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UK Floods: Is it Time to Reconsider Environmental Security?

Commentary, 19 February 2014
Resilience, UK Defence
As parts of the UK still come to terms with flooding, Opposition Leader Ed Miliband has described climate change as an issue of national security. It is time to take environmental security seriously once again?

As parts of the UK still come to terms with flooding, Opposition Leader Ed Miliband has described climate change as an issue of national security. It is time to take environmental security seriously once again?

 Gurkha Relief Photo courtesy of MoD 2014

Ministers and climate scientists have been breaking cover as the defences erected by climate change deniers are washed away by the public’s response to the catastrophic flooding that has destroyed lives, homes, businesses and infrastructure across Britain. While the Prime Minister David Cameron has expressed his ‘suspicion’ that climate change might have been responsible for the extent of the flooding, Defence Secretary Philip Hammond insists climate change is ‘clearly a factor’. However, it is the Opposition Leader and former Environment Secretary, Ed Miliband who has made the boldest statement so far, by declaring at the end of last week that ‘climate change is an issue of national security’.

We’ve Been Here Before

In recent years, the public debate about climate change has been dominated by a weakening of public confidence in climate scientists. However, it was only a decade ago that a very different view of climate change was emerging in Britain.

In 2004, the UK government’s chief scientific adviser, Sir David King, described climate change as a ‘bigger threat’ to the world than terrorism. Two years later, the economist Lord Nicholas Stern argued that although climate change might prove to have a positive effect on economies in some parts of the world, the overall global trend would be negative to the extent that over the long-term, the costs of climate change would come to outweigh the benefits.

UK government Ministers – and indeed senior officers in the Armed Forces – at the time took these warnings seriously. In 2007, the then-Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett visited RUSI to make ‘The Case for Climate Security’, warning that ‘climate change can act as a threat multiplier for instability in some of the most volatile regions in the world’.[i] In 2008, the UK was the first country in the world to legislate on national climate change policy with the Climate Change Act. It was also under the UK’s chairmanship in 2007 that the security implications of climate change were debated for the first time by the United Nations Security Council.

However, the collapse of the UN climate change talks in Copenhagen in 2009 was a disaster for international efforts to establish binding national targets for climate change mitigation. The global financial crisis also had a significant impact as nations around the world responded by prioritising short-term national economic agendas over longer term investment in ‘green’ technologies for mitigating and adapting to climate change. Meanwhile, sustained attacks by climate change deniers in the media weakened public confidence in climate scientists.

What’s New?

International negotiations on climate change are slowly making progress. The last couple of years have seen slight yet potentially important shifts in the US and Chinese positions on climate change (although the EU is now starting to lag). As the world recovers from the global recession, space is opening up for governments to start taking a longer term strategic outlook on national economic policy. However, as the UK government along with other G8 nations has recognised, security and prosperity are closely entwined and it is for this reason that the security implications of not just climate change, but environmental change more broadly, need to be taken seriously.[ii]

Around the world, changes in the environment are already having implications for national and international security. It was after all the military which was sent to support relief operations in the Philippines after it was struck by Typhoon Haiyan (the strongest typhoon ever recorded hitting land) and to visibly fill sandbags and help stricken communities as the Government sought to demonstrate it had a grip on the flooding back here in the UK.

 More insidiously, there is strong evidence to suggest that the record-breaking droughts that struck China, Australia, Russia and Ukraine in 2010 were part of forces that together triggered the spike in global food prices which inflamed existing grievances that led to the so-called Arab Spring. As we know, this has since been followed by international interventions and years of civil war that in turn have fed our own national security fears about stockpiles of chemical weapons and links between returning overseas fighters and terrorism.

Environmental Security 2.0?

It often takes a crisis for both government and the wider public to take an issue seriously. It remains to be seen whether the devastation caused by recent flooding in the UK marks the beginning of a renewed interest in the national security implications of climate/environmental change. But if there is to be a renewed discussion of environmental security – an agenda we might term Environmental Security 2.0 –then the following points should be borne in mind:

  • Environmental change is not a cause of conflict but a threat multiplier. It has the potential to inflame existing grievances and create new ones, but is unlikely to do so in isolation from other political, social and economic factors.
  • Environmental Security is about both human security and national security. It should be a requirement to protect lives, homes and businesses as much as it about protecting the integrity of the nation-state.
  • Environmental Security should not necessarily be about preserving the status quo. Environmental Security should be found at the interface of policy and environmental change. Some environmental change is inevitable but it is how we respond to this change that is most likely to impact national and international security.

The UK government once led the debate on climate change and national security both domestically and internationally, but it is tragic that this should only be remembered now that parts of the country face months if not years of clear-up and repair operations (the economic impacts of which may yet be felt in further cuts to departmental budgets). Nevertheless, a decade on from the emergence of a ‘climate security’ discourse in this country, perhaps now is an opportune moment to reflect on past debates about environmental security and to take the discussion forward with renewed intent.

[1] This quote is actually attributed by Margaret Beckett to a report titled ‘National Security and the Threat of Climate Change’ prepared by the US Think-Tank CNA’s Military Advisory Board comprised of retired generals and admirals.

[2] At a discussion on flood risk held at RUSI on 14 February, the greatest threat from the current UK flooding identified was the risk that the economic damage caused will slow down the UK’s economic recovery which, in turn, will undermine confidence in the UK government and create societal tensions.

See also



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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