May 07 2008
Delivering Climate Security: Nick Mabey interview
By Nick Mabey
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Following on from the publication of Nick Mabey’s report ‘Delivering Climate Security’, BusinessGreen.com have interviewed Nick on the topic, including discussion of the implications for business. The full interview follows below:
“Climate Change represents an existential threat”
Former senior advisor to the UK Prime Minister’s Strategy Unit, Nick Mabey, warns that governments and businesses must begin to frame climate change as a global security issue
James Murray, BusinessGreen, 07 May 2008
BusinessGreen.com: You recently wrote a report for the Royal United Services Institute warning that unless climate change is brought under control we could see a century long conflict on a scale of the two World Wars. What basis do you have for such a shocking prediction?
Nick Mabey: The prediction is based directly on the Stern Report, although it is worth noting that Stern has said recently that he underestimated scale of the problem in that report. If you take Stern and the IPCC’s projections – that if we don’t control emissions then an increase in temperature of between five and six degrees by the end of the century and the triggering of irreversible carbon feedbacks are both possible – then that means areas that are home to hundreds of millions, if not billions, of people will become uninhabitable. In a perfect world, we’d realise the Earth is big enough to successfully relocate those people and we’d cope, but conflict analysis tells you that managing that level of disruption will result in major conflicts.
But aren’t predictions of five to six degree increases in temperature based on worst case scenarios?
Well, if you take the science seriously you have to accept the worst case scenarios as possible, and the role of security analysts is to always plan for those worst case scenarios. If those predictions come to pass than then World War scale conflicts are entirely realistic. The 9/11 committee in the US famously said that the security flaws in the lead up to the attacks were down to a “failure of imagination”; we are now seeing a same failure of imagination across the security sector with regards to climate change.
So what can be done?
The question for the UK defence sector is how do we secure the safety and interests of 60 million British citizens and 450 million Europeans in the light of climate change threats, and the answer is that you just can’t do it, or at least not in the style to which we’ve all become accustomed. The simple fact is we have to curb climate change and the security sector needs to accept that this is a security issue. Climate change is not just an issue for economists and environmentalists, it threatens the underlying social and economic conditions of every part of our society and that makes it a security issue. Climate change represents what security analysts refer to as an existential threat. It will disrupt everything. Trade, for example, will collapse, and to an extent we are already seeing that happen with recent food shortages. You only need a very small breakdown between supply and demand, and you are already seeing riots in places such as Haiti.
Why do you think the issue of climate change has not been more widely regarded as a security threat?
The environmentalists and economists are very bad at discussing these issues. Environmentalists don’t want to be portrayed as scaremongers and economists always assume that contracts are honoured, which makes them hard to model worst case scenarios. In contrast, security analysts start with the assumption contracts and treaties will be broken – that is why a lot of the climate change modelling work that is now so high profile started in the security sector.
How do you see these conflict risks manifesting themselves?
There are a lot of different avenues that can be explored when you start to look for direct impacts. Africa obviously faces huge climate change threats, as does Central Asia. We are already seeing low level insurgencies in northern China and northern India that are directly linked to climate-related land and resource issues. The most likely hot spots are places where the political situation amplifies the climate situation. There is an assumption that adaptation to social systems will be able to counter the worst climate change effects – that in effect we will all behave like Sweden and learn to get along. But what people struggle to accept is that in a lot of places climate change will instead drive old enmities. That is what has happened in Darfur where people are realising that the core issue behind the conflict is drought, land and resources, all of which have been used to spark old political grievances.
What other areas do you see being at risk?
Small island states in the Caribbean and Pacific also face serious risks. If we see an increase in the incidence of tropical storms that leaves those economies having to rebuild once every few years instead of once a decade then that becomes a huge drain on GDP. The second biggest indicator of future conflict after the existence of past conflict is falling GDP and that is what many of these countries are likely to face. Again, we are already seeing this happen where large populations of urban poor and rising food and fuel prices result in falling real GDP and serious unrest.
What can businesses do to help mitigate these risks?
The most urgent thing that they can do is assess what contribution they can make to tackle climate change. Although, internally they also need to look carefully at what these risks mean for their own operations. In particular, they need to look much more seriously at the long term climate and security risks present in the countries they decide to invest in. They should be asking how the country will be affected by climate change and resource scarcity and they have to be aware that expropriation of businesses by governments will only become more likely as resources become constrained. The politics of insecurity invariably sees governments attempt to exert greater control over the market, and nationalisation of businesses and resources will become increasingly likely under these scenarios.
Are firms doing this level of risk assessment?
Big multinationals undertake this type of scenario planning, but there is certainly a greater focus on it now than there has been in the past – in no small part because investors are demanding that it is done. The bottom line is that unless firms do this analysis properly they will end up making very bad investment decisions.
Firms can reduce their exposure to some of the risks you have outlined, but more generally what can they do to help ensure these worst case scenarios are not realised?
Businesses are going to have to take a more positive – or perhaps that should be less risk averse – approach to IP [intellectual property] sharing and government environmental policies. A lot of businesses still take a narrow short term view about environmental legislation and that will prove hugely damaging unless it is challenged and business leaders begin to understand a more co-operative approach is required. There will also have to be an acceptance that tackling climate change will be hugely disruptive and will require change in a lot of industries. Some industries will lose out, but others will benefit hugely. As a rule of thumb business models that are built on intelligence and design will be well positioned, while those relying on intense use of resources will face problems.