Unprecedented threat: the risks posed by climate change have been highlighted by recent wildfires across Europe. Image: Associated Press / Alamy
Climate change and international responses to its impacts are fundamentally altering the global security environment. But is the UK’s intelligence community – tasked with making sense of complex global developments – paying enough attention?
Climate extremes are amplifying risks to many countries’ national security interests. In July, much of the northern hemisphere was affected by unprecedented heat, causing widespread social and economic disruptions, and threatening food security. In China, nearly a million people were relocated after record amounts of rain fell in the country’s Hebei province. Militaries were called on to respond to climate hazards in at least 16 countries, diverting time and resources away from more traditional defence activities.
Despite growing climate pressures, the UK government’s response to climate change has often been criticised for being lax compared to other national security risks. It is therefore encouraging that climate-related risks received attention within recent security publications – including the Ministry of Defence’s latest Defence Command Paper and 2023 edition of the National Risk Register. Yet these reports are noticeably silent on some of the more complex risks relating to climate change which will very likely require a national security response in the coming years.
An Incomplete Risk Picture
The Defence Command Paper, released on 18 July, characterises climate change as a complex security challenge. And it rightly acknowledges that understanding and adapting to the impact of a changing climate are key to maintaining strategic advantage. Failure to do so, the paper suggests, risks fuelling increased migration, the rise of terrorism and conflict over resources.
Similarly, the updated National Risk Register, published on 3 August, warns that disruptions to critical infrastructure posed by natural hazards – such as flooding, heatwaves and wildfires – will increase. As will the potential for climate-induced humanitarian crises overseas. The National Risk Register identifies that climate change, as a chronic risk, will make these and other acute risks to national security more likely and serious.
But little attempt is made to examine the interconnectivity and interdependencies between the environmental and wider risks identified or to imagine the impact that would result should one or more risk occur concurrently. Moreover, there appears to be a disconnect between the UK government’s security risk assessments and strategy, and the latest science on the consequences of climate change.
Climate Tipping Points
More climate scientists are warning about the growing likelihood and ramifications of abrupt and potentially irreversible changes in the global climate system – also known as tipping points.
The absence of references to tipping points or cascading climate risks within the government’s latest national security publications suggests it has a blind spot when it comes to climate change
One such tipping point that has garnered attention is the potential collapse of the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC), a significant ocean current that regulates the Earth’s climate. A recent study finds that the AMOC could collapse as soon as 2025 (within the timeframe of the government’s National Risk Register), due to increasing greenhouse gas emissions and rising temperatures.
This collapse would have severe cascading consequences. This includes potentially causing a 30% reduction in crop yields in the EU and weakening the Indian summer monsoon, leading to more frequent droughts with negative impacts for regional food production. The implications of such an event would almost certainly compound global food insecurity, increasing the potential for civil unrest and exacerbating conflict and instability risks.
Separate research suggests that multiple tipping points could be triggered at 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. This is much lower than was previously expected. It therefore feels very remiss that the national security establishment would not be considering the risks associated with tipping points, given that such risks are likely to have highly consequential implications for global security and stability.
The Intelligence Community’s Climate Blind Spot
The absence of references to tipping points or cascading climate risks within the government’s latest national security publications suggests it has a blind spot when it comes to climate change. And, perhaps, that there is a lack of timely intelligence assessments being produced within government on these topics.
It may be that warnings issued by the intelligence community are simply being lost amid the noise of other intelligence assessments, the volume of which has reportedly doubled following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Or attempts by intelligence teams to reach consensus on thorny climate-related risks might have crowded out less traditional perspectives on how and when such risks may manifest. Maybe intelligence coverage of tipping points simply sits behind the national security paywall, only visible to those with the required clearances.
The reality is probably a combination of all the above. But there is a chance that the intelligence community – responsible for providing authoritative assessments on threats to UK interests – simply hasn’t been paying enough attention to climate change. And that it lacks the capacity for systems thinking that is required to properly assess the second- and third-order security impacts.
Decision Advantage in a Climate-Changed World
To provide policymakers with decision-making advantage, the intelligence community will increasingly need to consider how climate change interacts with and shapes security and geopolitical risks. And plausible worst-case scenarios on topics such as tipping points will need to be considered and thought through within the context of wider national security issues. Intelligence leaders have an opportunity to get ahead of this challenge by driving transformational change in four areas.
Those involved in analysing intelligence must consider whether traditional methods for assessing threats are still appropriate for considering complex systemic risks such as climate tipping points
First, building literacy and upgrading capabilities so those responsible for producing national security assessments have a common and more nuanced understanding of the intersection between climate change, security and geopolitical risks. This should involve including climate security curricula within mandatory analyst training programmes and integrating more climate and data science expertise into the UK’s numerous intelligence assessment staffs. The Professional Head of Intelligence Assessment, responsible for maintaining professional standards within the intelligence community, is well-placed to lead this effort.
Second, prioritising the production of routine climate threat intelligence assessments and ensuring that climate considerations underpin assessments on a broader range of national security topics. To help build capacity to deliver timely, actionable and policy-relevant insights, the UK national security establishment should consider funding a climate security accelerator. Housed within a leading think tank or non-governmental intelligence organisation, an accelerator programme could support national security decision-making by delivering assessments, undertaking scenario analysis and designing decision support-tools to enhance responses to climate-related security risks.
Third, incorporating climate considerations into the intelligence cycle in a more structured way. This will involve thinking about the implications of climate change for intelligence collection capabilities and the different types of information that may need to be acquired in the future to help build a more complete risk picture. Those involved in analysing intelligence must also consider whether traditional methods for assessing threats are still appropriate for considering complex systemic risks such as climate tipping points, and develop new analytical approaches, should current ones be found insufficient.
Finally, enhancing UK intelligence diplomacy efforts by working alongside likeminded allies and partner countries to develop joint horizon scanning initiatives. The US is an obvious partner of choice, as it has identified expanding capabilities and expertise on climate change as a goal within its 2023 National Intelligence Strategy issued on 9 August, including building the capacity to model and forecast potential cascading effects. Canada, which in July this year established a NATO centre of excellence for climate change and security, is also increasingly prioritising this issue.
There is a possibility that the UK’s intelligence community is behind the curb in its estimation of climate-related security risks. While it’s not alone, regaining the initiative on climate change must become a priority. Otherwise, intelligence teams risk falling short of delivering on their core mission to tell decision-makers what they need to know, even if they don’t want to hear it. Delivering this approach requires a senior champion within the community to drive change and be accountable as the climate crisis intensifies.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.
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