Climate Security: At the Interface of Policy and Environmental Change

By Duncan Depledge - 10 January 2013
Climate Security: At the Interface of Policy and Environmental Change

In 2007, the Fourth Assessment Report of the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reached the conclusion that climate change will have widespread impacts on humanity’s access to, and the availability of, habitable land, resources and infrastructure. Economic growth and social and political stability in various parts of the world are likely to be significantly affected in the coming decades. As Nicholas Stern, the author of the Economics of Climate Change had argued a year earlier, some of these changes could prove positive to economies in some parts of the world. However, overshadowing these gains, Stern found that the overall trend would be negative to the extent that over the long-term, the global costs of climate change would come to outweigh the benefits. The on-going uncertainty that surrounds the regional distribution of climate-related impacts (including shifts in temperature, precipitation, the distribution of vector-borne disease, and sea level rise) means that climate change has become very much part of what has been described as an unfamiliar geopolitical environment in the 21st Century (alongside shifts in demography and resource availability). Policy-makers are being forced to re-think their ‘mental maps’ of the world as new (or re-defined) interests are introduced into strategic planning processes. One way that this is occurring is through the (re)presentation of different parts of the world as ‘fragile’, ‘vulnerable’ or ‘dangerous’. This is far from being inconsequential. Such labels are invariably invoked to legitimise international interventions which attempt to influence how states manage their natural resources (often an important source of wealth). These labels are also important for justifying the strengthening of border controls and excluding certain people and places from the ‘global’ political and economic processes on which the rest of the international community relies.

Western concerns about the security implications of climate change first started to emerge in the early 1970s. It was not until the 1980s and 1990s however, that academic research on the subject began in earnest. Since then, early attempts to establish direct, causal links between environmental change (specifically its implications for resource availability and migration) and violent conflict have largely been subsumed by a more nuanced understanding of the implications environmental change could have for security. For my part, my interest is in how political, social, economic and cultural responses to environmental change help co-produce conditions which undermine the functioning of the state, society, trade and defence. Climate/environmental (in)security will be found increasingly at the interface of policy choices (for stimulating economic growth and development, introducing new technologies, ensuring environmental protection and managing climate change) and actual environmental changes, rather than in one or the other. The way in which pressures will manifest, and the timeframes within which they will be felt is uncertain, as to varying degrees they are likely to be moderated by human efforts to adapt to or mitigate the worst impacts of climate change, and accelerated by so-called ‘tipping points’ in the Earth’s climate system. Moreover, the interaction between climate change and a range of other dynamics (such as rapid demographic change, the changing availability of resources and increased globalisation) further complicates our understanding of how the environment is changing. At the same time, as Peter Haldén has argued, security policy tends to develop in interactive, dynamic and non-linear ways, making it incredibly difficult to predict how different states (and non-states) will respond to differing forms (and extents) of environmental change. For example, as states have responded to both projections and the physical effects of climate change, different national and international objectives have emerged. The EU, through the UNFCCC, has sought to lead negotiations for a binding international commitment targeted at preventing a global average temperature rise of more than 2°C (the scientifically established threshold before dangerous climate change kicks in). However, progress towards this objective has been frustrated (according to a 2012 report by the World Bank, a 4°C rise is now more likely) by disputes involving the US, Canada, China and other developing countries over who should bear the cost of climate and whether the UNFCCC is even the right instrument for reaching such an agreement.

Unfortunately, global climate security will ultimately depend on a relatively small number of actors – specifically, the extent to which the US and (re)emerging powers such as China, Russia, India, Brazil and South Africa are prepared to invest in developing, expanding and enforcing mitigation and adaptation strategies, whether through the UN or a combination of multilateral, bilateral and national initiatives. Partly, this is because these are the countries that are expected to emit the most greenhouse gases in the coming decades. However, it is also because these are the countries whose climate/environmental policies are most likely to have global consequences for the functioning of states, societies, trade and defence. Driven by the need to protect national interests, governments are calculating the costs and benefits of specific relationships, partnerships and alliances so that they can minimise the costs associated with climate change to their own interests. The power to shape or resist global climate policy is therefore becoming crucially important for both the pursuit of national economic interests which benefit from a lack of firm commitments to reduce emissions and the right to determine what is considered to be an ‘acceptable’ global environment. History shows that these powers have rarely found a common position from which to address threats to international security, a record recently reinforced by the failure of the international community to find a common solution to the ongoing crisis in Syria. Although the international system has so far managed to contain disputes, most recently over Western-led interventions in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya, it remains to be seen whether this capacity can be sustained in the face of new challenges related to climate change and resource scarcity.

Duncan Depledge is a research analyst at the Royal United Services Institute and a doctoral student in geopolitics at Royal Holloway, University of London. He holds and MA in Political Theory from the University of Sheffield and an MPhil in Geographical Research from the University of Cambridge. Duncan has also recently be interviewed by Global Policy, the video can be found here.

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