Climate change security: 2

Adapted from ‘The Conflict Potential of Climate Change Adaptation and Mitigation’ (Environmental Change & Security Program Report Vol. 14, Issue 2). Washington DC: Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

The risks and impacts of climate- change are difficult to envision at times. The complexity of the issue and the novel nature of its associated changes make it difficult to ground discussions in prior experience, and previous security concepts may no longer apply.

The surprises and cascading impacts witnessed from environmental events – from the wildfires in Russia and floods in Pakistan in 2010, for example – suggest that previous assumptions about the slow nature of climate-change may be incorrect. Indeed, many in the science community have warned that climate-changes may be far more abrupt than earlier reports suggested. The question is, if the future will not look like the present, how can we plan for future risks and understand their potential security impacts?

And further, how can we ensure our policy-making does not unintentionally make things worse? To date, attempts to define climate and security links have often been muddled, relying on classical notions of state security to explain how gradual changes in air temperature and resulting impacts could influence conflict dynamics within and between states. Such discussions often end with either overly simplistic predictions of failed states or dismissal of the entire cause-and-effect construct because it does not fit neatly into Cold War models of military security.

New models are needed for understanding climate security challenges because the strategic and operational interests for environmental security do not lend themselves to overly alarmist predictions of violence or imminent state collapse. The actual risks are more complex and harder to visualize, but since these risks are unknown, they may pose even more significant challenges.

Indeed, just because we do not anticipate risks does not mean that they do not exist; history is replete with failures of intelligence and early-warning systems that have left societies and communities unprepared.

The U.S. government has recognized that energy and environmental issues are likely to create new security risks in the future and that failure to anticipate these challenges could result in haphazard and ineffective responses after the fact. The Multinational Planning Augmentation Team (MPAT) at the U.S. Pacific Command (PACOM) has been working on complex disaster response via its Tempest Express scenarios since 1996, and its multi-national approach can be used as a template for future climate risks. Even when climate-change impacts are not traditional security risks (e.g., violent conflict between states), the sudden nature of floods or other disasters can often demand response capabilities that only exist within the military.

Anticipating such scenarios can help determine when military assistance is necessary and how to coordinate with local governments and non-governmental organizations. The need for greater foresight and warning requires:

– The development of analytic systems to provide relevant data.
– More robust recognition of critical system-level vulnerabilities.
– A better understanding of how these vulnerabilities can be viewed as security concerns.
– More thorough understanding of how our actions to address one problem may create unintended consequences elsewhere.

What are the key factors that bring together apparently disconnected systems such as climate-change, ecosystems, and national security? Are there “latent” systems that underlie security and appear stable, but whose existence becomes manifest only if current systems break or are disrupted beyond safe operating limits? Could our actions to mitigate climate-change raise new security concerns elsewhere?

None of these questions can be answered easily. Still, investment in forecasting and early-warning intelligence on these issues is potentially valuable for many levels of strategic planning.

Additionally, since scientific data alone is insufficient to guide planning and policy, we need “risk translators” who can apply environmental knowledge to help determine the nature and scope of energy and environment related security impacts. Chad M Briggs, Director of Strategy of Globalint.

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