Climate change will soon overtake human conflict as the biggest global threat to life
In January 2023, the World Economic Forum listed climate change as the cause of the top six most severe risks to the planet over the coming decade. Tobias Ellwood MP, former chair of the Defence Committee, considers the role of climate change in future conflict.
When it comes to global security, threats from China and Russia may top the list, but soon they will be completely overshadowed by the impact climate change will have on our collective ability to maintain a semblance of global order.
As David Attenborough warns, climate change now impacts every corner of our planet. “These threats do not divide − they are threats which should unite us. No matter from which part of the world you come − for they face us all.”
The wider consequences of climate change are not disputed: ice caps are melting, sea levels are rising, more volatile and testing weather patterns are emerging. The penny has yet to drop on the repercussions these dramatic changes will have on the government’s ability to protect, feed and power towns and cities as the world competes for ever sparser resources.
“It is inevitable that our armed forces will need to contend with climate-driven instability and conflict”
Consider the ripple effect war in Ukraine has had on energy, food, migration, continental security, and indeed geo-politics. These challenges will pale into insignificance as half the world’s population, living in environments that are highly vulnerable to climate change, frantically compete for those fewer resources. Increased desertification will see parts of Africa and the Middle East become uninhabitable leading to biblical scales of migration.
The normalisation of violent weather will place demands on security forces which they are currently ill-prepared to handle. This summer the RAF’s largest runway at Brize Norton temporarily closed due to the tarmac melting. Rising sea temperatures in the Middle East and the Caribbean already restrict the Royal Navy surface fleet from operating because ships’ engines cannot be kept cool enough.
Here in the United Kingdom, we recently enjoyed the five hottest consecutive September days on record. Are we ready for the five rainiest days in November, or the five snowiest in February? It is inevitable that our armed forces will need to contend with climate-driven instability and conflict. The Ministry of Defence needs to factor climate change into its long-term thinking. We need to ensure not just our equipment, but how we train and fight, is future-proofed to ensure our armed forces can operate effectively as more extreme climatic conditions and temperature ranges deteriorate.
Warmer oceans and melting ice mean that, in 15 to 20 years, it is estimated the Arctic will be comparatively ice-free in the summer. New transit routes will open in the High North, allowing countries such as Russia easy and quick routes into northern Europe and North America. The potential for international trade and the exploration of critical minerals in this region will create a rush, with countries clamouring for access. Yet presently, our navy is too small to assume any further operational challenges.
This year looks set to be the hottest year on record, and the pressures of climate change means that we will have to adapt faster than ever before. The way forward is clear. Preparing now to improve our resilience will help us be ready for the inevitable problems ahead.
Given the depreciating international threat picture, many of us have long argued for an increase in defence spending to protect our ever-exposed economy. Climate change now strengthens this call.
Climate change will not wait for us to catch up: if we fail to prepare, we will be living in a very uncertain world indeed.
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