Road to Copenhagen – Part 2: Risky Business


The evidence is irrefutable: Climate change poses enormous risks to economic stability, public health, ecosystem services, and national security, as well as to the environment.

How should we manage those risks? The first step is to acknowledge them. The second is to start listening to the experts who manage risks for a living.

Over the past two months, I’ve attended several meetings of military and civilian experts in security, intelligence and risk assessment. They were unanimous in concluding that 1) the risks of climate change are growing rapidly; 2) those risks are routinely underestimated by policy makers; and 3) little is being done to plan for contingencies, even in those regions of the world likely to suffer the most and even though the suffering already has begun.

One meeting of security and risk experts was organized by Nick Mabey, a former advisor to Prime Minister Tony Blair and now the leader of E3G, a nonprofit organization based in Europe to promote sustainable development. Our mission was to explore how the science of risk assessment and management should be applied to climate change. In a Whitehall Paper written last year, Mabey explained:
Climate change will be one of the critical forces shaping the coming century…it will fundamentally alter the way we live, the risks we face and how we interact in an increasingly interdependent world.
While scientists and environmentalists have been sounding warnings for years, an open discussion of the security risks of climate change started only a couple of years ago. In November 2007, the Center for Strategic and International Security and the Center for a New American Security issued “The Age of Consequences”; in June 2008, a blue-ribbon panel of high-level former military leaders, convened by the Center for Naval Analysis, concluded that global warming is a “threat multiplier” that will destabilize some of the world’s most volatile regions.

That finding was confirmed a year later by the National Intelligence Council in its first-ever assessment of climate change. It was confirmed again recently by the CIA’s creation of a new Center on Climate Change and National Security to centralize its expertise on “the effect environmental factors can have on political, economic, and social stability overseas.”

On Oct. 28, retired U.S. military officers warned the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee about the risks that climate change and fossil energy pose to national security. “Our economic, energy and climate change challenges are all inextricably linked,” retired Vice Adm. Dennis McGinn testified. “If we don’t address these challenges in a bold way and timely way, fragile governments have great potential to become failed states ….a virile breathing ground for extremism.”

A day later in Washington, D.C., the same message was delivered in a joint statement issued by active and retired military leaders from Africa, Asia, Europe, Latin American and the United States. In addition to calling on all governments to work for an “ambitious and equitable” international agreement at Copenhagen, the officers urged governments to make sure the security implications of climate change are integrated into their military strategies.

Mabey notes that climate risks – including drought and famine, loss of fisheries, coastal inundation, invasive migrations of climate refugees, natural disasters and water shortages – could go two ways. They could motivate nations to collaborate more on conflict prevention, contingency planning, economic development and disaster prevention and response; or, they could cause more tensions within and between countries, leading to conflict. Continued...