Center for Strategic Decision Research

Paris '07 Workshop

Climate Change is aThreat Multiplier that Must Be Addresssed as an Issue of Collective Security

Uk Special Repr for Climate Change John Ashton


Mr. John Ashton
Special Representative for Climate Change,
U.K. Foreign and Commonwealth Office

UK Special Representative for Climate Change John Ashton.

"...climate change..[is] a threat multiplier, a factor that, combined with other factors,
tends to destabilize and amplify those factors."

As you listen to what I have to say, you may at first think that I am talking about something rather different from what Ambassador Akram and Major General Zhan talked about. The challenge for me is to convince you that my topic is not a different problem, and that the challenge of climate security is fundamental to the way we need to think about security today.


We know enough about climate change to know that if we do not come to grips with it—and, frankly, we have not done so, despite the intense coverage of the issue and the way it has climbed the agenda over the last few years; we have not begun to shift our patterns of production and consumption to the low-carbon basis the problem requires—we will face more failed and failing states, greater competition for water, more intense competition for productive land and energy resources, and migration on a scale that has not been seen before in human history.

In the spring of 2007, a group of very distinguished retired United States generals and admirals published a report on climate change in which they described it as a threat multiplier, a factor that, combined with other factors, tends to destabilize and amplify those factors. I think this is a very powerful image, and provides the key to thinking about the relationship between climate change and security.

Currently France has 10,000 troops deployed in seven African countries. In all of those countries, problems are arising from the consequences of human-induced climate change that are making the security situation worse. For example, the international community has been struggling for several years with the tragedy that has been unfolding in Darfur in the Sudan. That part of the Sudan has suffered almost a 50% reduction of its rainfall over the last couple of decades in the exact way the climate models predicted would happen in that part of Africa during that particular time frame. Now there is solid consensus that the water problem caused by the climate problem has made the Darfur problem even more difficult to deal with.  Perhaps we would still have the Darfur tragedy without it, but inevitably it has made it more difficult. The evidence is even stronger in Somalia, where threats related to climate change are multiplying.

Recently the British economist Nicholas Stern published a report on the economics of climate change and concluded that if we do not deal with it as the decades unfold in this century, climate change will become a market failure on a scale greater than the combined consequences in Europe of World War I, World War II, and the Great Depression. One may question whether the term “market failure” is even sufficient to encompass the social, political, and economic consequences of disruption on that scale, but if we learned one lesson in Europe in the 20th century it is that economic disruption on a large scale has security consequences. If market failure occurs, it will result in part from a failure of political imagination to respond to climate change as a security threat.


Climate change—and this is where what I say may sound a little bit different from what you have heard so far—is not a traditional security threat. It is not a threat that can be dealt with by investing in the traditional instruments of hard power and it is not a traditional threat in the sense that there is no country or region that can insulate itself from the security consequences of climate change. It is, therefore, a problem of collective security, not national security, and if we do not succeed collectively in dealing with it, in building very rapidly a global low-carbon economy, then we will all face security consequences that we would rather not face. 

What we have to do is learn to use soft power more effectively in order to avoid having to invest a great deal more blood and treasure in hard power as the hard security consequences of climate change unfold. We need to invest in the diplomacy of energy, for example, as part of our security investment. Traveling to east Asia these days, spending time in China and in Japan, you get a sense that both countries increasingly recognize that making the major economies of east Asia less energy intensive and more energy efficient is seen as a security investment as well as an energy investment. Japan and China are working very closely together on energy efficiency, which is good for security as well as for the economy.


We will succeed in responding to the climate challenge only if we respond to it as a security challenge, an economic challenge, and an environmental challenge. Over the last 10 years we have been dealing with it primarily as an environmental challenge, and we now know that this does not work alone. We cannot solve the climate problem as an environmental challenge because that does not capture the full dimension of the problem.

What does it mean to deal with climate change as a security challenge? It means that we must plan on the basis of a worst-case scenario while we hope for the best. When you face a security challenge, you do not just hope for the best, you do not just hope that things will pan out and be a bit less serious than they seem. You make decisions on the basis of the worst case possible and you try to mitigate the risks of the worst case possible. This means that we have to realize that the only effective response is one that deals with the problem in its totality and in a cost-effective way, rather than one that deals with some of it on a cost-benefit basis that understates the risks of not dealing with it effectively. Either we build a low-carbon economy quickly or we do not.


The powers who have invested in the unfolding events in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2003 have invested about three-quarters of a trillion dollars of their taxpayers’ money to do so. If we could mobilize even a fraction of those public resources to deal with the next stage of the climate problem we would basically break the back of the problem. I am not saying that we should stop spending money on traditional defense in order to spend it on the transition to a low-carbon economy, nor am I saying that public investment is the primary instrument for building a low-carbon economy.  It is not—this is a very complex problem that requires a multiplicity of instruments. What I am saying is that we will only respond on the scale that is needed if we understand the full dimension of the problem, including the security dimension. 

That was very apparent in April 2007 when the United Nations Security Council for the first time debated climate change as a result of an initiative put forward by my government. The debate was the largest thematic Security Council debate in the history of the United Nations, and participants from the varying countries reached a very high degree of consensus that climate change is a security problem as well as other kinds of problems and that we need to see it in that light. 

Let me just add here that doubts and questions were raised about the appropriateness of raising this subject in the Security Council, but our intention was not to usurp the authority of other U.N. groups or processes—the General Assembly, the Economic and Social Affairs Council, or the U.N. climate process. It was to make sure that the work of those organizations and processes was better informed by a discussion of the implications of climate change on international peace and security. Now, we will continue to make our case and to try to build a shared understanding so that we can use climate change as a political impulse that brings us together as we learn to live in a world of increasing interdependence. If we do not use it to bring us together, it is going to drive us apart. 


President Museveni of Uganda recently talked about climate change as an act of aggression by the rich countries against the poor countries. His words reflect the fact that the psychology of security has entered the debate, and certainly it is true that the problem we now face is largely a result of the choices that were made in growing the economies of the industrialized world. The industrialized world does need to hold itself accountable for that if we are going to succeed in building a genuine collective response to this collective security problem, but we cannot afford interpretations such as President Museveni’s to grow. That would be destabilizing, not only regarding out efforts to deal with climate change but regarding our efforts to build a multinational system based on the rule of law and on the idea that the biggest problems we face are shared problems to which there are only shared solutions.

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