Friday, February 4, 2011

Summary of the Launch Event in US

Last week, on Wednesday, January 26, the IISS held a small event to launch our report on climate change and security. This report was submitted to the European Commission, as the final results of the two years of research and conferences. You can download the report (PDF) from the IISS' server. Unfortunately for our turn-out, we decided to hold the event during a major snowstorm. We were expecting about 30 people, but the snowstorm brought it down to just a group of 15. However, the small audience made it possible to have a substantive discussion among an expert group of participants.

If you are going to be in London on Monday, I would encourage you to sign-up to attend the London event of this at our headquarters.

The Washington event featured your humble blogger, Andrew Holland, in my capacity as the Research Associate and Programme Manager for the IISS Transatlantic Dialogue on Climate Change and Security (right, in the picture). I spoke about the main findings and recommendations that were presented in the report. Esther McClure, the Strategy Action Officer for Arctic, Energy and Environmental Policy in the Office of the Secretary of Defence - Policy responded to the report and gave an overview of what how the Pentagon is looking at climate change (left, in the picture). She was speaking in her capacity as an expert on the issue, and was not speaking for the US government; her remarks were off-the-record, so all I can say is that she was very good, and presented some interesting ideas. The event was moderated by G√ľnter H√∂rmandinger, the First Counselor for Environment of the Delegation of the European Union to the United States of America (center, in the picture).`Although you can't read any of Esther's comments, after the jump, I am happy to provide a summary of what I said at the event.

This is an important statement, and should be broken into its constituent parts.
The impacts of climate change combine to make it a clear threat to collective security and global order in the first half of the 21st Century.

First, it is important that to define what to mean by ‘climate change’. It is unequivocal that the earth is warming, and it has been for at least a century. The last decade was the warmest on record, while each of the three decades before that were also the warmest on record. The trend since the 1970’s is of an average global increase of .2 degrees Celsius per decade. When future climate change is talked about , the expectation should be a similar trend for at least the next thirty to forty years, if not an acceleration.

There are two important qualifications in any climate predictions: variability and uncertainty are features of the climate system. We should not expect changes to be uniform or smooth, and in fact, year-to-year variation should be expected to increase.

Second, the impacts of climate change are what present a threat, not warming per se. Warming alone is not a threat. The threat to security comes from the predicted significant changes in natural and human systems – particularly water, food and energy.

Of these, changes in fresh water resources will be the most visible and significant impacts of climate change on human society. In some areas this will mean drought and desertification. In others, flooding and increasingly damaging storm and rain events should be expected.

Food supplies will also be negatively impacted by climate change. Without significant, dedicated increases in investment, we should expect significant reductions in food supplies

The impact on energy systems will be complex, but also likely to be negative. Our modern energy system is built upon long supply chains and trillions of dollars in fixed infrastructure investments. But, our findings indicate that it is remarkably brittle. For example, arctic energy infrastructure is vulnerable to melting permafrost and low-lying oil storage units are vulnerable to rising sea levels.

Third, “collective security” refers to threats to state stability and to the global commons. The report does not see climate change as a threat to the stability and continuity of any major, developed country. However, it does present significant threats to state stability in weaker states. The links between climate change and conflict are complex, but clear.

Finally, it is only possible to make predictions for the first half of the 21st Century. Any longer time-frame is pure speculation. Though some will make plausible scenarios for almost any situation, any predictions for the strategic situation more than forty years from now cannot be credible.

Key Recommendations

  • Adaptation to climate change will be essential – but this should not simply be seen as simply throwing money at it. Properly targeted funding can be helpful in reducing the threats of conflict.
  • Water must be at the center of adaptation efforts, because of the threats that water shortages present to security.
  • Military and intelligence organizations have the most experience in strategic planning under conditions of uncertainty. They understand that waiting for certainty often means that you have waited too long. Intelligence communities in both Europe and America should fully examine and prepare for the many scenarios that a changing climate presents.

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