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Thinking strategically about the future climate

Commentary, 12 January 2011
Global Security Issues, UK Defence, Europe
Last February, RUSI analysts suggested that Whitehall needed to conduct a nationwide review of the implications of climate change for national security. Almost one year later, is the government considering climate change anything other than a peripheral factor?

Last February, RUSI analysts suggested that Whitehall needed to conduct a nationwide review of the implications of climate change for national security. Almost one year later, is the government considering climate change anything other than a peripheral factor?

By Duncan Depledge

climate change cars large

The publication of the Strategic Defence and Security Review and the Coalition's first National Security Strategy provided ample opportunity for the government to deliberate on the strategic implications of climate change for the UK.  Yet while claims that we continue to live in a post-Cold War 'age of uncertainty' lay at the heart of both documents, on  closer reading there is very little to suggest that uncertainty about climate change was a concern for those who conducted the review. Despite a significant amount of intellectual debate, the wording of these documents remains remarkably close to that of the UK's first National Security Strategy, published over two years ago.

Whilst this lack of attention to climate change is unacceptable, it is - to some extent - understandable given the more 'visible' threats of terrorism, cyber-attacks and the ongoing war in Afghanistan. Nevertheless, the marginalisation of environmental factors stands in stark contrast to the tone of a speech delivered by William Hague just prior to the publication of the SDSR. The Foreign Secretary stated that 'climate change is among the biggest foreign policy challenges we face over the next century as it underpins our security and prosperity'. [1]

Hard Times for Soft Power

The SDSR was a missed opportunity to review the UK's place in the world. A key theme to emerge from the fallout surrounding the Review is that much greater emphasis is to be placed on strategic thinking in the UK over the coming years.  This was encapsulated in the Public Administration Committee's recent warning that 'a lack of strategic thinking at the heart of government threatens the UK's national interests' and raises 'serious concerns' about Whitehall's capacity to provide the strategic analysis and assessment needed to support the Foreign Secretary's mission of extending the UK's 'global reach and influence'. [2]

We can hence expect to see the government addressing how, as a country, we can improve strategic thinking. This will most likely encourage a rethinking of how we educate our leaders and the wider policy community, and of the types of structures and institutions that will be required to support such efforts. As part of this education, due consideration will need to be given to the many different dimensions of strategy that will be pertinent in the coming century, and the climate change dimension cannot be divorced from this process.

While there is still a need for highly granulated forms of climate change knowledge, what we do know is that the process will have implications for the way security is managed in many parts of the world where the UK has significant economic and strategic interests. We must therefore reflect on what any detrimental developments in these areas will mean for the way in which the UK secures its interests in the twenty-first century. We have already seen the devastating impact of the global economic meltdown on the UK and its ability to manage its debt, not to mention the repercussions throughout the rest of the EU. The defence sector has been adversely affected, as has the UK's ability to project 'soft power' through diplomatic missions, development programmes and aid. The 2006 Stern Review showed how economic crises on a similar, if not larger, scale are not hard to envisage as the world is forced to come to terms with new environmental conditions. [3]

The RUSI Response

Over the past three years RUSI has contributed significant research to the debate about the implications of climate change for national and international security. This has included regional security impact studies in China and Mesoamerica, as well as research looking at the implications of climate change for global governance and overseas infrastructure on which the UK depends. But while this field has shed light on the many ways in which climate change could affect security considerations in different parts of the world, it has yet to provide the relevant policy community with concrete information about what should be done in response.  

Next week, RUSI is holding a closed roundtable co-convened by the Centre for American Progress, ahead of plans to host a conference in spring 2011 that will aim to move from problem definition to practical solutions.  We need to start thinking about what must be done if the climate change dimension is to be incorporated into a more holistic approach to strategic thinking in government. This needs to be carried out in a way that offers tangible benefits to the UK as it looks to secure its interests in a world coming to terms with an increasingly uncertain climate.



[1] William Hague, 2010. The Diplomacy of Climate Change. Speech delivered to the Council on Foreign Relations, New York, 27 September.

[2] House of Commons Public Administration Select Committee, 2010. Who does UK National Strategy? First report of Session 2010-11.

[3] Nicholas Stern, 2006. The Economics of Climate Change.


Duncan Depledge
Associate Fellow

Duncan Depledge is an Associate Fellow of RUSI, where previously worked on the Climate Change and Security Programme. In this role, he... read more

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