Climate Change: the real threat to security

Ensuring the long-term security of all countries will mean responding effectively to climate change, says Chris Abbott of the Oxford Research Group.

–  The effects of climate change are likely to lead to the displacement of peoples from coastline and river delta areas, severe natural disasters and increasing food shortages. This would lead to increased human suffering, greater social unrest, revised patterns of living and the pressure of greatly increased levels of migration across the world.

–  This has long-term security implications for all countries which are far more serious, lasting and destructive than those of international terrorism.

–  However, the response to climate change should not be the increased use of nuclear power, which would only encourage the spread across an unstable world of technology and materials that can also be used in the development of nuclear weapons and their use by ‘rogue states’ or terrorist networks.

–  Instead, a more secure and reliable response is the development of local renewable energy sources and radical energy conservation practices.

The Pentagon’s Office of Net Assessment (ONA) identifies climate change as a threat which vastly eclipses that of terrorism. A report commissioned by the head of the ONA, Pentagon insider Andrew Marshall, and published in late 2003, concluded that climate change over the next 20 years could result in a global catastrophe costing millions of lives in wars and natural disasters. The authors argue that the risk of abrupt climate change should be “elevated beyond a scientific debate to a US national security concern”. 

Anyone doubting the serious security implications of environmental disasters, even for rich and powerful countries such as the United States, should simply look at the large-scale loss of life and social breakdown   in New Orleans and other Gulf Coast cities (as well as rising petrol prices across the world)   following Hurricane Katrina in August and September 2005. This is especially worrying because there has been a near doubling in the number of category 4 and 5 storms such as Katrina in the last 35 years, most likely as a result of rises in the temperature of the surface levels of the sea.

The social impacts of climate change

In January 2004, the UK Government’s Chief Scientific Adviser, Sir David King, wrote a guest editorial for the journal Science, warning that “climate change is the most severe problem that we are facing today, more serious even than the threat of terrorism”. He argues that as a result of global warming “millions more people around the world may in future be exposed to the risk of hunger, drought, flooding, and debilitating diseases such as malaria”.

Most scientists now believe there has been a considerable increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide levels, mainly as a result of human activity such as burning fossil fuels and the cutting down of the world’s forests, which has led to a large-scale loss of biodiversity and a global average temperature increase. Studies differ, but models are predicting a future temperature rise of 1.5 to 5 degrees Centigrade by the year 2100. This could cause thermal expansion of the sea and global ice melting, resulting in an alarming rise in sea levels and a significant redrawing of the world map. 

Among the many consequences   are the effects on metropolitan areas. As most of the world’s large cities are positioned on coasts it could mean many of them would be lost to the sea. The gradual displacement of peoples from coastline and river delta areas could number in the hundreds of millions with disastrous economic and social consequences. 

Furthermore,   climate change is likely to involve elements of ‘positive feedback’ in that it will encourage further environmental changes that will lead to an   acceleration of carbon emissions. The melting of Arctic sea ice may result in more open water during Arctic summers which will absorb more solar radiation, speeding up the process of ice melting. A second possibility is that the progressive melting of Arctic and near-Arctic permafrost will release large volumes of methane from rotting vegetation which is, itself, an even more potent cause of climate change than carbon dioxide. Losing the sea ice of the Arctic is likely to cause dramatic changes in the climate of the northern region and will have a very big impact on other climate parameters. 

There are also   indications that over the next fifty years there will be considerable shifts in the distribution of rainfall, with more rain tending to fall on the oceans and polar regions and progressively less falling on the tropical land masses. The tropics support a substantial part of the human population, much of it surviving by subsistence agriculture. A shift in rainfall distribution is likely to cause a partial drying-out of some of the most fertile regions of the tropics, resulting in a significant reduction in the ecological carrying-capacity of the land and decreases in food production. China and India, in particular, could be hugely affected, with profound national and regional implications. Many of the countries in this region would have very little capacity to respond to such changes, and the resulting persistent food shortages and even famines would lead to increased suffering, greater social unrest and   greatly increased migration. 

While Africa will be most affected by drought and desertification,   researchers are also reporting a general drying out of the land and spread of desertification in the Mediterranean region. One of the worst droughts on record hit Spain and Portugal in 2005 and halved some crop yields, causing both countries to apply to the European Union for food assistance. Droughts have also badly affected crops in Australia, and one in six countries in the world face food shortages because of severe droughts that could become semi-permanent.    In fact, new climate prediction research by the UK Meteorological Office indicates that expected shifts in rain patterns and temperatures over the next 50 years threaten to put far more people at risk of hunger than previously thought.

That is, unless carbon dioxide levels can be stabilised and the threat of global warming and climate change taken seriously. Time is of the essence. The average temperature of the earth’s surface has risen by 0.6 degrees Centigrade since reliable records began in the late 1800s. The European Union believes that the eventual rise in the global average temperature must be kept to within two degrees Centigrade of pre-industrial levels to ensure the continued safety of the world’s human population. However, some leading climate scientists suggest that if the concentration of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere exceeds 400 parts per million (ppm), then there will be little hope of achieving this goal. The concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere is currently 378 ppm, and is increasing by about 1.5 ppm per year. If the scientists are correct, that leaves just 14 years before the 400 ppm point is reached and, in fact, some of the early effects of global warming are already apparent. In 2004, for example, the World Health Organisation estimated that current mortality attributable to man-made climate change was at least 150,000 people per year – with the highest proportion of these deaths occurring in Southern Africa (see map).

While some governments are taking this threat reasonably seriously, the reaction from the USA has been unhelpful; withdrawing from the Kyoto Protocol was their best known response to what some in the Bush administration still consider the ‘myth’ of climate change. Even though it accounts for only 4% of the world’s population, America is the world’s greatest polluter – producing 20% of the global emissions of greenhouse gases. As the world’s only superpower, the United States must face up to its responsibility to take the threat of climate change seriously. It is also important that China and India, as two of the largest developing countries who have not signed up to the Kyoto Protocol, be brought into greater dialogue on the issue.   China   has the second highest carbon dioxide emissions behind the USA, with a rapidly developing economy and increasingly high levels of energy use, especially from coal-fired power stations. In   the next 20 years China looks set to overtake the USA as the world’s biggest producer of greenhouse gases. 

Nuclear is not the answer

However, the response to global warming should not, as some suggest, be the increased use of nuclear power. Some environmentalists are now promoting nuclear energy as   the environmentally sound solution   rising levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide.

Aside from the obvious environmental, economic and safety issues associated with   radioactive waste, there is a very serious global security issue. 

This ‘nuclear renaissance’ will involve the development of facilities – reactors, waste tanks and reprocessing plants – that are potential terrorist targets, as well as encouraging the spread of technology and materials that can   be used in the development of nuclear weapons by ‘rogue states’ or terrorist networks. The peaceful atom and the military atom are what the Swedish physicist Hannes Alven, a Nobel Prize laureate, called “Siamese twins”. Civil nuclear activity and nuclear weapons proliferation are intimately linked: one of the ‘twins’ cannot be promoted without the other spreading out of control. This is where much of the current concern over Iran’s nuclear programme comes from, but it is important to note that the development of nuclear power in other countries – for example, China, the USA or Japan – is just as worrying in terms of global security.

There are serious dangers associated with producing plutonium in large quantities for civil use in conditions of increasing world unrest.   In particular,   the potential use of plutonium in a terrorist weapon – a radiological dispersal device (so-called ‘dirty bomb’) or a crude nuclear weapon – would have a devastating impact if detonated, for example, in a capital city, but also if the threat of detonation were used to blackmail a government. The problem of safeguarding society against these hazards would become formidable in a ‘plutonium economy’ (that is, an economy significantly dependent on nuclear reactors using mixed oxide fuel and/or plutonium to meet its energy demands). The security measures that might become necessary could seriously affect personal freedoms and have genuine consequences for   civil rights. 

Nuclear energy is not a carbon free technology. Electricity is used in many stages of the nuclear cycle – from building reactors to waste disposal and decommissioning – and this electricity will mainly have been produced from fossil fuels. Even under the most favourable conditions, the nuclear cycle will produce approximately one-third as much CO2 emission as gas-fired electricity production. Furthermore, nuclear power could only supply the entire world electricity demand for three years before sources with low uranium content would have to be mined. Given that one of the main factors is the amount of carbon dioxide produced by the mining and milling or uranium ore, the use of the poorer ores in nuclear reactors would produce more CO2 emission than burning fossil fuels directly, and may actually consume more electricity than it produces. Furthermore, the problems of the depletion of uranium mineable at economic prices would become as serious as the depletion of oil and gas if a significant nuclear renaissance were to occur.

Therefore, while some may argue that nuclear energy could provide a ‘solution’ to climate change, the implications of such developments would be disastrous. In fact, the UK Government’s own advisory body, the Sustainable Development Commission, concluded in March 2006 that nuclear power was dangerous, expensive and unnecessary. The House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee reached similar conclusions the following month, raising serious concerns relating to safety, the threat of terrorism, and the proliferation of nuclear power across the world. So, rather than constructing new nuclear reactors, attention should be focused on the protection and security of existing facilities and options for phasing out their use altogether. This, combined with an accelerated implementation by the nuclear weapon states of their “unequivocal commitment” to nuclear disarmament under Article VI of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), the negotiation of a Fissile Material Cut-Off Treaty (FMCT) to ban the further production of fissile materials for use in nuclear weapons, and the development of policies designed to increase confidence in the nuclear non-proliferation regime, would go a long way to making the world a safer place.

Renewable energy

Fortunately, there is no need to rely on nuclear energy. A more sustainable and secure response is the rapid development of local renewable energy sources – wind, wave, tidal and solar – and comprehensive energy conservation practices.

In 2003, the Institute for Sustainable Solutions and Innovations (ISUSI) found that today’s technology could allow a highly-developed industrialised country to completely cover its energy needs with local renewable energy sources, particularly solar and wind energy. Using the example of Japan, ISUSI concluded that it is possible to eliminate fossil fuels and nuclear power without reducing living standards or industrial capacity. 

Another more recent study by the Environmental Change Institute at the University of Oxford found that wind, solar and Combined Heat and Power (co-generation) could together meet the electricity demand of England and Wales (with a minimum necessity for stand-by capacity from non-renewable sources for times when renewable electricity supply is low and demand is high). The UK is particularly well suited to the development of wind power, as the wind tends to blow more strongly during the day and the winter months, when energy demands from the national grid are greatest. This is one of the advantages of renewable energy sources because they tend to produce greater levels of electricity during peak demand points of the day (between 6am and midnight) and during the months of highest demand (winter months), whereas nuclear power can only produce a constant ‘base-load’ 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

Diverting resources and personnel from military science to civilian renewable energy programmes would greatly help to accelerate the technological developments already happening in this important area – for example, third generation photovoltaic concentrator cells. However, the ‘war on terror’ has had the effect of reversing the drop in UK military expenditure that followed the end of the Cold War. For example, in 2003-04 the UK spent about £2.7 billion on military research and development – approximately 30% of all UK government research and development spending. Overall, in 2003 the world’s military spent a massive $956 billion.   A substantial proportion of this funding could be reallocated to civil uses, with an emphasis on the development of renewable energy technologies.

A rapid move towards local renewable energy sources and energy efficient practices would reduce the security and political risks associated with a reliance on nuclear energy programmes and/or fossil fuel supplies from increasingly unstable regions of the world. It is just a matter of finding the political will to make it happen.

This article is excerpted from Global Responses to Global Threats: Sustainable security for the 21st Century, written by Chris Abbott, Paul Rogers and John Sloboda and published by Oxford Research Group, June 2006.

Chris Abbott is Global Security Research Officer at the Oxford Research Group.

Paul Rogers is Professor of Peace Studies at Bradford University and is Global Security Consultant to the Oxford Research Group.

John Sloboda is Executive Director of the Oxford Research Group, he is the co-founder of, and coordinator of