The changing security climate (part one)

Construction on flood plains, unsustainable population movements and inappropriate crop plantation all contribute to harmful environmental change. In the first of three articles, Cleo Paskal argues for a multifaceted defence in a critical global battle.

Climate change has been a foreign-policy issue since well before the Kyoto Protocol, but it is only recently that the international community has acknowledged that it also is a security issue. Now, it is making up for lost time. In March and April 2007 alone:

• The United Nations Security Council debated “climate change”;

• Legislation was introduced in the United States asking for a National Intelligence Estimate on the security implications of “global warming”;

• An influential panel of retired US generals and admirals released a study entitled National Security and the Threat of Climate Change. Among their findings: “Projected climate change poses a serious threat to America’s national security … Climate change acts as a threat multiplier for instability in some of the most volatile regions of the world … Projected climate change will add to tensions even in stable regions of the world.”

Governments realise that climate change will increasingly become a security problem. There is a growing understanding that, among other things, the international legal system, access to essential resources and the integrity of critical infrastructure are all at risk. But the discussion has confused so many different topics that many of the suggested solutions will not solve the most imminent threats. One core confusion derives from the use of the term “climate change”, when what is really meant is the wider issue of environmental change.

To understand the real threats to global security and the challenge to policy-makers, it is not enough just to look at climate change. Climate change is only one component of the larger problem of direct, man-made environmental change.

As a species, humans often make direct and major alterations to the natural environment. In fact, irrigation (which substantially changed regional environments) made possible what we think of as early civilisation. In the more recent past, massive population increases have had a dramatic effect on global sustainability. At the turn of the 20th century, there were around 1.65 billion people on the planet. At the turn of the 21st, there were around 6 billion. The result is more groundwater pumped up, more forests cut, more urban sprawl, more developments in floods plains, and so forth – and, ultimately, a changed environment.

As humans push the boundaries of the carrying capacity of the planet, a smaller degree of environmental variation has larger implications. This means that climate change may significantly exacerbate existing problems, but even if there were no climate change, those problems would still exist.

For example, the explanation of the social, economic and security crisis created by Hurricane Katrinathe costliest hurricane in US history, which hit the southern part of the country in August 2005 — lay to a large degree in problems with the US Army Corps of Engineers, poor town planning, a failure of emergency services and a breakdown in the chain of command.

There is no question that this naturally dynamic coastal region also was going through a period of man-made environmental change, but much of that change was more direct than anything caused by climate change. It included large-scale subsidence (by about a metre in three decades in one area of New Orleans) probably caused, at least in part, by the draining of wetlands, the extraction of groundwater and inappropriately designed waterways.

Katrina showed how poor regulations, planning and emergency response can aggravate the kind of environmental disasters that will almost certainly increase because of climate change. But one cannot say that the tragedy in New Orleans was caused by such change alone. Curbing climate change without addressing the way in which city planning and disaster management are done will not stop other Katrinas (though it may keep the numbers from dramatically accelerating).

The same holds true for some of the coastal development in China that occasionally fails to take account of naturally occurring environmental change (or even the future impact of climate change) when decisions are made about where to build cities and infrastructure. That can place even the most innovative projects at risk.

Take Dongtan, for example, China’s multi-billion dollar “eco-city”. The plan is for it to be entirely self-sufficient in water, energy and most food, with a zero-emission transport system. Unfortunately, it is to be built on a low-lying alluvial island off the coast of Shanghai, an area of extreme environmental vulnerability.

Just by its choice of placement, Dongtan is in unnecessary danger, and were it (or worse, Shanghai) to be hit by strong storm surges, there could be the same type of severe disruption that was seen with New Orleans.

This is not hypothetical. One can see foreshadowings of the problem in what happened to coastal southeast China in the summer of 2006. By August 11 last year, it had been hit by eight typhoons, one of them (called Saomai) the most powerful in half a century. In all, more than 1,700 people died, more than five millions homes and 323,750 square kilometers of farmland were destroyed, and there was at least US$20 billion in damage. More than 1.5 million people were evacuated, 40,000 ships were recalled to ports, and all business “not related to fighting the typhoon” was suspended. The summer of 2007 also has seen devastating floods and crop damage in China.

Yes, climate change is a security threat. But by labeling the security issues as relating to “global warming” and “climate change” alone, the US Congress and the UN inadvertently limit the range of possible responses and ignore many critical issues that are relatively easy to fix. If the issue was climate change alone, the answer would be to cut emissions. But climate change is just one component of the larger problem of environmental change, a problem that includes building on flood plains, regulations that encourage major population movements into areas that are not able to sustain them, and even planting inappropriate crops on marginal lands.

It's not enough simply to focus on cutting emissions, because no matter what we do about emissions, we still will have serious problems if we don’t do anything about the other components of environmental change. The inertia in the system means we already are heading for major change: it is like a boulder that has started to roll down an unstable hill. And through general environmental change, we have been, in effect, building houses on weak foundations in the path of the oncoming boulder. Putting on the emissions brakes may slow the boulder down and lessen the ultimate impact, but the momentum is already there, and the house is already shaky.

There is no question that environmental change, including climate change, is a global, critical, security risk and a broad attack on the political, economic, social and strategic status quo. Protecting against it requires a multifaceted defence. But, once we acknowledge the complex reality of the situation, we can do it. If we try.

Cleo Paskal is an associate fellow at the Royal Institute of International Affairs (Chatham House) in London.

For more information, see:

Copyright Cleo Paskal, 2007

Homepage photo by GISuser