Affirming Climate Change’s Place in the National Security Framework

Monitor Clifford-Jones

Last year, for the first time, the government published a National Security Strategy. How was this different to previous approaches to national security issues? The Strategy brought together a comprehensive and hard-headed assessment of the threats to the UK and how government is responding. It recognised that in the modern, interconnected era, governments must adapt their approach to national security. The Strategy broadened the definition of national security to include not just counter-terrorism and traditional state-led threats, but also threats arising from civil emergencies and serious organised crime. Importantly, it also looked at a number of underlying drivers of insecurity – recognising that to avoid the worst security implications of global challenges such as poverty and climate change, we need to assess their national security implications early on and plan our response.

The annual update of the National Security Strategy, published this June, refreshed and refined our analysis of the threats to our national security. It builds on the approach of the first National Security Strategy and outlines progress on key issues such as Afghanistan and Pakistan; nuclear security and counter-proliferation; energy security; and our response to the swine flu pandemic. It also contains the first assessment of the implications for security in the global economic downturn and reaffirms that global and domestic climate change has long-term implications for our national security.

Clifford-Jones diagram

The report strengthens the approach of the first National Security Strategy by setting out a clearer strategic framework for national security. It looks at why there are challenges to our national security – the drivers (including climate change, competition for energy, poverty, inequality, poor governance and ideology); who or what is threatening UK interests and citizens (i.e. the threat actors, including states, terrorists, criminals and the weather); and how security threats arise – the so-called threat domains (including nuclear weapons, cyberspace and space) [see Figure 1 above].

Climate change is therefore at the heart of our national security framework. It is one of the greatest challenges the world faces and will increasingly become a wide-ranging driver of global insecurity. From a national security perspective, as well as from other perspectives, it is important that we act now.

The National Security Strategy update looks at two interrelated ways in which climate change acts as a driver of insecurity.

International Risk Multiplier

Globally, climate change will increasingly act as a ‘threat multiplier’, exacerbating existing weakness and tensions around the world from which the UK will not be able to isolate itself. It presents a challenge that goes far beyond direct physical disruption to the environment. Climate change could lead to a wide range of social, economic and political problems such as large-scale migration, water stress, crop failure and food shortages, faster and wider spread of disease, increased scarcity of resources, economic instability and the possibility of new geopolitical disputes (for instance, as sea ice melts in the Arctic).

Everyone will be affected by climate change, but the most vulnerable will be those least able to cope, especially developing countries and states with weak governance. Without global action to reduce emissions and build ‘adaptive capacity’ in these countries, climate change will increase poverty in the developing world and could tip fragile states into instability, conflict and state failure. Climate change might also lead to social unrest and power vacuums, making it easier for extremists and organised criminals to move in.

Climate change therefore has the potential to impact on many of the UK’s current and future security concerns. For example, progress on security and development in Afghanistan may be threatened by the impact of climate change.[1] Afghanistan has little capacity to adapt and is likely to suffer increased temperatures and more frequent droughts, leading to population movements, exacerbated low-level conflicts and, potentially, increased poppy production as other crops become less viable in hotter, drier conditions.

Direct Impacts within the UK

Domestically, we are already seeing the impacts of climate change in the more frequent extreme weather events of recent years. These are likely to increase in frequency and severity in the future. In the coming years, national security impacts will mainly be linked to an increase in weather-driven civil emergencies as seen in the 2007 summer floods.

But in the long term, climate change impacts are likely to increase our vulnerability more widely: affecting our transport, energy and water infrastructure, public and private property, citizen health and agriculture and food production. This is underlined by the new UK Climate Projections 2009[2] which illustrate that climate change presents a long-term security challenge to the UK without effective mitigation and adaptation action.

While the most serious impacts of climate change domestically and globally may not be seen for many years, we need to act now to address the security implications.

Events during the past year have strengthened our resolve to tackle climate change, reach a new global deal to reduce emissions and reduce the risk of the most dangerous impacts of climate change from occurring. The latest research, presented at the Climate Change Congress in Copenhagen in March 2009, suggests that human-induced climate change is more severe and happening at a faster rate than previously thought. We are also closely monitoring the new challenges posed by the economic downturn, including risks to global investment in low carbon technologies and mitigation measures. But the downturn also presents opportunities. By moving to a low-carbon, climate-resilient economy, the UK can secure economic recovery and growth at home and also provide the necessary international leadership for action.

The UK is at the forefront of tackling climate change, both domestically and internationally, in order to mitigate the impacts of climate change that are projected to affect our national security, and adapt to the climate change which is already unavoidable.

Future Challenges, Next Steps and the Longer-Term Response

The next six months will be critical. We have the opportunity, through an ambitious global agreement in Copenhagen in December, to prevent dangerous climate change. The science tells us that global emissions will need to peak and start a significant decline within the next decade and keep on shrinking, to reach at most half of their 1990 levels by 2050, if we are to prevent temperature rises of over 2°C. If temperatures rise by more than this, the environmental impacts and associated socio-economic costs of climate change would increase sharply. From a security perspective, we would risk being overwhelmed by multiple demands on our resources globally and domestically. However, even with an ambitious global deal some impacts are already inevitable both in the UK and globally.

Building on our extensive climate change programme developed over recent years, this summer the government is setting out the building blocks of a ‘five point plan’ designed both to reduce emissions at home and abroad and to protect and prepare for the changes that are already inevitable. This will require a real cross-government effort:

  • The Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) has recently published its priorities for the global deal: the ‘Road to Copenhagen’.[3] To ensure that global temperatures do not rise by more than 2°C, the global agreement needs to put in place measures to reduce global emissions by at least 50 per cent by 2050. The UK must also agree a fair deal between developed and developing countries: developed countries need to reduce their emissions by 80 per cent by 2050 and around $100 billion per annum until 2020 should be provided to the poorest and most vulnerable countries for adaptation finance.

  • The DECC has recently published the first combined ‘Strategy for Climate and Energy – the UK Low-carbon Transition Plan’. This sets out policies to deliver the first three carbon budgets (to 2022) and continue progress towards the UK’s 2050 emission targets as required by the Climate Change Act. The Strategy also sets out measures to cut UK emissions by 34 per cent by 2020 and 80 per cent by 2050 through investment in energy efficiency and clean energy technologies such as renewables, nuclear and carbon capture and storage.

  • The DECC has also set out a ‘Renewable Energy Strategy’ which details an action plan for ensuring that 15 per cent (the UK’s share of the overall EU target of 20 per cent) of our energy consumption comes from renewable sources by 2020. De-carbonising the economy will bring security benefits by reducing our reliance on foreign supplies of oil and gas.

  • The Department for International Development (DfID) has recently published its fourth white paper on international development – ‘Building our Common Future’ – which will include plans to strengthen support for developing countries on climate change by building their resilience and adaptive capacities.
  • At home, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) will continue to lead preparation for the long-term domestic impacts of climate change through its cross-government ‘Adapting to Climate Change Programme’. This will build on the momentum gained following the launch of the UK Climate Projections in June, embedding the projections across government, such as in planning. In addition, each government department is committed to producing a Departmental Adaptation Plan by spring 2010. Also in the autumn, the first UK Climate Change Risk Assessment process will start which will build on the projections and develop our approach to domestic adaptation. Potential national security risks will be considered as an integral part of this work and will feed into the established medium-term risk assessment process which underpins the National Risk Register.

  • We will also continue to improve our understanding of climate change, including the national security implications, through our ongoing leading role in climate research both domestically and internationally.

Finally, it is worth highlighting another new aspect of this year’s updated National Security Strategy. To prepare for the longer term, a number of planning assumptions for national security activity have been set out in one place, for the first time. These include assumptions around all the drivers of insecurity, threat actors and threat domains outlined in the strategic framework. On climate change, the planning assumption states:

The world’s climate will continue to change with increasing temperatures and changing rainfall patterns. Such changes will increase the risks to human society and the natural environment with increasing pressure on health, water resources, agriculture and human settlements. Over the next twenty years these effects will be manageable but beyond that, the risk of dangerous impacts will increase strongly. We need to act now to mitigate the most dangerous consequences and adapt to those we cannot prevent.

While the conference at Copenhagen later this year presents us with the opportunity to prevent the most severe climate change from occurring, due to past global emissions, we are already committed to at least thirty years of climate change. Therefore, this planning assumption reinforces that climate change will be at the heart of strategic planning decisions on national security for many years to come. It illustrates why security communities globally need to get involved in the climate change debate and take into account climate implications across a range of security issues.

Ingrid Clifford-Jones
Senior Policy Adviser
National Security Secretariat
Cabinet Office


[1] Matthew Savage, Bill Dougherty, Mohammed Hamza, Ruth Butterfield and Sukaina Bharwani, ‘Socio-Economic Impacts of Climate Change in Afghanistan’, Stockholm Environment Institute, report funded by DfID (April 2009).

[2] UK Climate Projections, June 2009,


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