Oliver Scanlan

30 August 2017

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Executive Summary

The argument that a changing climate poses a threat to national and global security is not new. Following a flurry of activity and research on the issue in 2007 – 2009, however, interest has waned. Although climate change is referenced repeatedly in the United Kingdom’s (UK) National Security Strategy (NSS) and Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR), there is insufficient detail addressing the full range of security implications of a changing climate for stated Government strategic objectives. Generally, discussions of “climate security” tend to focus on its role as a “risk multiplier” in strategically important regions abroad and/or its physical effects on military infrastructure and tasking implications.

A more comprehensive treatment would include:

  1. The direct physical threat to the UK mainland and Overseas Territories:
    • Excess deaths and productivity losses from heatwaves;

    • Vulnerability to flooding and extreme weather events;

    • Drought and water deficits;

    • Risks to farmland and fisheries;

    • New pests and diseases.

  1. The indirect threat to the UK mainland and Overseas Territories:
    • Risks of food price spikes from a fragile global agricultural system;

    • Similar vulnerabilities in trade and energy supply chains;

    • Physical threat to overseas assets and UK international investment in general;

    • Increasing costs to the UK insurance industry;

    • Challenges to the insurance industry’s ability to effectively manage risk in general.

  1. New and multiplying risks in strategically important regions of the world:
    • The “risk multiplier” effect of a changing climate on conflict is now supported by an emerging scientific consensus;

    • This risk is compounded by second order issues based on existing adaptation and mitigation policies, e.g. REDD and large-scale land purchases in Global South;

    • It is further complicated by the increasing mobility of people, both in response to a changing climate and adaptation and mitigation policies;

    • Risks of increasing inter-state conflict, not necessarily violent stemming from climatic changes, e.g. The Arctic and river management in South and East Asia.

  1. An existential challenge to the global nuclear non-proliferation regime:
    • A nuclear renaissance is currently underway as Global South countries seek emission-free energy security;

    • The scale is vast, promising the spread of nuclear expertise, material and infrastructure across dozens of different regulatory regimes that poses severe challenges to nuclear material tracking, verification, monitoring and safety standards;

    • The acquisition of civilian nuclear programmes for avowedly peaceful purposes will introduce further diplomatic and strategic tensions into the international system.

  1. A major challenge to security priorities, planning and capabilities:
    • Increasing requirements for UK forces:

      • humanitarian and disaster relief operations at home and abroad;

      • evacuation of UK citizens in response to natural disasters and political instability;

      • peacekeeping operations in regions facing increasing instability and, potentially, “environmental enforcement”;

    • Direct physical threat to strategic defence assets from extreme weather events and sea level rise.

  1. A significant challenge to UK allies and alliances, and the ‘rules-based international order’:
    • Direct and indirect impacts of a changing climate, and mitigation and adaptation strategies will be felt by every country in the international system

    • Cleavages during climate negotiations between Global North and South are replicated in institutions such as the UN Security Council, G20 and the Commonwealth

    • As impacts increase in severity, the rules-based international order will face increasing strain, possibly to breaking point

    • UK obligations to allies in responding to severe climate-induced impacts are unclear;

    • Potential for emergence of “climate coercion” and “eco-terrorism”.


With these threats, risks and challenges in mind, there is an urgent requirement that:

  1. A rigorous and comprehensive risk management exercise is undertaken across the UK Foreign Policy, International Development, Defence and Security architecture that responds adequately to them;

  2. The results of this exercise inform the creation of a properly funded strategy to address these risks as an integral part of the National Security Strategy and Strategic Defence and Security Review process.


Image (cropped) credit: Nic Taylor/Flickr

About the Author

Oliver Scanlan is the Senior Programme Officer on the Sustainable Security programme at Oxford Research Group (ORG). He has worked in research and advocacy roles in the international development sector for the last ten years, specialising in forestry, land rights and marginalisation issues.

Copyright Oxford Research Group 2017.

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