Food for Thought: "The security issue we must not ignore – climate change"

The "threat of climate change is leading to growing instability, fear, crisis and potential conflict," writes Jennifer Morgan of Greenpeace as she reflects on how environmental changes pose dangerous new security challenges.

Hundreds of millions of people worldwide are vulnerable to rising sea levels (source: Munich Security Report 2018).

Participating in the Munich Security Conference this year was both important and eye-opening. I had the opportunity to share the work and experience of Greenpeace with participants through conversations and by presenting with other experts. I also listened to the latest thinking of heads of state, as well as foreign and defense ministers about their top priorities and sense of the state of the world.

The insight that has stayed with me the most, however, is a troubling one. One that leaves me deeply concerned. The leaders who spoke at the MSC were overlooking one of the most important existential threats of our time: climate change.

The evidence was there. The MSC's own 2018 Munich Security Report identifies climate change as a significant threat multiplier. This is in line with the thinking of many others in the security community, including the National Security Strategy of the United States (NSS). The NSS 2015 elevated climate change to a top-level strategic threat, alongside terrorism, economic crises and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. It described climate change as "an urgent and growing threat to our national security."

Leaders must pay attention, consider the relevant facts and connect the security threat dots, such as:

  • In 2017 we have been witnessing "weather of mass destruction" at full force. It has been a year of climate extremes: Devastating hurricanes, floods and tropical storms buffeted the Caribbean, North America and South Asia. In Asia, heavy monsoon rains that lasted about four weeks longer than usual killed 2,700 people and caused $3.5 billion in total losses.
  • According to the latest data, world displacement of people is at an all-time high. The World Economic Forum's Global Risk Report 2018 states that of the 31.1 million people displaced during 2016, 76% were forced from their homes as a result of weather-related events.
  • Nearly 900 million people – mostly in developing countries – live in areas vulnerable to rising sea levels, according to recent data featured in the Munich Security Report 2018. This number is alarming since new research shows that sea level rise is happening more rapidly than previously thought: twice as fast as in 1993.
  • According to Munich RE, insurers are set to pay out a record $135 billion to cover losses from natural disasters that happened in 2017. Overall losses, including uninsured damage, came to $330 billion (second only to 2011 which counted losses of $354 billion due to the earthquake and tsunami in Japan).

The evidence is overwhelming and points to climate change threatening the security of millions, on several fronts. Climate change is here – it manifests itself in many serious ways: heat waves, floods, storms, food and water shortages. Rising sea levels threaten the lives of millions of people from farmers to coastal communities to whole island nations. We are now at a critical juncture, a tipping point, where the threat of climate change is leading to growing instability, fear, crisis and potential conflict. Some of the adverse impacts of climate change are already unavoidable, including serious security challenges that cannot and must not be ignored.

Despite the overwhelming evidence, climate security, and other vital issues related to human security, were not given a prominent place at the MSC and instead were drowned out by debates about whether European Union member states will increase their military spending to 2% of GDP, as they are being pushed to do by the Trump Administration.

Increasing government spending on military hardware will not prevent the recurrence of the "weather of mass destruction" that the world experienced in 2017. It will only divert money and resources from where they are needed most. That destruction is only a taste of what is to come, unless leaders connect these dots, and soon. Governments spend a fortune on defense, be it guns, bombs, combat aircraft, weapon systems, air defense systems and the ultimate weapon, nuclear armaments. By comparison, there is currently very little focus on and very little time and money spent on proactively preventing conflict. For example, in the 2017 US budget 28 times more money was allocated to traditional military security than to climate security.

Imagine how many lives could be saved and conflicts averted if we reinvested large parts of the $1.6 trillion a year devoted to military spending into research, development and deployment of solutions to climate change, at the scale and speed required to bring us back from the brink. Imagine if we invested not only the funding, but also the human knowledge and ingenuity that is currently misdirected on military hardware to accelerating the pace and scale of action to decrease greenhouse gas emissions, or to supporting adaptation to impacts where they are already occurring.

I learned much in Munich about the many challenges the world is facing - the instability, the extremism, the heartbreaking numbers: 815 million people worldwide go to bed on an empty stomach each night; 357 million children live in conflict zones. It is clear that improvement on those issues and goals such as eliminating hunger in 2030 would be impossible to meet if we do not change course on climate. There is, however, still a small window of time to peak global emissions in 2020 and reduce them rapidly after that.

The good news is that we are in a disruptive moment in terms of global energy policy. Coal power is on the decline, the internal combustion engine is on its way out in places like China, India, the UK and France, and development of renewable energy sources is on the rapid rise. By 2020, all countries that are parties to the Paris Agreement are set to increase their commitments to reduce their global carbon footprint. However, unless climate change is understood and acted upon as the fundamental threat that it is, millions more will experience internal displacement, conflict and poverty. I fear deeply that the small window of opportunity to avoid the worst impacts will close. This year's MSC left me with a deep unease that our leaders are looking in the wrong places to secure peace in the future. Unless climate change is also understood and acted upon as a global security issue, we may all end up paying the price – the role of climate change as a threat multiplier, could spiral out of control, contributing to severe implications for food security, mass displacement as well as conflict.

The MSC has a tremendous opportunity to help change that course and to engage directly with the security and foreign policy communities to address this threat with the attention, and funding and expertise that it has other threats since the founding of the conference some 50 years ago.

The MSC has started engaging, as one can see through some of the side panels, and inclusion of experts in the field this year. Next year climate security needs to be front and center at the MSC. This is our demand that we believe others must and will support. One year before the Paris Agreement is scheduled to enter into force, having the brains, resources and attention of the Munich Security Conference's community working towards addressing the climate security threat would be a signal to many that this is an issue not to be ignored.



Jennifer Morgan is the Executive Director of Greenpeace International.

23 March 2018, by Jennifer Morgan