UK Military Shares U.S. Concerns About Climate's Security Threats

By Rear Admiral Neil Morisetti, Climate and Energy Security Envoy of the UK Ministry of Defence

Mar 17, 2010

Having recently returned from Washington, where I shared a platform at the Woodrow Wilson Center with Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Amanda Dory, I am struck by how similar UK and U.S. thinking are on the national security implications of climate change. Our defense departments agree that the impact of climate change is likely to be most severe in areas where it coincides with other stresses, such as poverty, demographic growth, and resource shortages: areas through which much of the world's trade already passes. We are also in agreement that climate change will accelerate global instability and that it is likely to shape our future missions and tasks. In particular we can expect to receive more frequent requests for assistance after extreme weather events.

So if we recognize the threats, what can we do about them? In the United Kingdom we believe that the approach is two-fold. First, we need to address the problem that we have already caused, the damage that we have done to the climate out to about 2030, through adaptation and planning for potential scenarios. But to limit the threat to our security, we must also address the underlying causes.

Key to achieving this is limiting temperature rises to 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit, when compared with pre-industrial times, since beyond that, the risks will increase greatly. This will be no easy task and will require us to start cutting our emissions now, taking action by being more efficient and investing in low-carbon technology. The United Kingdom has the world's first legally binding emissions reduction targets, and is investing in a variety of technologies, including wind, nuclear, and carbon capture and storage. These measures will not only contribute to our long-term security by reducing damaging carbon emissions, but they will also insulate us against fossil fuel price fluctuations and thereby increase our energy security.

It is the job of any responsible military to plan not just for the national security challenges that face us currently, but for those that might appear on our horizon in the future. Sometimes new challenges appear from newly destabilized areas of the world. Sometimes they arise from new methods of warfare, or new trends in science and technology. Often, they stem from changes in the conditions under which our militaries operate. Just as we are alive to geopolitical trends in every continent, and technical advances made by both our allies and those who seek to harm our interests, our militaries must proactively anticipate the environmental changes that will impact our national security in the coming years. Current military operations will, rightly, always be our highest priority, but we must also find time to address future threats, including climate change.

Indeed, in some countries climate change is already impacting on the work of the military. When I talk to colleagues from Africa and Southeast Asia it is apparent that they are already taking into account the consequences of climate change when determining their priorities.

The United States and United Kingdom can work together to establish a greater understanding of the security implications of climate change and how they will affect our missions and tasks. We cannot afford to be caught unprepared when climate-related conflicts challenge our ability to deliver our core mission of providing national security—a risk that we must avoid.

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