Margaret Beckett on Climate Change

The Case for Climate Security

14:00, 10 May 2007
Banqueting House, Royal Palace of Whitehall

Margaret Beckett at RUSIThe Case for Climate Security

Lecture by the Foreign Secretary, the Rt. Hon. Margaret Beckett MP

Royal United Services Institute

May 10th 2007

Good afternoon

May I begin by thanking RUSI for organising this special event and indeed for the ongoing – and ground-breaking work – they are doing on helping us to understand better the links between climate, energy and security.

There was a very powerful moment during the recent UN Security Council debate on climate security last month. The Ghanaian representative, L K Christian,  spoke of growing evidence that nomadic Fulani cattle herdsmen were arming themselves with sophisticated assault rifles. They were doing so in order to confront local farming communities, who in turn were threatening their cattle herds. And the cause that he gave for that increasing tension:  climate change expanding the Sahara desert.

The resonance in that Council chamber – as I am sure it is here today – could hardly be stronger. Only the day before the Security Council had been discussing the crisis in Darfur. That is a conflict in which 200 000 people have already died. And it is a conflict in which there has been that same struggle between nomadic and pastoral communities for resources made more scarce through a changing climate.

In making these links between natural resources and climate on the one hand and in conflict on the other, we are not saying anything particularly new or controversial. Here’s a passage from Albert Hourani’s seminal work: A History of the Arab Peoples. In it, he describes the early years of the Islamic empire, roughly our 8th and 9th Century A.D.

“The symbiosis between cultivators and pastoralists” he writes “was a fragile one. When that symbiosis was strongly disturbed it was not because of a perpetual state of warfare between the two kinds of society but for other reasons: change in climate and water supply, for example, and the progressive desiccation of the Sahara region.”

 Resource based conflicts are not new – they are literally as old as the hills. But in climate change we have a new and potentially disastrous dynamic.

The good news is that we have the knowledge and ability to do something about it. Our forebears did not really understand the environmental changes that were happening to them and had little power to control those changes. We do and we can. Science has shown us a clearly identifiable process that is changing our climate and our world. We can predict the consequences of that change and we have the means to take action against it.

The bad news is the catastrophic and global nature of the threat we face. Again, it is the countries that are already experiencing the damage of an unstable climate that has described that most best. As the representative from the Congo said during that Security Council debate: “This will not be the first time people have fought over land, water and resources – but this time it will be on a scale that dwarfs the conflicts of the past”.

That then was the motivation behind my decision to use our Presidency of the Security Council to highlight the threat of an unstable climate. And it is the reason why I have made climate security such a priority of my first year as Foreign Secretary.

In doing that, I know full well that there are some who  suggest that I would be better off concentrating instead on the “real” security problems in the world.

They could not be more wrong.

I am as focused on and as determined to address the so-called ‘hard’ security agenda as any Foreign Secretary. It takes up a large part of each and every working day. What has changed is not my priorities – they are resolutely foreign policy priorities not purely environmental ones – but the way in which I believe those priorities can be best pursued.

I simply do no believe that we will solve the security issues of the day unless we address the global insecurities that underlie and exacerbate them. And I do not think that I would be doing my job properly if I considered it enough simply to respond to each crisis as it occurs: the foreign policy that I will pursue is one that looks down the line at how we can prevent such crises from happening at all.

In other words, I attach no less importance to the hard security agenda but I am looking for the broadest and deepest possible understanding of what drives that agenda and what tools we can employ – going way beyond the purely military – to get the results that we want.

Take the Middle East as an example – a classic hard security issue, and one that occupies a lot of my time as it must the time of many in this room. Indeed I have just returned from a meeting of the Iraq Neighbours Group. That meeting was held in Sharm El-Sheik, in Egypt – a country that has been a relative force for stability in the region and played a positive role in building consensus both within the region and beyond.

So we should all be worried about what the science is telling us could happen to Egypt in the next few decades if we do nothing about climate change. From the South, drastic loss of Nile flow – perhaps up to 80 per cent less than there is now. From the North, rising sea levels destroying the low lying ground on the banks of the Nile which is currently Egypt’s agricultural heartland. One study suggests that a sea-level rise of just 50 centimetres – well within current estimates – would displace two million people from the delta

What the precise security ramifications of that kind of change would be are impossible to predict in forensic detail. But make two million people in one of the most fragile regions of the world homeless in a short period of time and there will be an impact – not least on Egypt’s internal stability. Reduce the total amount of Nile water supply so drastically and you risk exacerbating tensions between Egypt and her southern neighbours. Egypt has already warned off those countries upstream of it from diverting the Nile water – how much more strongly will it feel when there is far less of that water to go round.

And that pattern is going to be repeated across the Middle East – a region which contains five per cent of the world’s population but only one per cent of the world’s water. Climate change will make that ratio even more unfavourable. Saudi Arabia, Iran and Iraq – all countries pivotal to the regional security agenda will see some of the biggest reductions in rainfall. Disagreements over water access issues along the Jordan basin have on several occasions been a major driver of tension between Israel and its Arab neighbours, notably in the years leading up to the 1967 war. The water in that basin has already been overused and climate change could cause further, severe depletion.

There are, of course, many ways in which we can and must analyse the security situation in the Middle East – national, religious, economic. But my argument is that to deliberately choose to ignore a process of the magnitude of climate change – a process that threatens to raise tensions between states, that has the potential to cause widespread political instability, that might swell further the ranks of the dislocated and disaffected – would be wilfully to restrict our understanding of the challenges we face and to hamper our ability to meet those challenges in good time.

And here the Middle East is not a special case – that same set of pressures will build in other potential trouble spots around the world, most notably in South Asia where one billion may be affected by increased water stress and in Africa where vulnerable societies among the least capable of adapting will be hit first and hit hardest. President Museveni of Uganda was the first African leader to call climate change an act of aggression by the rich against the poor. I fear he will not be the last.

The truth is that in a globalising world of interdependent states, which is already bursting at the seams, climate change is a global threat with global consequences.

That was the stark warning contained in the report published last year by the former Chief Economist of the World Bank, Sir Nicholas Stern. That report, which the Nobel Prize winner Joseph Stiglitz described as: “the most thorough and rigorous analysis to date of the costs and risks of climate change”, estimated that the costs of unabated climate change – based on the science available in 2001 and on a narrow range of effects would be at least five per cent of global GDP. Taking on board more recent scientific evidence and the economic effects on human life and the environment, he estimates that the global economy could take a hit equivalent to 20 per cent of GDP or more.

If there is one resounding thing that we have learnt in the past 150 years – and in the first half of the last century in particular – it is that there is a complex and deadly link between the global economy, economic nationalism and increased global tensions. Anyone who doesn't see climate change as a security issue today will be treading in the footsteps of those who didn’t see reparations as a security issue in the 1920s.

I am optimistic that the wind is already beginning to change. Two years ago the debate about the science of climate change was still going on. Today that debate – as it relates to the main findings of human-induced global warming – is effectively over.

A year ago, when I became Foreign Secretary, the idea of ‘climate security’ was an alien one – to many inside the FCO as well as to those outside. Now, we have a group of the most senior retired US generals and admirals, including former Chief of Staff of the US Army General Sullivan and former Commander in Chief of CENTCOM, General Zinni, putting out a report that begins with the recommendation, and I quote: “The national security consequence of climate change should be fully integrated into national security and national defence strategies”.

The logical path that brought them to that conclusion is the same one that I have laid before you today. In their words again: “Climate change can act as a threat multiplier for instability in some of the most volatile regions in the world”.

And that is the motivation, of course, behind the current bills going through the US Senate and Congress that will require the administration to produce a national security estimate on climate change.

But though this conceptual change is starting to happen, it is not happening fast enough. Just as ‘energy security’ is now an accepted and central part of the hard security discourse, so too must be ‘climate security’ – not least indeed, as I will come to later, because of the very close links between those two agendas.

But talking about it is only the first step. We must take action too. So what are the choices that we have to make? What can we do – specifically what can the security community, the people in this room do – to reinforce that climate security.

I believe that it requires a whole new approach to how we analyse and act on security. The threat to our climate security comes not from outside but from within: we are all our own enemies. And what is at stake is not the narrow national security of individual states but our collective security in an interdependent world.

So while an unstable climate has obvious hard security implications, the traditional tools of hard security – in simple terms bombs and bullets – are not going to be able to solve that problem.

Instead we are going to have to think a lot more imaginatively and a lot more broadly about how we can act together to guarantee that kind of security. And that will mean much greater understanding of and commitment to non-military options: to international diplomacy; to leveraging international finance and markets; to building coalitions between governments, business and consumers. In other words, we are going to have to get a lot more hard-headed about soft-power.

In the past, I have likened the task we face to the one that many of us here faced during the Cold War. Part of the response to that threat was military. But the Cold War was fought and won on many more fronts than the one that stretched from Finland to the Balkans. It was a diplomatic, economic, political and even cultural campaign. The objective was to defend the intellectual and moral integrity of our way of life in the face of what we say was an aggressive ideology.

The objective in the fight against climate change is just as clear – and no less difficult. It is not to defend a way of life but to change it. And once again we will need to assemble the broadest possible consensus – a coalition of all the talents – if we are to succeed.

What we are seeking to do is nothing less than to shift the foundations upon which the global economy is built

We have to do so because it is the only way to resolve the shared dilemma presented to us by climate change.

We all, developed and developing countries alike, benefit from global growth, from strong economies, from the forces of globalisation that have lifted hundreds of millions out of poverty in the last decade alone.

But that growth has been reliant upon the burning of fossil fuels. We should not and cannot call a halt to that growth. But nor can we carry on as we are. Because if we do we will worsen climate change and undermine the very basis of our future prosperity and security. The dilemma then is that carbon-dependent growth, the very process that is improving the lives of millions around the world today, is also destroying their tomorrow.

There is only one possible answer. And that is to de-couple growth from emissions. And that requires a fundamental change in the way we produce and consume energy. The IEA estimates that the world will invest some 21 trillion in the energy sector between now and 2030. The bulk of that money has to flow in the direction of low carbon and energy efficient investments.

Governments can’t do this on their own. Nor can the private sector. Nor can individuals. We all have to play a part. Governments putting in place the long-term frameworks of goals, regulations and incentives. Business having the confidence to take and follow that lead and to start switching investment. Consumers making the right choices and keeping up the pressure on others to do the same. In short, we are looking at nothing less than the greatest public-private partnership of all time.

And it is worth pointing out that if we get this right – if we diversify supply, use more renewables, improve our energy efficiency – we will also be greatly enhancing our energy security: helping to cure what President Bush famously termed our “addiction to oil”.

Next week, for example I am going to China and Japan. Japan is one of the most energy efficient countries in the world. It consumes electricity ten times more efficiently than does China, twice as efficiently as does the United States. So for those who worry about the security impact of a scramble for energy resources in Africa or about the concentration of world oil and gas supplies in a few, sometimes unstable, hands then the answer lies as much in cutting edge lightbulbs as it does in high-tech weaponry.

That might not seem to be the kind of conversations that security experts are used to. You might ask, what point or value is there in the people in this room – schooled in the world of hard security – in getting involved in discussions about carbon price, wind power and energy white papers?

The answer is a great deal. Because the reality is that – globally – there is gap between what science and good sense is telling us must be done and what we are actually doing.

And it is my contention that the reason that the political will is still lacking to close that gap is because, despite all the evidence, despite all the warnings, the understanding of the full range and scale of the threat we face is still not there.

Bringing in the security community into this debate has two distinct advantages.

The first is that when people talk about security problems they do so in terms qualitatively different from any other type of problem. Security is seen as an imperative not an option. People don’t obsess over cost-benefit analyses or about opportunity cost: they get on with what has to be done because they understand that security goes right to the heart of the basic contract between state and citizen.

In the same vein, when it comes to security you prepare for the worst case scenario, you don’t sit around and hope for the best. As General Sullivan is quoted as saying in that report I mentioned a little earlier: “If you wait until you have 100 per cent certainty on the battlefield, something bad is going to happen”. And if we wait to act on climate change, I can promise you that something very bad indeed is going to happen.

So understanding and flagging up the security aspects of climate change has a role in galvanising those governments who have yet to act. And, for all of us, it has a role in setting the level of ambition – the political and financial commitment – that is needed.

Second, the security community has a very direct role to play. The analytical frameworks – the scenario building – that business uses for its long-term planning, was developed right here in the security community and borrowed from it. And it is still the security community – the people in this room – that do it best.

On a problem with the complexity of climate change, that ability to construct a vision of the future and to draw the links between a wide variety of physical impacts and possible consequences to our security is invaluable.

Having raised the issue of climate security up the agenda and having put it on the table at the UN Security Council, we now need to go to the next stage. We have reached a broad political conclusion as to the hard security implications of climate change. But to make sure that we take the right action we need to have a more exact and more detailed understanding of that threat, using the expertise of everyone with an interest in this problem.

 That is why, as a first step, I will host a seminar with key stakeholders to discuss the precise consequences that an unstable climate will have on our ability as a country to meet the international priorities that are set out in the FCO’s strategy white paper. 


I have spoken a lot today about the threat we face from climate change. I have no doubt that if we bury our heads in the sand we risk our world being engulfed. But if we work now to understand that threat and use that understanding to plan and decide how we will meet and overcome it, then we can forge an opportunity. Not just an economic opportunity but an opportunity to renew our faith in humanity’s ability to strive in common cause. Climate change can bring us together if we are wise enough not to let it drive us apart.  And I call on the people in this room to be a part of that shared endeavour. 

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