An expert explains the urgent need both for effective climate change action and for steps to be taken to prepare for life in a drastically different world, where global warming and related environmental degradation will impact on security.

On the eve of the UN Climate Change Conference COP 25 in Madrid (2 – 13 December 2019), a UN report made clear that urgent action is needed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, which are contributing to global warming. A hotter planet will increasingly lead to security challenges. More awareness, better forecasting tools as well as new organisational structures may be needed.

I believe that one of the most worrying things about current developments on our planet is the lack of awareness – and thus widespread complacency – about climate change among people, in the media and at government level. Our societies tend to suffer from short-termism and there is a lack of urgency to deal with long-term threats. The media focuses on stories that will bring in money through views, clicks and “likes”. Governments concentrate on winning the next elections, which makes current spending on preparing for the world of the future less popular (proposing relevant measures to encourage people to fly less and eat less meat are still considered a career-ending move in mainstream politics). And even on a personal level, we all know that the climate emergency is generally not a welcome topic of conversation during dinner with friends and family.

We have yet to see effective and visionary decision-making that could preserve our vulnerable planet from environmental degradation. The damage to our planet is globalising faster than the global coordinated responses that are needed. There is a tendency to wait for others to act first, to point at other countries’ contribution to the problem, and to close our eyes, our hearts and our borders to those people who are most affected.

The impact of climate change that we already see now is only the beginning of more significant changes to come. A growing, but still relatively small part of the public, is beginning to realise this and is calling on governments to act much more decisively. Greta Thunberg’s ‘school strike for climate’ has inspired a global youth protest against the lack of action of their parents’ generation, and other initiatives like the Sunrise movement and Extinction Rebellion have also taken to the streets to demand more action. These new movements join the countless scientists who have warned for decades that we are doing too little too late.

The Swedish teenage climate activist, Greta Thunberg (centre), joins other young people for a school strike or demonstration outside the United Nations Headquarters in New York – 30 August 2019. UN Photo/Manuel Elias

There is no legitimate doubt that human activity is accelerating the greenhouse effect, which results in global warming. This was acknowledged in the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), which was adopted at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 and has since has been ratified by 197 countries. This nearly universal membership gives legitimacy to its main aim of mitigating the human effect on climate change. However, it was not until the Paris Agreement of 2015, that signatories to the UNFCC set targets, promising to hold global warming well below 2°C above pre-industrial temperatures and to try to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C.

Sadly, we are currently too slow in taking action to meet these targets – greenhouse gas emissions continue to increase. This year’s Emissions Gap Report, issued by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), has concluded that there is a huge and growing gap between what needs to be done to tackle climate change and what we are actually doing. The challenge is enormous: the report concludes that greenhouse gas emissions must be reduced by 7.6 per cent every year for the next ten years if we want to limit warming to 1.5°C.

Ahead of the COP25 meeting, U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said that, so far, the world’s efforts to limit global warming have been “utterly inadequate”. He warned that “the point of no return is no longer over the horizon; it is in sight and hurtling toward us.”

We do not have the luxury to postpone effective climate action any longer. Moreover, we need to start preparing for life in a drastically different world, where climate change and related global environmental degradation will impact human security and international security.

The need to prepare for a different world

It is hard to imagine what the combined consequences of the geophysical and societal changes could mean for us. Scientists warned in the early seventies of “The Limits to Growth” and many of their concerns have since been vindicated. The exponential growth in resource extraction, use of fossil fuels, production, consumption and waste has contributed to the rise in CO2 emissions, extensive pollution, and loss of biodiversity, impacting all kinds of other processes on the planet. Increasingly, Earth’s interacting physical, chemical and biological processes will pass tipping points, and feedback loops will further impact the environment.

‘Planetary security’ therefore captures the new security challenges of our century better than the phrase ‘climate security’, or even the wider concept of ‘environment and security’. The scale of these challenges could easily be underestimated. All the media attention on the 2018 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) special report on the impacts of global warming of 1.5°C may have given the impression that only two possibilities lie ahead: a temperature rise of 1.5°C or 2°C. Unfortunately, the future could have much more extreme scenarios in store for us.

As Petteri Taalas, Secretary-General of the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) stated upon the release of the WMO provisional Statement on the State of the Climate in 2019: “If we do not take urgent climate action now, then we are heading for a temperature increase of more than 3°C by the end of the century, with ever more harmful impacts on human wellbeing.”

While we should do the utmost to mitigate climate change, it would be naive not to think about how to prepare for the security consequences of a much warmer world, where a drastically changed environment will contribute to new security challenges. Given the complexities of the planet’s interacting processes, it is difficult to predict exactly what will happen at different mean temperatures –but basically the hotter it gets, the greater the disruption will be to weather patterns, ecosystems and sea levels.

Humidity and heat could make large parts of the tropic zones uninhabitable for at least part of the year. Many of the glaciers in the Himalaya that provide a reliable source of water for more than a billion people are likely to disappear. Many coastal cities risk being submerged. Billions of people may be faced with high levels of water stress or food scarcity, and many may migrate towards more habitable parts of the planet.

Already we are seeing signs of what lies ahead: heatwaves, forest fires and increased destruction by hurricanes, floods and other forms of extreme weather. In the decades to come, and certainly in the second half of this century, climate change will become the biggest challenge humankind has ever faced.

Mozambique was hit by two violent cyclones in March and April 2019, which together killed around 700 people. The World Meteorological Organization said there was no previous record of two storms of such intensity striking the country in the same season. Photo © Club of Mozambique

A faceless enemy

That makes climate change a new enemy. It has no flag, no leader, no combatants, nor a revolutionary manifesto. But it is a killer of people, it is operating worldwide to destabilise societies, and it is gaining strength. Climate change is therefore often described as a ‘risk multiplier’ a ‘fragility amplifier’ or even a ‘catalyst’ of conflict. While we prepared for nuclear war as a risk that could happen, we are less sure if, or how, we should prepare for the inevitable consequences of climate change.

A classic enemy is fought by the military, while every other institution in a country prepares for the consequences of the enemy’s actions. For climate change it is the other way around: diplomats, businesses, environmentalists and everybody else should fight climate change. Meanwhile the military should prepare for the consequences of climate change on security.

Increasingly, military experts are voicing their concerns. The Global Military Advisory Council on Climate Change (GMACCC) is a global network of serving and retired military officers, and associated institutions. For more than ten years, it has warned of the potential security implications of climate change. In its first joint statement, released in October 2009, the Council warned that “failure to recognise the conflict and instability implications of climate change and to invest in a range of preventative and adaptive actions will be very costly in terms of destabilising nations, causing human suffering, retarding development and providing the required military response.”

New tools for new challenges

In my opinion, two key developments will influence our capacity to anticipate potential instability or conflict. On the one hand, climate change and environmental degradation will make it even more complicated to predict conflicts. On the other hand, the rapid increase of big data and artificial intelligence (AI) could increase our capacity to forecast future security threats. These new tools could help us to prepare for a different world with new challenges.

Many popular articles on ‘climate wars’ or ‘water wars’ are highly speculative. The human factor, in particular, is difficult to predict: what decisions will be taken by individuals and governments when confronted with climate change? Conflicts over increasingly scarce natural resources are not a predetermined outcome – they fundamentally depend on factors like institutional and social resources. In one case, scarcity may drive conflict and migration, while in another it may forge innovation and cooperation. It is also hard to anticipate what actions world leaders will take in the future to prevent a breakdown of our ecosystems, including the (lack of) actions to curb greenhouse gas emissions.

While it is hard to predict policies, the good news is that our insights into environmental scarcity and climate change are rapidly getting better. We have more and more digital data about the state of our planet. Combining remote sensing, big data and AI could make it possible to forecast risks and assess scenarios in a way we could never do before, and this could help us prepare better for future challenges.

Those working on security threats will follow with interest the ideas on the development of a ‘digital ecosystem’ for the planet, which would be able to provide transparency and assess risks in the management of natural resources. Essential for the creation of such a system would be an integration of private and public initiatives for monitoring our planet by making use of the latest digital technologies. An example is the work of the World Resources Institute (WRI). This think tank works with a range of partners on projects like Global Forest Watch and Resource Watch, which provide new insights into what is happening on our planet.

WRI combines hundreds of data sets on environment, demography, health, politics or security. It can for instance combine the satellite data on forest cover in a country with those of the same area just two weeks before. That means that the slashing or burning of an isolated forest becomes visible practically as it happens, just as reforestation can be tracked and promoted as good practice.

Another initiative of WRI, together with other partners, is the Water, Peace and Security (WPS) partnership. Water scarcity is expected to rise to unprecedented levels in some regions due to population growth, rapid urbanisation and growing economic demands for water. Meanwhile, floods affect over 100 million people annually. These challenges are exacerbated by ecosystem losses and climate change impacts. The WPS project seeks to use global modelling, big data and satellite imagery, combined with local knowledge and increasing transparency, to make early warning and analysis of water-related societal impacts. Some first promising results were presented last year in the UN Security Council.

Water scarcity is expected to rise in some regions due to population growth, rapid urbanisation and growing economic demands for water. This challenge is being exacerbated by ecosystem losses and climate change impacts. Photo © CGTN

UNEP is one of the hosts of another digital data project called the World Environment Situation Room (powered by MapX). It also begins to map and monitor environmental and climate security risks. These data will be packaged into a global dashboard and also offered as environmental intelligence briefs to UN country teams, the UN Security Council and organisations such as NATO.

UNEP has also taken the initiative to strengthen cooperation and synergy between all these activities in order to build a ‘digital ecosystem for the environment’. Together with the Institute for Planetary Security, UNEP plans to organise a conference for all interested parties in 2020, aiming to create a partnership that will lead to a very powerful open access system that could revolutionise our knowledge of developments on our planet and boost our early warning capacity.

Failure of imagination

Future historians may find it hard to explain why we acted so late to prepare for these planetary security challenges. One of the reasons they may identify for the world’s slow reaction to both the cause and impacts of the climate crisis is that our institutions tend to work in silos and through government structures set up in a different era to confront a different sort of dangers. The scale of the climate change challenge is so huge, the risks are so complex, and there are so many actors involved, that it is safe to say we have simply never dealt with such a multifaceted risk before.

The Planetary Security conferences that have been organised in The Hague since 2015 have helped to break down the silos between scientists, policy makers and military experts. In the past few years, the UN Security Council, the European Union and other regional organisations have also increasingly been paying attention to these planetary security challenges, and some actors have developed some initial capacity to address them. But an effective longer-term structure to combine the knowledge and roles of all stakeholders is still lacking. Keeping the severity and complexity of these challenges in mind, security organisations should invest more in understanding and preparing for these future threats, together with a wide range of other relevant actors.

Technically and economically, the world should be able to deal with and adapt to this challenge. And while the public is increasingly raising its voice to demand urgent action, the ball remains very much in the court of governance. Accepting the reality of climate change, cooperating between all relevant stakeholders, and showing visionary leadership are some essential steps for the way forward. We have successfully dealt with huge threats in the past. Today, we simply cannot afford to ignore the biggest challenge of all.