Facing the Winds of Climate Change

Climate change represents a new type of national security threat, requiring innovative institutional arrangements and unprecedented levels of international co-operation. The UK’s National Security Strategy sets out a bold plan to deal comprehensively with these challenges. 

By Shiloh Fetzek
Researcher, Climate Change and Security, Homeland Security and Resilience Department

19 March 2008 - Climate change receives an extraordinary level of attention in the UK’s first National Security Strategy, which is encouraging on a number of levels – not only because of the gravity it is given but because of the wider content of the document.

The National Security Strategy contains several positive indicators that the UK remains at the forefront of dealing with climate change as a security issue. The entire strategy recognises the multi-dimensionality of security threats in the twenty-first century and the need for correspondingly complex responses. By conceptualising security threats in this way and recognising that climate change will be a major issue in future, the UK’s security architects are prepared to respond to climate change with the depth and comprehensiveness required.

Water stress, food scarcity and economic contraction have the potential to overwhelm governance structures in areas of the world most vulnerable to climate change. However, although climate change may be a ‘threat multiplier’, the only institutional ‘weapons’ we have are policies to stabilise weak and fragile states, and to alleviate the poverty and inequality that climate change can exacerbate. Both of these issues are recognised as drivers of insecurity in the National Security Strategy, which is both a novel and extremely practical approach. Plans to direct the Foreign Office’s attention toward key regions and change its strategy of engagement to promote the strengthening of state capacities will go a long way toward promoting stability in a future security environment shaped by climate change.

Climate change represents the ultimate collective security threat and the National Security Strategy displays a healthy measure of vision in recognising that the UK must work co-operatively to generate effective solutions. The security of the UK and British citizens depends on the security and stability of other areas of the world: this is not a question of altruism but of long-term self-interest.

Of course, the devil is in the details of implementation, but there are indications that the new plans are matched by new funding, with at least £100 million devoted to investigating the mechanisms around climate change as a driver for instability.

The National Security Strategy leaves the UK way ahead of the curve in terms of recognising the severity of the problem. This is matched with innovative institutional arrangements that gear Government activities toward preventive measures, mindful of the potential for climate change to drastically reshape the physical and political terrain as we know it. Hopefully, the interdependence highlighted throughout the strategy document will work in both directions and some of these approaches to preventive security will be reflected back along those same routes to be adopted elsewhere.

The views expressed above are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI.



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