Road to Copenhagen, Part 2: Risky Business

The evidence is irrefutable: Climate change poses enormous risks toeconomic stability, public health, ecosystem services, and nationalsecurity, as well as to the environment.

How should we manage those risks? The first step is to acknowledgethem. The second is to start listening to the experts who manage risksfor a living.

Over the past two months, I’ve attended several meetings of militaryand civilian experts in security, intelligence and risk assessment.They were unanimous in concluding that

  1. The risks of climate change are growing rapidly;
  2. Those risks are routinely underestimated by policy makers; and
  3. Little is being done to plan for contingencies, even in thoseregions of the world likely to suffer the most and even though the suffering already has begun.

One meeting of security and risk experts was organized by NickMabey, a former advisor to Prime Minister Tony Blair and now the leaderof E3G, a nonprofit organization based in Europe to promote sustainabledevelopment. Our mission was to explore how the science of riskassessment and management should be applied to climate change. In a Whitehall Paper written last year, Mabey explained:

Climate change will be one of the critical forcesshaping the coming century…  It will fundamentally alter the way welive, the risks we face and how we interact in an increasinglyinterdependent world.

While scientists and environmentalists have been sounding warningsfor years, an open discussion of the security risks of climate changestarted only a couple of years ago. In November 2007, the Center forStrategic and International Security and the Center for a New AmericanSecurity issued “The Age of Consequences”; in June 2008, a blue-ribbon panelof high-level former military leaders, convened by the Center for NavalAnalysis, concluded that global warming is a “threat multiplier” thatwill destabilize some of the world’s most volatile regions.

That finding was confirmed a year later by the National IntelligenceCouncil in its first-ever assessment of climate change. It wasconfirmed again recently by the CIA’s creation of a new Center on Climate Change and National Securityto centralize its expertise on “the effect environmental factors canhave on political, economic, and social stability overseas.”

On Oct. 28, retired U.S. military officerswarned the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee about therisks that climate change and fossil energy pose to national security. “Our economic, energy and climate change challenges are allinextricably linked,” retired Vice Adm. Dennis McGinn testified. “If wedon’t address these challenges in a bold way and timely way, fragilegovernments have great potential to become failed states ….a virilebreathing ground for extremism.”

A day later in Washington, D.C., the same message was delivered in a joint statement issued by active and retired military leaders from Africa, Asia, Europe, Latin American and the United States.In addition to calling on all governments to work for an “ambitious andequitable” international agreement at Copenhagen, the officers urgedgovernments to make sure the security implications of climate changeare integrated into their military strategies.

Mabey notes that climate risks – including drought and famine, lossof fisheries, coastal inundation, invasive migrations of climaterefugees, natural disasters and water shortages – could go two ways.They could motivate nations to collaborate more on conflict prevention,contingency planning, economic development and disaster prevention andresponse; or, they could cause more tensions within and between countries, leading to conflict.

An example of collaboration are the Oslo Guidelines on the use of the military and civil defense agencies in disaster relief operations. An example of tension is the fenceIndia has built along its 2,500 miles border with Bangladesh, in partto keep out illegal immigrants – a problem that may reach crisisproportions as residents of Bangladesh flee extreme weather, floodingand sea-level rise. As many as 30 million residents of Bangladesh couldbecome “climate refugees” by mid-century, forced from their homes bysea-level rise, according to one government official there.

Public officials tend to be risk-averse in matters with potentialpolitical consequences; now they must become risk-savvy. Here are 10ideas on how to make that happen:

  1. Policy-makers must listen to risk professionals and acknowledge therapidly increasing dangers of climate change.  Nearly all of uspractice some risk management in our lives. That’s why we buy healthinsurance, liability insurance, homeowner’s insurance, long-term careinsurance and vehicle insurance.  Risk management is no less importantin regard to global warming.
  2. Elected officials must listen to the climate science community. Atthe same time, scientists must clearly communicate the upper end ofplausible climate risks rather than middle-ground risks. Politiciansand policy makers tend to flock to the middle of the risk spectrum – akind of Goldilocks and the Three Bears tendency where we want risksthat are not too hot and not too cold. Good risk management requiresthat we anticipate and prepare for the worst.
  3. Climate scientists should interact regularly with risk, security,public health, and disaster prevention and response agencies to helpthem anticipate and cope with emerging climate impacts.
  4. To minimize climate risks, national leaders must find an effectivebalance between sovereignty and international collaboration.  Existinginternational institutions probably will prove inadequate to deal withthe unprecedented demands of climate change; new internationalinstitutions and mechanisms will be needed.
  5. Public officials and citizens alike must invest in prevention – inother words, mitigation of greenhouse gas emissions to reduce thedanger of climate change, and adaptation measures that reduce theintensity of climate crises. We should not wait for the crises toarrive, any more than we can wait to buy auto insurance until we’re inthe middle of a head-on collision.
  6. Nations should begin serious contingency planning now, internallyand with other countries in their regions. Some of the most severeclimate change will involve nations where historic tensions alreadyexist. India and Pakistan, or India and Bangladesh come to mind. Thetime to plan is now, in hopes the overriding threat of climate changewill be the external enemy that draws old adversaries together.
  7. Local officials should build risk assessment and management intoinfrastructure and climate adaptation projects. The World Bankestimates that 40 percent of development aid investment is at risk fromclimate change. To avoid carbon lock-in (i.e., actions that lock us into greenhouse gas emissions for decades), we must stop buildingconventional coal plants and making other long-term carbon commitments.But we must also avoid “vulnerability lock-in”. The criticalinfrastructure we build today – ranging from power and water treatmentplants to hospitals and vital transportation systems – should bedesigned for resilience and located to avoid floods, sea level rise andother impacts of climate change.
  8. The Executive Branch and Congress should regularly review climaterisks to determine whether federal agencies have the authority andresources they need to respond rapidly to emerging worst-casescenarios. An even more interesting issue is whether the ExecutiveBranch has sufficient power to preventclimate emergencies without Congressional interference – for example,by redefining 100-year floodplains based on anticipated future floodingrather than past flooding, and restricting development within predictedflood zones.
  9. Governments must put adequate resources into research that improvesour understanding of how climate change will affect us at the regionaland local levels. Research should include “perfect storm” events wheremultiple impacts and stresses occur simultaneously.
  10. Governments should classify climate change as a national securityissue in budgeting as well as planning. According to the Institute forPolicy Studies, the Bush administration allocated $88 to militaryforces in 2008 for every dollar it earmarked for climate stabilization.President Obama’s stimulus package and first budget narrowed thesecurity-climate gap to 9:1 – a dramatic improvement, but still not anadequate reflection that low-carbon technologies and resources havebecome critical tools of conflict prevention, global stability andnational defense.

We are rapidly approaching a time when the nations most threatenedby climate change will regard coal-burning as an act of aggression andwhen nations will conflict over who gets dwindling supplies of finiteresources. That makes solar collectors and wind turbines as important as conventional weapons in our national defense arsenal.

As I’ve written before, our biggest risk is that we’ll fail to closethe gap between what scientists tell us is necessary and whatpoliticians believe is possible.  We won’t be able to narrow that gapuntil elected officials worldwide accept that the security risk offailing to act on climate change is far greater than the politicalrisks of  bold preventive action.

– Bill Becker

Suffering begun: world/ international/ displaystory.cfm?story_id=14447171

Climate Solutions 2: fileadmin/ fm-wwf/ pdf_neu/ climate_solutions_2___executive_summary.pdf

Mabey paper: publication/ whitehall/ ref:I480E2C638B3BC/

CIA climate office: news-information/ press-releases-statements/ center-on-climate-change-and-national-security.html

Oslo guidelines on disaster response: rw/ lib.nsf/ db900sid/ AMMF-6VXJVG/ $file/ OCHA-Nov2006.pdf?openelement

IES statement:


Oslo guidelines:



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