Degrees of Risk: Climate Change as a National Security Issue

Climate change is usually thought of as an environmental issue, and sometimes a humanitarian one. But how might the debate change if it were seen as a matter of national security? A new report by the US-European non-profit E3G states that this is the most appropriate way to think about climate change, and risk management the appropriate framework in which to address it.

Degrees of Risk: Defining a Risk Management Framework for Climate Security” is the result of a series of closed-door meetings with national and international security, intelligence, and defense officials. Yesterday, E3G authors and security experts gathered in the conference room of DC-based think tank Center for Strategic International Studies (CSIS), to discuss the report’s recommendations.”The scientific evidence that the climate is likely to change significantly in the next few decades is far more solid than the evidence that usually underpins security decisions in other areas, like nuclear proliferation or the actions of rogue states,” said co-author Dr. Jay Gulledge, Director of the Pew Center’s Science and Impacts Program. So, what might decision-making look like if the threats posed by climate change were taken as serious, and analyzed as rigorously as these other acknowledged security challenges?

Rebooting the climate debate

It could reboot the whole public debate about climate change, especially in the U.S. The split between climate “skeptics” and believers has led to an under-emphasis of both scientific uncertainties, and extreme scenarios. This alienates the majority of people, whom polls show believe that climate change is an important issue, but don’t know what can be done about it.

The truth is that we don’t know what precisely what climate change will bring. But uncertainty need not be a barrier to action. People make decisions based on imperfect knowledge all the time: where to buy a house, invest retirements funds, buy insurance. “The risk management approach makes sense even if you have questions about the effects of climate change,” said E3G chief executive Nick Mabey, one of the authors of the report and a speaker at yesterday’s event. “You don’t buy fire insurance because you know your house will burn down. You buy it because you don’t know it won’t.”

In response to a comment from a representative from the Chinese embassy (more on THAT in a moment), Mabey emphasized that this was not just a way to ‘sell’ the need to address climate change to a different or skeptical constituency. That wouldn’t work, he said. Instead, the authors contend that risk management is a means to change the debate, to move forward and prepare the world for the whole range of impacts could be coming. Besides, Mabey noted, those who have take an ideological position against climate change are not going to be convinced. (Really, isn’t it time we stopped paying attention to them and just got on with it?)

The defense establishment already gets it

While prospective Presidential candidates at the Conservative Political Action Committee (CPAC) conference across town competed to outdo one another in their zealous insistence that climate change is a hoax, Courtney C. St. John, Climate Change Affairs Officer, U.S. Navy Task Force Climate Change outlined the ways in which the Navy has already incorporating the reality of climate change and its effects into their planning and operations. Dr. Daniel Chu, Principal Director of Strategy, Office of the Secretary of Defense, referred to the 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR), which includes analyses of the threats posed by climate change. The QDR notes that climate change may act as an accelerant of instability and conflict, and will shape the operating environment role and missions that the Department of Defense will undertake. The Annual Threat Assessment given by the Director of National Intelligence to Congress states that the intelligence community expects climate change to have extensive implications for U.S. security over the next 20 years.

The flooding in Pakistan, which impacted more than 20 million people, was the the result of an unusual westward shift of the Asian monsoon. Climate and security experts fear disasters like this will become more common as the climate changes.

Risk management; as easy as ABC

The report recommends the “ABC Risk Management Framework” for addressing climate change:

  • Aim to mitigate to say below 2ºC;
  • Build and budget for resilience to 3-4ºC;
  • Contingency plan for capability to respond to 5ºC

The speakers emphasized that this framework can be tailored to fit each countries needs and goals. In fact, under this framework, a sustainable global response rests on nations assessing their own vulnerabilities to climate change, and developing clear goals that reflect their national interests. The Maldives, a small island nation just few meters above sea level might focus on sea level rise, while India could aim to reduce climate change’s impacts on the Asian monsoon. But while these goals differ, both reflect the need to mitigate and adapt to the impacts of climate change.

The Executive Summary as well as the full report are available for download here.

* As an example of the kind of vague but critical risk management questions that security experts pose all the time, one of the speakers asked “what threat will China pose in 2050?” A representative from the Chinese Embassy felt the need to respond to this comment: “China will not pose a threat to other countries. We will not invade other countries, kill or enslave other people.” Think we can hold them to that?


Mabey, N., J. Gulledge, B. Finel, and K. Silverthrone (2011). “Degrees of Risk: Defining a Risk Management Framework for Climate Security.” Third Generation Environmentalism (E3G). London, UK.

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