Mission critical: the need for intelligence assessments on the likely implications of climate change is becoming increasingly urgent. Image: yupachingping / Adobe Stock
More than a third of states now acknowledge that climate change poses a significant and growing challenge to global stability. Staying ahead of the myriad climate-related security risks, however, demands strong leadership guided by actionable intelligence and an enhanced focus on strategic early warning.
The COP28 UN climate change conference in Dubai may have missed an opportunity to prevent the world’s average temperature from rising 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels. But it should be remembered as the summit that placed climate security — a policy area concerned with overcoming the risks to peace and stability posed by the climate crisis — firmly on the international policy agenda.
Over 100 climate security-related events were held during the conference, which took place between 30 November and 13 December 2023. Most predominantly focused on the human security consequences of climate change, including how climate change impacts – such as flooding, drought and extreme heat – can contribute to displacement and exacerbate food, water and livelihood insecurity.
Perhaps the highest-profile of these events was a panel discussion on 1 December featuring US special climate envoy John Kerry and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg. During the discussion, both characterised climate change as a ‘threat multiplier’ — a term used widely within national security circles (including within NATO’s 2022 Strategic Concept) to describe the compounding effects that climate change can have on conflicts and instability risks.
On 3 December, a day dedicated to discussing ‘climate, relief, recovery and peace’ followed. It was here that 74 states and 43 organisations endorsed a landmark declaration calling for bolder action to build climate resilience in conflict-affected countries. In doing so, conference attendees promised to share more analysis and information on climate-related risks, incorporate conflict-sensitive approaches into climate adaptation programming in fragile settings, and scale up climate finance for those living on the frontline of the climate crisis.
Strong UK Leadership on Climate Security
For its part, the UK government showed strong leadership by convening a high-level dialogue on building partnerships to better understand and respond to climate change’s cascading security impacts. Panellists discussed the knock-on effects of climate-related insecurity in Iraq and Mali, and considered the challenges faced by the EU, NATO and the UN in responding to such complex risks. The session delivered a clear message: grappling with these challenges requires a step up in analytical and foresight capabilities, which must be mainstreamed into policymaking.
The UK’s position on this issue is likely the culmination of more frequent and senior-level policy discussions and engagement across Whitehall in recent years on how best to stay ahead of climate change’s geopolitical and security consequences. And it is plausible that calls by senior UK government officials for a stronger analytical offering on climate security foreshadow a more substantive policy announcement in the coming months. That the event saw senior representatives from three government departments – the Cabinet Office; the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office; and the Ministry of Defence – share a stage also appears indicative of efforts to adopt a whole-of-government response to managing the climate crisis’ security implications and preventing worst-case scenarios from coming to pass.
A Welcome Shift
Bolstering the UK’s ability to produce more routine national security assessments on climate-related risks would be a much-welcomed shift in approach. According to NASA, climate change may cause global maize crop yields to decline by 24% as early as 2030. By the middle of this century, the World Bank expects that climate change will be responsible for internally displacing some 216 million people. And by 2060, the International Monetary Fund estimates that conflict deaths as a share of the population in fragile states could increase by up to 8.5% due to the compounding impacts of climate shocks.
With 2023 the world’s warmest year on record, the need for a climate security intelligence assessment staff now appears more urgent than ever
Climate experts are also warning that the scale and speed with which such risks arise would be accelerated if tipping points within the global climate system are breached, as explored in a previous RUSI Commentary. A new study suggests that five major tipping points are already at risk of being crossed due to current levels of global warming, and three more are likely to be threatened in the 2030s.
All these risks have profound knock-on effects for global stability, and will almost certainly threaten the UK’s national security. Enhancing the capacity of the UK’s intelligence and assessment community to anticipate and make sense of such risks is therefore no longer just a nice-to-have: it is mission critical.
Building an Intelligence-Led Approach to Climate Security
Experts have been advising the UK government to grow its in-house analytic bench strength on climate security for several years. One proposal that has received the endorsement of the President of COP26, Sir Alok Sharma MP, is to establish an independent centre for climate security modelled on the UK’s Joint Terrorism Analysis Centre, which advises on threats from terrorism. The role of a centre, it has been suggested, would be to provide the government with horizon-scanning capabilities, including identifying which countries, regions or issues posed the most consequential threats to the UK’s security interests.
With 2023 the world’s warmest year on record and 2024 expected to bring more record-breaking temperatures, the need for a climate security intelligence assessment staff now appears more urgent than ever. But understanding and responding to climate insecurity must be about more than simply forewarning on which countries are most at risk of climate-related instability.
The central remit of an enhanced analysis and foresight capability should be to produce timely, relevant and actionable all-source intelligence assessments on a diverse set of climate security-related topics. This includes providing early warning about novel risks not yet on senior decision-makers’ radars and empowering them to be more climate-informed when making hard security choices.
In achieving this, intelligence practitioners should not only think about climate change as a multiplier of existing threats or as a propellant of human security challenges. They must also consider issues on the sharper end of climate security which – despite featuring less prominently at COP28 – are very likely to create national security dilemmas over the next few years.
Intelligence assessments on the likely implications of climate change for cyber defences, energy systems and ecosystems are likely to become increasingly valuable
At the strategic level, this should involve prioritising efforts to understand how climate pressures are likely to impact security alliances and influence the behaviours of the UK’s allies and adversaries. Such assessments would help policymakers to ensure that their strategies are globally attuned and better able to withstand intensifying geopolitical competition.
For policymakers working to build resilience at the operational level, intelligence assessments on the likely implications of climate change for cyber defences, energy systems and ecosystems, for example, are likely to become increasingly valuable. So too are scenarios and early warning indicators on potential climate-related risks to effective deterrence and defence – including nuclear safety and security – or to unfettered access to and secure use of space.
The unintended security consequences of specific climate change adaptation and mitigation activities – such as increased land disputes and criminality caused by carbon-offset projects – similarly demand more attention. This would help both to inform future decisions about climate responses and to avoid maladaptation.
Bridging the Gap Between Early Warning and Early Action
To help ensure that climate security intelligence assessments on such topics are integrated into policymaking, the government should consider creating a National Climate Security Adviser to serve as the senior responsible owner for this issue. The postholder would be responsible for tasking the production of intelligence assessments and ensuring that the generated insights reached the inbox of the National Security Adviser and were tabled and discussed at relevant National Security Council and Cabinet meetings.
It seems clear that the security implications of climate change are now firmly on the UK’s national security agenda. But talking a good talk on climate security at COP28 is one thing; putting words into action will require commitment and unwavering leadership.
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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