A few weeks ago, the IISS held a workshop on climate change and energy security. During this workshop, there was a strong debate about whether climate change should be linked to energy security. Below is a summary of the debate, and some proposed solutions that arose out of it.
Energy Security and climate change are often linked in public debate. An example of that is the Truman Project's "Operation Free" (see their ad here). However, it is not self-evident that climate change will necessarily lead to energy insecurity, or vice versa. National energy security was generally defined during the workshop as a secure supply, open access, and protection from interruptions of that supply. No one at the conference espoused full energy independence (autarky) as being equivalent to energy security. The CNA has showed in their "Powering America's Defense" report that dependence on foreign energy supplies – particularly limited petroleum resources – presents a serious threat to security because it weakens international leverage, jeopardizes the military, and entangles the US government with hostile regimes.
Climate change direct threats to energy security, particularly to existing energy infrastructure. Examples of disruptions to energy supplies that could cause disruptions to energy supply include hurricanes damaging offshore oil rigs, droughts reducing hydro power availability, melting permafrost undermining pipelines, or heat waves causing rivers to be unusable to cool nuclear reactors. Some argue that these are minor threats in the energy security debate, and therefore climate change’s effect on energy security should not be portrayed as a strategic issue. On the other hand, we should be aware that there is great scientific uncertainty about the magnitude of climate change and whether there are any projected ‘tipping points’ that could lead to rapid, dangerous changes. What we don’t know, especially about variability, leads to more questions, and that should worry planners. Because small changes in climate could lead to large and unknown effects on complex and interrelated systems, like energy supplies, we should be very careful about predictions. If planners could predict events with 100% certainty, there would be no risks to security from climate change: we would choose to either adapt to or avoid the worst threats.
There is a sharp debatedivided on how closely related concerns about climate change were to concerns about energy security. The CNA (mentioned above) directly links climate change, energy dependence, and national security, stating that continued reliance on fossil fuels creates “an unacceptably high threat level from a series of converging risks” that include conflicts over fuel resources, destabilization driven by ongoing climate change, and threats to critical infrastructure. However, others argue that climate change is as much a security risk as other transnational factors, like religion or ethnicity, and governments should not raise it to the same priority as energy security. Portraying climate mitigation policies as ways to increase energy security could then be seen as a willful manipulation of the public.
Though there is sharp disagreement about how closely related the problems of climate change and energy security were, it should be clear that the solutions were linked. Even if we accept the premise that energy and climate security are two major and separate problems, they have the same solution: a move to a low-carbon economy. Energy security, particularly in the United States, means reducing dependence on oil imports. Petroleum products are largely used to transportation, which accounts for about 15% of global greenhouse gas emissions. A focus on reducing oil usage in transportation could have important impacts on reducing emissions and energy security. The military can have an important role in fostering this switch, particularly to low-carbon transportation fuels. It is already pioneering new biofuels and efficiency measures. It can contribute to these as a technological innovator and early adopter. Fostering a change that would create a stable energy base and a secure climate is possible, but it requires strong leadership; nations should look to their militaries to help. Though energy security and climate change may not be technically connected, the problems have evolved together, and their solutions must run in parallel.