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The Security Implications of Climate Change

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by Justin Mundy

Today, the United Nations Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon, will chair a meeting on Climate Change. He does so because he hopes that such a gathering of Heads of Government will galvanise the chances of agreement being reached in December in Copenhagen at COP15.

It seems that he is aware, as are many others, that the threat of climate change is very real and that, as scientists now believe we have less than ninety five months left to avert the risk of its catastrophic consequences, we need to act and act very fast.

What perhaps is less understood is that COP15 is not only about providing a solution to climate change, it is also, in a very real sense, a meeting the deliberations of which will have substantial security, economic and trade implications. This is because climate change may provide the trigger to send the planet’s severely undermined ecosystems into a state of terminal decline. Many people forget that the planet is in pretty poor shape even without potentially increasing the temperature by 4 degrees Celsius by the end of the century.

For unfortunately, we are, more or less, consuming the planet.

In the last fifty years we have managed to erode a third of the world’s farmable soil and despite ever increasing amounts of fertiliser, productivity per acre is reducing at a time when the demand for food is growing exponentially.

This is not helped by the fact that fresh water is becoming scarcer and many of the world’s major rivers — the Rio Grande, the Colorado, the Indus, Nile and the Murray Darling — struggle to reach the sea. Currently, more than 80 countries (40 percent of the world’s population) suffer from severe water shortages and the water from the Tibetan plateau, which goes to eleven countries (50% of the world’s population) is already being contested by several countries — nothing of course to what will happen in 2030, which is when the Tibetan Ice Shield will have melted.

The sea doesn’t offer much comfort either, as over 75 percent of the world’s major fisheries are over exploited and it is estimated that global fisheries risk complete collapse by 2050. On top of this, as Homo sapiens has now accelerated by 100 times (for some species 1,000 times) the natural extinction rate, we are entering what some scientists call the ‘sixth great extinction event’. (The fifth was the disappearance of the dinosaurs sixty five million year’s ago).

Not good, and one can see why in these circumstances, even the modest impacts of climate change can be described by the retired Admirals and Generals, authors of the Centre for Naval Analysis’s report on National Security and Climate Change ‘as a threat multiplier for instability and presents significant national security challenges for the United States’.

And all of this before the really worrying problem is taken into account.

We have in the last fifty years managed to reduce the world’s rainforests by a third and continue to do so at the rate of a Central Park every thirty minutes. And, as the trees fall, we irretrievably lose species of plants and animals that may well prove essential to our survival. Hugging the equator, these rainforests are literally the planet’s lifebelt. The Amazonian forests alone release twenty billion tonnes of water vapor into the air each day. This keeps the climate cool and makes rain that falls over vast areas of farmland. The trees also store colossal amounts of carbon, so their destruction releases yet more CO2 into the atmosphere — more than the entire global transport sector. So we depend upon them for our water, our food and the stability of our climate. For as the Prince’s Rainforest Project has been explaining, they are not being cut down by ‘bad people’, but rather by individuals, communities and companies who are responding perfectly rationally to a price signal that we are sending as we buy soya, beef, palm oil and timber. We have to make the forests worth more alive than dead.

These threatened ecosystems are a central element in the Earth’s life-support system and yet we ignore the fact that without them we cannot survive.

There is no solution to the problem of climate change without first finding a solution to the destruction of the world’s tropical forests and upon that rest our hopes for a secure future.

For herein lies the rub. Climate security, energy security, food security and water security are now all inextricably linked. There is no long term and stable security outcome that is viable unless all four challenges are met, understood and resolved. There is no economic resilience unless underpinned by ecosystem resilience. We are living in an age where the idea of the Nation State is changing, where the threat of failed states with access to very serious military hardware is no idle threat and where globalization can often be the strange handmaiden to a desperate fundamentalism born out of profound economic marginalization. In our interconnected world, there is no ‘them’ and ‘us’, only the singularity of ‘us’. As the American biologist E.O. Wilson once said, ‘It is not true that only one end of a boat can sink.’

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