associated with climate change as issues not just of energy policy and environmental protection but also as major defence and security challenges.

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