At the Crossroads of Climate Change and Global Security

Recent extreme events witnessed around the world are drastically visible reminders of ongoing environmental perturbations on our planet, many of which are linked to global climate change. The last decade has seen an exceptional number of extreme heatwaves with resulting severe consequences. The 2010 Russian heatwave is estimated to have cost the lives of 55,000 people and destroyed 25 per cent of the country’s annual crop. In the United States, the drought in 2012 has been the most severe since the 1930s, impacting about 80 per cent of agricultural land. Hurricane Sandy was yet another stark showcase of the forces of nature and our vulnerability in the face of destabilized weather and climate patterns.

It fits this picture that 2012 has been the warmest year in the contiguous United States since record keeping began in 1880 while, globally, all 12 years to date in the twenty-first century have ranked among the 14 warmest ever recorded. Some changes in the Earth system are occurring at faster rates: the extent of the Arctic sea ice during summer plummeted to a new minimum in September 2012, almost 50 per cent below the long-standing average, whereas sea levels are rising faster than expected, fuelled in part by the accelerated melting of the Greenland ice sheet.

While natural variability plays a big role in those complex phenomena, the human influence has become a decisive driver on the planetary scale. Beyond reasonable scientific doubt, global climate change is caused by emissions of greenhouse gases from human activities, notably CO2 from the combustion of coal, oil and gas. Despite efforts to curb emissions at the local, national and international levels, the aggregate global total reached yet another record in 2012 and keeps on increasing. In early May 2013, news went around the world that carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere have climbed above 400ppm, a concentration probably not realized for at least 3 million years. As it stands, the world is on a course for an increase in global mean temperature of around 4° C (7.2° F) by the end of the century as compared to pre-industrial times.

The consequences would be severe, as pointed out by a recent World Bank flagship report authored by scientists of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research: sea levels will likely rise by 0.5 to 1 metre by the year 2100, with several metres of additional surge over the coming centuries, thereby putting the livelihoods of hundreds of millions of inhabitants of low-lying and coastal areas at risk. In addition, the need to increase agricultural production to feed a growing population will be counteracted by a rising risk of crop yield reductions as the world warms: non-linear effects, so-called “tipping dynamics”, could seriously impair global food and water security and reverse recent development advances in poorer countries. In fact, largely unchecked global warming puts in question the very possibility of adapting to changes, particularly in regions where livelihoods already depend on fragile ecosystems under heat and water stress.

The prospect and possible consequences of such a world matter for all of us, and not only in an altruistic perspective: the projected impacts on food production, water availability and ecosystems integrity are increasing the pressure for large-scale displacements of populations and heightening the challenges for global human security in a still fragmented and increasingly unequal world. It is conceivable that the benefits of international integration through trade and the exchange of people and ideas would be threatened by multiple environmental stresses and their destabilizing societal effects, leading to increasingly inward-looking and isolationist perspectives.

Indeed, the past offers a number of lessons which should make us cautious when looking into the future. All too often, human successes have collapsed once certain limits to self-preservation were approached. In the case of climate change progressing unchecked, the aggregation of impacts are likely to eventually involve social tipping points, leading to heightened tensions within and across societies. A vicious circle of decreasing propensity to cooperate in the international arena may unfold, with global mean temperatures rising in lockstep.

Climate change poses new risks and is a potential amplifier of hazards that existed before. It is striking that those countries that contributed the least to global greenhouse gas emissions, and have the fewest resources for adaptation measures, are likely to be hit hardest by the impacts of climate change. This is not just about poverty. Regions that already experience stress from migration or water scarcity might see this pressure increase under continued climate change. This, in turn, affects ethnic tensions which, again, are well known today, but might intensify going forward. Thus, man-made global warming has the potential to fuel smoldering conflicts.

However, the risks we are facing are not a foregone conclusion. The choice about the future we want is there and the choice is real. Mankind can control emissions of greenhouse gases so as to limit global warming to no more than 2° C, the threshold agreed by the international community, thereby avoiding the worst consequences posed by unchecked climate change. We can do so at an affordable cost to our economies while reaping a host of co-benefits arising from the development and deployment of new technologies.

To be sure, the path towards climate stabilization also comes with uncertainties concerning, among other things, the sensitivity of the Earth system to further human influences, the exact magnitude of climate impacts and their distribution over time and space, the future of energy demand, and the availability of greenhouse gas mitigation options. However, these uncertainties can be handled within a risk management perspective. Risk is defined as damage multiplied by probability. If the potential damages are high, and they are, even a low probability would result in a high risk that should be avoided.

The biggest factor in limiting our exposure to risk in the future is the timeliness of political decisions and the progress of international cooperation to address the climate challenge. Science is unequivocal in this regard: if we—citizens, elected officials and corporate leaders—decide to rise to the challenge, we should do so without further delay to minimize cost and to maximize our chances for sustainable prosperity.

Realizing this vision and shaping the future in a conscious way can be likened to a Kantian mega-project. In fact, a modern day version of the German philosopher Immanuel Kant’s categorical imperative translates into a call for much deeper cooperation on climate protection across borders and a commitment of individuals and states to do what is necessary, even though others may still be dragging their feet. Success in the cooperation challenge on climate change would not only avert human hardship and suffering on a momentous scale, but would actually pave the way for deeper integration and coordination in a host of other policy fields demanding global action. In this sense, averting the climate crisis may become the bedrock for making progress on global security and securing peace in the world.