By Damian Carrington
Climate change poses as grave a threat to the UK’s security and economic resilience as terrorism and cyber-attacks, according to a senior military commander who was appointed as William Hague’s climate envoy this year. In his first interview since taking up the post, Rear Admiral Neil Morisetti said climate change was “one of the greatest risks we face in the 21st century,” particularly because it presented a global threat. “By virtue of our interdependencies around the world, it will affect all of us,” he said. He argued that climate change was a potent threat multiplier at choke points in the global trade network, such as the Straits of Hormuz, through which much of the world’s traded oil and gas is shipped.
Climate Change Threats Intersect With Conflict-Prone Regions
Morisetti left a 37-year naval career to become the foreign secretary’s special representative for climate change, and represents the growing influence of hard-headed military thinking in the global warming debate.
The link between climate change and global security risks is on the agenda of the UK’s presidency of the G8, including a meeting to be chaired by Morissetti in July that will include assessment of hotspots where climate stress is driving migration.
Morisetti’s central message was simple and stark: “The areas of greatest global stress and greatest impacts of climate change are broadly coincidental.”
He said governments could not afford to wait until they had all the information they might like. “If you wait for 100% certainty on the battlefield, you’ll be in a pretty sticky state,” he said.
The increased threat posed by climate change arises because droughts, storms and floods are exacerbating water, food, population and security tensions in conflict-prone regions.
“Just because it is happening 2,000 miles away does not mean it is not going to affect the UK in a globalized world, whether it is because food prices go up, or because increased instability in an area – perhaps around the Middle East or elsewhere – causes instability in fuel prices,” Morisetti said.
“In fact it is already doing so,” he added, noting that Honda’s UK car plants had been forced to switch to a three-day week after extreme floods in Thailand cut the supply chain. Computer firms in California and Poland were left short of microchips by the same floods.
Morisetti is far from the only military figure emphasizing the climate threat to security. America’s top officer tackling the threat from North Korea and China has said the biggest long-term security issue in the region is climate change.
“Most Likely” to Cripple the Security Environment is a Significant Climate Event
In a recent interview, Admiral Samuel J Locklear III, who led the US naval action in Libya that helped topple Muammar Gaddafi, said a significant event related to the warming planet was “the most likely thing that is going to happen that will cripple the security environment, probably more likely than the other scenarios we all often talk about.”
There is a reason why the military are so clear-headed about the climate threat, according to Professor John Schellnhuber, a scientist who briefed the UN security council on the issue in February and formerly advised the German chancellor, Angela Merkel.
“The military do not deal with ideology. They cannot afford to: they are responsible for the lives of people and billions of pounds of investment in equipment,” he said. “When the climate change deniers took their stance after the Copenhagen summit in 2009, it is very interesting that the military people were never shaken from the idea that we are about to enter a very difficult period.”
He added: “This danger of the creation of violent conflicts is the strongest argument why we should keep climate change under control, because the international system is not stable, and the slightest thing, like the food riots in the Middle East, could make the whole system explode.”
The military has been quietly making known its concern about the climate threat to security for some time. General Wesley Clark, who commanded the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia during the Kosovo war, said in 2005: “Stopping global warming is not just about saving the environment, it’s about securing America for our children and our children’s children, as well.”
Climate Change Policies Must Address Economics and Energy Issues in Military and Beyond
In the same year Chuck Hagel, now Obama’s defense secretary, said: “I don’t think you can separate environmental policy from economic policy or energy policy.”
Morisetti said there was also a direct link between climate change and the military because of the latter’s huge reliance on fossil fuels. “In Afghanistan, where we have had to import all our energy into the country along a single route that has been disrupted, the US military have calculated that for every 24 convoys there has been a casualty. There is a cost associated in bringing in that energy in both blood and treasure.
“So to drive up efficiency and to use alternative fuels, wind, solar, makes eminent sense to the military,” he said, noting that the use of solar blankets in Afghanistan meant fewer fuel resupply missions. “The principles of delivering your outputs more effectively, reducing your risks and reducing your costs reads across far more widely than just the military: most businesses would be looking for that too.”
Morisetti’s former employer, the Ministry of Defense, agrees that the climate threat is a serious one. The last edition of the Global Strategic Trends analysis published by the MoD’s Development, Concepts and Doctrine Center concludes: “Climate change will amplify existing social, political and resource stresses, shifting the tipping point at which conflict ignites … Out to 2040, there are few convincing reasons to suggest that the world will become more peaceful.”
Schellnhuber was also clear about the consequences of failing to curb global warming. “The last 11,000 years – the Holocene – was characterized by the extreme stability of global climate. It is the only period when human civilization could have developed at all,” he said. “But I don’t think a global, interconnected world can be managed in peace if climate change means we are leaving the Holocene. Let’s pray we will have a Lincoln or a Gorbachev to lead us.”
• This article was amended on 1 July 2013. The original said Toyota’s UK car plants had been forced to switch to a three-day week after floods in Thailand cut the supply chain. It was Honda’s UK plant where staff went to a three-day week in 2011. Φ
Damian Carrington is The Guardian’s top environmental reporter. See also: R James Woolsey, former Secretary of the Navy and head of the CIA.