Inaction on climate change is risky business

By William Becker

Like a family that has no homeowner’s insurance, no fire detectors, a gas leak in the basement and a bad case of denial, the global community remains unprepared for irreversible and potentially catastrophic changes to the Earth’ climate.

What’s needed – quickly – is an international risk management effort, a process that’s more familiar in military and national security circles than it is in environmental and scientific circles.

That process is described in “Degrees of Risk: Defining a Risk Management Framework for Climate Security” — a report just released by the London-based think tank Third Generation Environmentalism (E3G). The report’s recommendations are the result of consultations E3G held over the past two years with military and intelligence leaders in Europe, the United States and several developing countries. The bottom line:

Climate change is not currently well managed. Agreements at the most recent UN climate negotiations in Cancun in 2010 included a goal of limiting climate change to, at most, a 2oC average global temperature rise. However, the emissions reductions pledged by countries at the same conference would actually result in a 50 percent chance of global temperatures rising by 3-4oC.

The implications of current security analysis are clear: unless climate change is limited to levels where its impacts can be managed effectively, and unless successful adaptation programs are implemented, there will be major threats to national and international security.

Even in the most powerful countries, high levels of climate change would make open trade, travel, investments and progress against poverty “highly unlikely”, the report warns.

Other security and intelligence organizations in the United States, from the Center for Naval Analysis to the National Intelligence Council, have reached similar conclusions. So have security analyses published by NATO, the European Union, the United Kingdom, Germany and Australia. But E3G takes the discussion to a new level, asking:

If the security threat from climate change was analyzed as rigorously as nuclear proliferation, what would an appropriate risk management strategy to deliver climate security look like?

An early step is to deal with several barriers to effective risk management. The report’s authors – Nick Mabey, Jay Gulledge, Bernard Finel and Katherine Silverthorne – cite several:

  • Current security analyses usually are based on mid-range scenarios developed by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. They don’t reflect the most recent research and don’t cover the full range of future climate risks.
  • When policymakers and the public focus on global average temperatures, they fail to consider that climate impacts will vary widely across regions and latitudes.
  • Policy makers tend to consider worst-case scenarios for climate disruption to be low-probability events. That’s not necessary true, particularly if we push the climate to tipping points.
  • Climate models have underestimated the rate of several impacts – for example, the loss from the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets. One reason may be that some factors are not well understood and are not included in climate modeling.
  • There remains a widespread perception that climate change will happen gradually over a long period of time. In the recent geological past, however, climate change occurred abruptly at large scale.
  • There is a common perception that wealthy nations such as the United States are not as vulnerable to climate risks, so other problems have higher priority. But developed countries are just as susceptible as poor countries to stronger hurricanes, sea level rise, drought, heat waves, flash floods, blizzards and wildfires. Hurricane Katrina illustrated that even wealthy countries are vulnerable to disasters, particularly when they aren’t prepared.
  • Several countries that pledged to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions have given emission ranges rather than specific goals.  Without a comprehensive global climate agreement, those countries will most likely fall back to the low end of their pledges – a result that could push the global temperature increase nearer to 4oC.
  • We are still at an early stage in our analysis of our vulnerabilities due to climate change, in part because we lack sufficient data. However, we should assume that “all critical systems will be vulnerable without adaptive measures.”
  • Policy maker are “systematically underestimating” not only worse case climate change scenarios, but even likely scenarios.

The authors point out that uncertainty about climate science is often used as an excuse for inaction, but inaction does not reduce risk:

Indeed, it is hard to imagine an American politician trying to argue that counter-terrorism measures were unnecessary because the threat of attack from al Qaeda was uncertain. But precisely this argument is often used by opponents of action on climate change to argue against even small measures to mitigate the threat”¦We do not have the luxury of waiting for certainty, even it were scientifically possible. Every day we fail to act the risk becomes incrementally and irreversibly higher. Like the hands of a clock, the risks of climate change can only move forward.

The E3G report recommends that policy makers employ a “responsible risk management strategy” that reflects the current international consensus on warming, but remains flexible to keep pace with the latest science. It calls the strategy the “ABC Framework”:

  • Aim to mitigate to stay below 2oC
  • Build and budget for resilience to 3-4oC
  • Contingency plan for the capability to respond to 5-7oC

The authors say that now is the time to help fragile nations increase their stability, to plan for international responses to crises, and to develop the institutions and agreements necessary to manage climate risks. Among those risks is competition between nations for critical resources:

Climate change and growing resource scarcity will put great strain on international agreements to manage water, food trade, borders and other climate sensitive resources. These international agreements underpin the open global economy our prosperity depends on but there are clear trends showing major countries are hedging against the collapse of this order by securing bilateral access to vital strategic resources.

Nations must also work now on “crash mitigation programs” to reduce the danger and impact of catastrophic climate disruption, the report says. The lowest-risk strategy would be “rapid diffusion of non-nuclear clean energy technologies” facilitated by changes in government policy and new financing mechanisms:

Deployment of those technologies at a pace and scale needed to meet the emergency of extreme climate risks would require significant and costly immediate retirement of existing high carbon infrastructure at the same time. This will require direct government involvement in commissioning and constructing new low carbon energy capacity”¦

In its 179 pages, the E3G report offers scores of additional suggestions for assessing, mitigating and responding to climate risks. It also offers a specific methodology for risk management, too detailed to describe here.  But its bottom line is simple:

Current responses to climate change are failing to effectively manage climate security risks. There is a mismatch between analysis of the severity of climate security threats and the political, diplomatic, policy and financial effort being expended to avoid these risks.

So, what’s the risk if we don’t regard climate change as seriously as we regard, say, nuclear weapons proliferation? As the authors put it:

In the face of existential threats, countries do not wait for the political conditions to change in favour of an agreement to materially reduce risks, but construct pro-active strategies to change the range of the politically possible in order to advance their national interests.

Which is a very polite way of saying that unless all nations act together now, it will be every nation for itself.

William Becker is executive director of the Presidential Climate Action Project (PCAP) at Natural Capitalism Solutions in Boulder, Colorado.

E3G’s report here.   Nick Mabey, the chief executive of E3G, is a former senior advisor in the UK Prime Minister’s Strategy Unit. Dr. Jay Gulledge is the Senior Scientist and Director for Science and Impacts at the Pew Center on Global Climate Change. Bernard Finel is a Senior Fellow at the American Security Project. Katherine Silverthorne leads E3G’s Climate Security Program and is a long-time participant in international climate negotiations.

12 Responses to Inaction on climate change is risky business

  1. Prokaryotes says:

    The difference between a tobacco smoker who will develop cancer over time and climate change is, that we are about to kill switch the entire system.

    Check, the fastest emission jump in the entire history of the planet earth – unprecedented rise in emissions observed.
    We trigger natural carbon sinks, which will trigger the clathrate gun (methane hydrates bubble up from the ocean with temperature rise and the peat/permafrost).

    There is no time to waste – Act Now and create the 2nd Industrial Revolution in the process, this time clean and efficient or Die.

    Actually acting strong to combat climate change is a win win strategy.

  2. Hmmm – I think we can drop the future tense for risk projections – Moody’s Investor Services says “Current estimates of insured losses for the Australian floods are in the range of $4-$6 billion.”

  3. Chris Winter says:

    “Current estimates of insured losses for the Australian floods are in the range of $4-$6 billion.”

    Following that, the article notes that “Additionally, Cyclone Yasi, which struck the region on 2 February, may add an additional $1.5 billion of insured losses.” And then there’s Carlos, losses not as yet assessed.

    “The fierce urgency of now.”

    “For 2010 as a whole, Munich Re now estimates that total insured catastrophe losses approximated $37 billion, placing 2010 among the six most loss-intensive years since 1980. Despite the above-average catastrophe losses, most reinsurers have reported relatively solid 2010 net income results as favorable loss reserve development on prior years offset some of the losses.”

  4. Prokaryotes says:

    When assessing losses, let’s not forget about the Domino Effect, when crippled infrastructure, economic downers from increased fossil energy cost and reliance sent shock waves through the system. Eventually causing the entire civilization as we know it to fail – collapse. This is a possibility, and looking back in the history of fallen empires, the downfall always happens very fast.

    Denial – funded Skepticism about Science on general and climate science in particular are no longer acceptable, because of national Security implications of utmost importance.

    Chu said today that an US clean tech sector has a worldwide market. Let’s emphasize his remarks!

  5. Jeff Huggins says:

    Is Anyone Noticing (and Concerned About) This?

    There is much that I don’t read about climate change (can’t read it all), so it’s highly possible that people are talking about this (what follows) and I haven’t seen it, but …

    A great deal of the writing about the struggle for resources, political instability, and conflicts that will likely result from the impacts of climate change seems to describe the problems (the struggles, the political instabilities, the conflicts) AS IF people in all the countries involved will all forget how we got into the mess in the first place, who got us there, who pushed for a continuation of business-as-usual, who didn’t do anything to avert the problems before too late, and so forth. In other words, many of the analyses seem to set aside the questions of history and blame and the role that those vital elements will play in any upcoming struggles and conflicts.

    But of course, if and as these predicaments arise, and as these struggles and conflicts develop, people around the world (facing the struggles, and in the conflicts) will have their views about who was and is at fault. And those views will play major roles in the natures and aims and targets of those struggles and conflicts. When 9-11 happened, when Pearl Harbor happened, and etc. etc., the responses to those were responses against the terrorists or country responsible for them.

    The point is, these struggles and conflicts will not play themselves out as if everyone were equally responsible for climate change — and of course everyone ISN’T equally responsible. Instead, people involved in the struggles and conflicts will keep in mind who they think is responsible for the problems they suffer. And indeed, as we know from history (past and recent), people involved in the local struggles, including local politicians seeking stability or power, will not by shy about pointing out who is to blame, if doing so will help pull people to their own side, so to speak.

    So here is a situation that we shouldn’t forget as we talk about upcoming struggles over resources, political instabilities, wars and other conflicts: The U.S. has been the largest GHG emitter, by far, for most of history. I haven’t looked recently, but our per capita emissions are still the highest or at least very near the highest. The vast majority of scientists (including our own scientists in the U.S., of course) have been pointing out the problem for a long time. Leading ethicists, humanists, and etc., and many (not enough) of our own politicians, and many (not enough) of our own corporate leaders, and many others point out that, based on all sorts of compelling ethical reasoning and common sense, we DO have a responsibility to dramatically reduce emissions and to avoid imposing climate instability on the world. Read the great book ‘Moral Ground’. Read the great blog ‘Climate Ethics’. And so forth.

    What would you think of someone who robbed the only grocery store on an isolated island, clobbered the grocer and her clerks, took most of the groceries (leaving very few for the people of the island to try to live on), left fingerprints all over, posed for the security cameras, left his business card with address and phone number, and even appeared on the radio the day before explaining why it would be OK and right and fine for him to do so? Not only would such a person be unethical, unjust, criminal, and so forth, but you’d also have to call him plain stupid. If the people on that island have to struggle over the remaining groceries, and if many of them suffer from hunger, or starve to death, and if the island goes into a period of political instability, who do you think they’ll blame? Do you think that the unethical dummy who stole the groceries will have much of a future on the island or anywhere near it, or even anywhere else where some of the determined and frustrated islanders might be able to find him?

    Science (including our scientists) tells us that we have a problem and that the U.S. is a leading causer of the problem. Ethicists and decent thinkers (our own, and around the world) tell us that we have a responsibility to stop causing the problem. (People around the world are aware (or will be increasingly aware) of these facts.) If we don’t do everything possible to stop causing the problem, we won’t “just” be creating a world in which there are problems associated with climate change, resulting in struggles, political instability, conflicts and wars, and so forth: We’ll be creating such a world in which many people correctly hold us responsible for those problems! (And also, when people hold each other responsible for problems, they often hold each other responsible for “all” of their problems, in addition to the ones at issue in the first place.)

    So, as it seems, we are acting like that person who wrongly robs the grocery store, leaves finger prints and photos and a business card, and even tries to explain on the radio why we think it’s “OK” for us to do that, and why it would be a hardship on our GDP if we changed our ways (even though that very claim is also questionable). We are creating a situation where we won’t be “well liked” in many places in the world, to put it mildly. Do we forget that for every one person living in the U.S., there are roughly 19 people living elsewhere?

    So (and also) those people here who want to ignore climate change, want to keep us on our fossil fuel habits, want to preserve the status quo, and so forth, are not only leading us into a bad future from a climate standpoint, they are also “involving” the rest of us in a crime for which the whole country will be held responsible by growing numbers of people around the world, as the situation devolves. If we don’t change, we’ll be in the process of creating millions of enemies for future generations of Americans, including our children, as well as creating a destabilized climate. We really have to either stop the crime, or we’ll be held partly responsible for it.

    Are our security analysts considering this aspect of things — the blame that people will assign to the U.S. — in considering the likely nature of the struggles, instabilities, conflicts, and wars that will arise if we don’t address climate change? If not, they should be! Of course, we should address climate change (and especially our role in it) because it’s right to do so, not because people will blame us if we don’t. But it never hurts to keep in mind both factors; and some people will only be responsible if they understand that they’ll be held accountable for irresponsibility.

    Be Well,


  6. Indian Unbound says:

    Hi Joe,
    I’ve been following this blog with a lot of interest for some time now, and it is on my list of must-reads for each day.
    I wanted to alert you to an aspect of the climate change argument that seems to be glaringly absent in your analysis: India.
    Forget China, where Central planning can create a law overnight that controls, restricts or rolls back emission levels. Think of India, which is waking to a new cycle of economic prosperity in the 21st century and is a chaotic democracy of 1.2 billion odd people. (Think 4 USAs with about 5 times the cultural diversity of Europe).
    I think you should really start monitoring the progress of the climate debate in that country (you would notice that it is fractured, inconsistent, and obsessed with more obvious measures, like habitat destruction, than with emissions reduction). The consequences of an India that refuses to back down in face of rising calls for scaling down emissions, citing the poverty of its people and political compulsions (not to mention historical injustices, of the sort Jeff mentioned above), combined with the obvious impacts on this (largely tropical) subcontinent with a large coastline cannot be over-exaggerated, and definitely merits serious consideration and thought.
    As a concerned Indian both proud of and terrified of my country’s rise, I feel that the warning bells are beginning to sound, and we must give greater thought to how climate-sensitive policies can be brought about in large, rambunctious democracies like India, Malaysia, Indonesia, Bangladesh, Pakistan, etc.

    [JR: Send me a guest post!]

  7. Bill Becker says:

    Jeff, you make a good point, of course. Yes, several of the individuals and organizations looking at the security risks of climate change are considering two types of security problems, broadly speaking. The first is conflicts caused within regions as they compete for resources such as water and food, and as climate refugees cross borders to escape climate impacts. Analyses by groups such as the National Intelligence Council and the Center for Naval Analysis predict these conflicts will occur in some of the most unstable regions of the world, putting further strain on the U.S. military both to keep peace and to provide humanitarian aid. The second consequence will be that these crises will create new recruiting opportunities for terrorist organizations, presumably with the U.S. as a key target. Osama bin Laden already has begun making the point that (to paraphrase him) the world’s poor are suffering because of the emissions of the US and other industrial countries. If we continue business as usual in international climate negotiations, the judgment will be not just that the U.S. put most of the greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, but that we refused to join the rest of the world in doing anything about it.

  8. paulm says:

    “Current security analyses usually are based on mid-range scenarios developed by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. They don’t reflect the most recent research and don’t cover the full range of future climate risks.”

    This is were big oil struck oil.
    From a nation building, responsible governance point of view, the risk assessment has been totally off mark.

    Big fossil fuels have managed to steer the ‘debate’ in to the lower bounds, and many (avoider) have been happy to follow.

    Whenever we had progressive calls to arms such as Al Gore and Hansen etc they have be effectively portrayed as alarmist, where of course this is just not so and side lined. From a risk management perspective they were spot on.

  9. paulm says:

    Come along now, please…

    British envoy to set new tone in climate change talks with Canada

    Mr. Pocock, who formally took over last Thursday, is striving to set a different tone on the issue that “sheds more light than heat.”
    “That is an agenda I will speak to. But we’ve had a debate on, for instance, oil sands, which, you know, has been a little difficult at times. What we’re doing in London at the moment is thinking through how we keep engaged on that,” he said.

  10. James Newberry says:

    Time to fight the Four Horsemen of Climate: Coal, Petroleum Liquid and Gas, Uranium. They are carried on the backs of Pestilence, Famine, War and Death. The first two are coming fast.

    The last decade was the Oh, Oh’s. What’s next? Oblivion or worldwide democratic revolution for sustainability? I am an Egyptian. That nation is a 5000 year old culture, yet the next 50 look like hell and high waters.

    Here’s to Australia, Pakistan, Brazil and everyone else suffering today.

  11. Edward says:

    “Contingency plan for the capability to respond to 5-7 [degrees] C”

    6 degrees centigrade is the extinction point for Homo Sap. The only response is to die.

  12. Dr.A.Jagadeesh says:

    Good article.

    Another approach to tackle climate change is” Low carbon Economies”.

    A Low-Carbon Economy (LCE) or Low-Fossil-Fuel Economy (LFFE) is an economy which has a minimal output of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions into the biosphere, but specifically refers to the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide. Recently, most of scientific and public opinion has come to the conclusion there is such an accumulation of GHGs (especially CO2) in the atmosphere due to anthropogenic causes, that the climate is changing. The over-concentrations of these gases is producing global warming that affects long-term climate, with negative impacts on humanity in the foreseeable future.[2] Globally implemented LCE’s therefore, are proposed as a means to avoid catastrophic climate change, and as a precursor to the more advanced, zero-carbon society and renewable-energy economy.
    Nations seek to become low-carbon economies as a part of a national global warming mitigation strategy. A comprehensive strategy to manage global warming is carbon neutrality, geoengineering and adaptation to global warming.
    The aim of a LCE is to integrate all aspects of itself from its manufacturing, agriculture, transportation and power-generation etc. around technologies that produce energy and materials with little GHG emission; and thus, around populations, buildings, machines and devices which use those energies and materials efficiently, and, dispose of or recycle its wastes so as to have a minimal output of GHGs. Furthermore, it has been proposed that to make the transition to an LCE economically viable we would have to attribute a cost(per unit output) to GHGs through means such as emissions trading and/or a carbon tax.
    Some nations are presently low carbon: societies which are not heavily industrialised or populated. In order to avoid climate change on a global level, all nations considered carbon intensive societies and societies which are heavily populated might have to become zero-carbon societies and economies. Several of these countries have pledged to cut their emissions by 100% via offsetting emissions rather than ceasing all emissions (carbon neutrality); in other words, emitting will not cease but will continue and will be offset to a different geographical area(Source: Wikipedia).
    Dutch Transitions Approach

    The Dutch approach combines local community based experimentation with a top-down view of the transition(1). The vision is long-term, with strategic intermediate goals en
    route and learning from numerous small experiments.The Ministry of Economic Affairs, which is responsible for energy and innovation policy, manages the Energy Transition
    Programme. The plan has been praised for encouraging long-term thinking in energy policy and the energy sector and for placing local experiments within a larger process. It
    has been criticised for being dominated by the incumbent energy providers who have narrowed the innovation focus to their interests; for example, there are no experiments in low energy lifestyles(2)

    1. 4th Dutch Environmental Policy Plan, 2001
    2. Kern et al., Restructuring energy systems for sustainability?, Energy Policy, vol 36 (2008), p4093

    Options to meet emission reduction targets Both technological and behavioural options are considered. In each sector, currently used technologies are listed first.

    Electricity sector
    in the UK. Options for the future include:
    • nuclear power
    • fossil fuels with carbon capture and storage (CCS)
    • renewables, including wind, solar and marine
    technologies, perhaps in conjunction with electricity storage systems;
    • biofuels, including domestic and agricultural waste;
    • electrical appliance energy efficiency improvements;
    • reducing peoples energy use where economic; smart meters would facilitate this strategy.Buildings – space and water heating Improving the energy efficiency of buildings is likely to be the most effective short term measure to reduce heat use. Only 8% of English housing is rated in bands A–C for energy efficiency, while 62% is rated in bands E–G (there are 7 bands, A–G, where A is most efficient).

    Other options for the future include:
    • providing heating through district heating schemes;
    • widespread use of electric or biomass boilers;
    • microscale renewable heating using heat pumps.

    Road Transport

    Experts consider emissions from transport to be the most difficult to reduce. Road vehicles are responsible for 92% of domestic transport emissions; Options include:
    • improving the energy efficiency of vehicles;
    • using hybrids, battery power, biofuels or hydrogen;
    • persuading people to adapt their lifestyles and habits to travel more efficiently and reduce emissions.

    Air Transport

    Demand for air travel is projected to grow from 228 million in 2005 to 490 million passengers passing through UK airports each year by 2030, limited only by airport capacity.8 Aviation is the most difficult sector to decarbonise. Demand reduction measures may be necessary to control CO2 emissions, for example by changing working patterns to encourage people to take fewer but longer foreign holidays. Aviation will be included in the EU Emission Trading Scheme from 2012.(Source: THE TRANSITION TO A LOW CARBON ECONOMY,POSTNOTE, Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology, December 2008 Number 318).