Projecting the Future: Climate Change and UK Security

Climate change is a scientific phenomena, but one with profound environmental, moral, humanitarian, economic and political consequences. Understanding what is happening, as well as why, is essential to understanding the impacts of climate change on humanity.

The consequences of climate change for humanity will be wide-ranging, and scientists have a responsibility to provide information on its impacts in a way that informs decision-making in areas far beyond meteorology. For humankind, climate change will affect access to resources; whether fresh water, crop productivity, fishing stocks, or melting ice caps opening up previously frozen expanses of ocean. As the frequency and types of extreme weather events change, sea levels rise and temperatures increase, it will also present a threat to health and well-being, infrastructure and assets. As people’s lifestyles, livelihoods and even survival are threatened, there is a potential for internal unrest, conflict and humanitarian disasters. Although climate change alone is unlikely to be a cause of conflict, it will exacerbate the threat, particularly in nations that are already vulnerable to conflict.

Whilst the impact of climate change will be worldwide, the most severe impact is likely to be felt in developing nations. Where life is already incredibly challenging, the impact may tip the balance from subsistence living to a survival situation. But this is not to say that climate change does not have security implications for the UK.

In many ways, the UK is in a better position than many countries to face up to the challenges of climate change. With the benefit of the government-owned Met Office Hadley Centre, the UK is a world leader in the science of climate change. The British government and industry are facing up to the need to mitigate the worst climate changes and to adapt to the inevitabilities that we cannot avoid. A great deal of work is ongoing. Climate change will have direct and indirect effects. The climate in the UK will change, just as everywhere else. Summers will be hotter; heatwaves, like the one in 2003 that killed 35,000 people across Europe, will become the norm for an average summer by the 2040s. On the other hand, winters will also be warmer, leading to a reduction in the number of cold-related deaths. The availability of water is likely to become a more serious issue, as summers become drier, particularly in the southeast where population densities are highest. Winters, conversely, are expected to be wetter, with the associated risk of flooding, as extreme rainfall events increase in frequency and intensity. Rising sea levels and the flooding due to storm surges along the coast will be of particular concern in the southeast.

Climate Projections

In order to prepare for this inevitable change in our weather and climate, the Met Office is working closely with government and industry on a range of information and adaptation projects. An example of the kind of work that the UK government is involved in is the UK Climate Projections (UKCP), which recently released its latest projection on how climate change will affect the UK up to the end of the century (UKCP09).

UKCP is a programme funded by Defra to make freely available climate change projections for the UK, produced by the Met Office. These projections attempt to convey information about climate change in a way that reflects the balance of certainty in the science, whilst providing quality advice for the sort of risk-based decision making that climate change requires. Previously climate data was usually presented in a deterministic way – single values given for variables for a given location and time. However, these values depended on a large number of assumptions. Unlike weather forecasting models, where the model’s performance can be assessed and improved as each day’s weather unfolds and the skill of the model can be verified, the ability of a climate model can only be understood after the climate has run its course, decades later. It therefore makes much more sense to include information about the probable range of the projections. This allows decision-makers the opportunity to evaluate risk and to respond appropriately.

Industrial Preparedness

UKCP09 is a huge step forward in the communication of climate data, but other more specific work is on-going. The Met Office Hadley Centre is also working with organisations like the Environment Agency to provide information about the risk of flooding and sea level rise for specific locations and infrastructure potentially threatened by climate change. An example of this is the work done to evaluate the risk that climate change presents to London.

The Thames Barrier was built following the 1953 storm surge event that killed 300 people and nearly flooded London. The barrier and associated defence improvements along the Thames Estuary were designed to protect London from tidal flooding up until the 2030s. However, as the climate changes, sea level rise, increased rainfall and storm frequency increase the risk of flooding in London in the future. Added to the threat of climate change, development of the Thames Estuary region means that more people and infrastructure than ever would be affected by future flooding events. To address this threat, the Met Office worked with the Environment Agency on the Thames Estuary 2100 project to evaluate the robustness of tidal defences in the Thames Estuary region. This kind of project conducted now, before climate change has compromised the safety of those living in the region, means that climate projections can be used to take the necessary measures to ensure that the flooding defences continue to protect London and the Thames Estuary.
Other areas of industry that are preparing for climate change through adaptation include the energy sector, which has conducted a large project to evaluate how climate change will affect all aspects of energy generation, supply and distribution in the UK. The aviation industry is also actively engaged in preparing for the impact that climate change will have on airline services such as routing, runway clearance and the demand for flights. There are many other examples of critical infrastructure within the UK that are being actively managed to prepare for climate change.

Impact on International Security

The security threat of climate change to the UK is also indirect, where conflict or humanitarian disasters in other countries become an international concern. The Ministry of Defence is particularly aware of this issue and this year they published their first Climate Change Strategy. As part of working towards meeting the objectives in this strategy, they are involved in a number of research projects with the Met Office to develop a deeper understanding of how climate change will affect international security. This has the benefit of both helping to provide information to support those regions in their adaptation efforts, but also to prepare UK forces for future possible operations. Strategic planning is not the only area where the UK military is addressing the need to prepare for climate change. Equipment and procurement programmes often make long-term investment decisions which rely on knowledge of the environmental conditions under which that equipment is required to perform. The UK is possibly the only country which has developed climate change projections for use in equipment testing and design, where equipment has a shelf life comparable with climate-change timescales.

Climate change presents multiple challenges. Often, the one that receives the most media coverage is the need for us take responsibility for what we are causing and to reduce our carbon footprint. However, the other side of that challenge is facing the consequences of changes we cannot prevent. For industries, governments and policy-makers, that means making decisions that take account of the new climates we are facing and thinking through the consequences of the failure to adapt our livelihoods, health, safety and security. For scientists, there is the on-going research into the impacts of climate change and the need to communicate the results of this research clearly, effectively and in a language that allows decision-making based on the best evidence available.

Kirsty Lewis
Met Office
Hadley Centre

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