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An Unstable World – What the IPCC Report Means for the Security Community

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) first section of its Sixth Assessment Report, ‘Climate Change 2021: The Physical Science’ was recently released and while shocking, it was not surprising. Signed off by 195 member countries, the report emphasizes that greater changes in the climate will result in a more unstable world as a result of increased natural disasters, rising sea levels and greater food insecurity.

There are few remaining in the security and intelligence communities who do not recognize climate change as a national security issue – or at least a driver of national security issues. Whether it is the burden at U.S. borders caused by migrants fleeing countries devastated by extreme weather events, food shortage, water quality, or deforestation; those same extreme weather events battering U.S. infrastructure and taking lives; climate-driven conflict; a rise in vector-borne diseases; the Arctic ice melt fueling Russian militarization plans; or a direct hit on military installations and facilities due to rising sea levels and other climate change events – it is not difficult to join the dots.

“Climate change effects are real and they are significant,” Joe Bryan, senior climate advisor to the defense secretary, told the Congressional Clean Energy EXPO and Policy Forum on July 26. “Climate change is going to cost us in resources and readiness; and the reality is that it already is.” 

And let’s not forget that the military and security sectors are often the first responders to environmental crises. As they attempt to manage multiple and parallel issues, the strain could limit their efficacy in meeting any one challenge.  The security sector therefore must be more engaged in the climate fight now to protect itself in the future.

Renewed calls for action from the security community

Earlier this year the International Military Council on Climate and Security released a report discussing the vulnerabilities many militaries have when it comes to climate change, such as fleet headquarters flooding, wildfires damaging bases and equipment and droughts causing instability for infrastructure.

“It is clear from these findings that the security sector must be more engaged than ever in the fight to adapt and mitigate the effects of our rapidly warming planet,” the Center for Climate and Security said at the time.

Many countries have responded to the latest IPCC report’s findings, including India, the United States, the United Kingdom and France. 

The U.S. Climate Envoy at the National Security Council, John Kerry, said the report shows that we cannot afford further delay. “The science has been certain for decades, but the latest report makes it abundantly clear – the climate crisis is not only here, it is growing increasingly severe.

“These extreme events will only become more drastic in the future – this is why we cannot wait. Now is the time for action and [this November’s United Nations Climate Change Conference in] Glasgow must be a turning point in this crisis. We need all countries to take the bold steps required to keep 1.5°C within reach.

“Life is about making choices, and we’re facing the biggest one yet. The IPCC report makes it clear our window is narrowing, but it’s not too late to act. We must choose to earnestly respond to the climate crisis while we still can,” Kerry said.

Several countries, not least the United States, have put in place numerous policies that aim to counter the effects of climate change. But to date there has been very little action either on a global or national basis. Many of President Biden’s climate pledges have not really materialized in the way the administration envisaged, in some cases due to court rulings, in others due to dilution or politicization. There have been some successes, such as clean water protections, but it is currently difficult to feel as positive about Biden’s climate change promises as when they were first made.

On August 10, Chair of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, Peter DeFazio (D-OR), spoke about the recent passing of the bipartisan infrastructure bill. “This package falls short when it comes to addressing climate change like the existential threat it is, and the world’s scientists only reinforced the need for additional action in the IPCC’s latest alarming report,” DeFazio said. “I’m committed to continuing to fight for transformational funding and policies in the reconciliation process that will reduce carbon pollution from the transportation sector, support American manufacturing and ingenuity, and create infrastructure that is smarter, safer, and made to last.”

The effects of “irreversible” global warming

Let’s first look at the science behind the latest findings. The IPCC report uses risk assessments of climate change by creating five illustrative scenarios that cover a range of possible factors of climate change starting in 2015. These scenarios come from climate models participating in the Coupled Model Intercomparison Project Phase 6 (CMIP6) of the World Climate Research Program. These models include updated representations of physical, chemical and biological processes.

The scenarios include versions with high and very high greenhouse gas emissions and CO2 emissions that roughly double from current levels by 2050 and 2100. A second scenario focuses on intermediate greenhouse gas emissions and CO2 emissions remaining around current levels until the middle of the century. Other included scenarios feature very low and low greenhouse gas emissions and CO2 emissions declining to net-zero around or after 2050, followed by varying levels of net negative CO2 emissions.

IPCC details the severity of human activities on greenhouse gas emissions. Estimates suggest that in the next few decades the global warming levels will reach 1.5°C or 2°C above pre-industrial levels. The effects include an observed change in heat extremes, heavy precipitation and agricultural and ecological drought.

With rising temperatures, the effects of climate change on every region across the globe are heightened. The Pacific Islands, regions in North America and Europe are expected to experience heavy precipitation and flooding events at a more frequent and intense level at 2°C and above. Regions in Africa, South America and Europe are expected to experience more frequent and severe agricultural and ecological droughts. The report describes most of these effects at the 2°C level as “irreversible.” 

The report adds that poverty and disadvantage are expected to increase in some populations as global warming increases, which fuels conflict and migration. An increase in global warming is also projected to detrimentally affect human health, including heat-related morbidity and mortality, conditions caused or exacerbated by poor air quality, and vector-borne diseases, such as malaria and dengue fever are projected to increase along with potential shifts in their geographic range.

Change is coming, but when?

While the predictions are bleak, the IPCC also made it clear that human activity impacts the future. Human activities, according to the report, affect all climate system components. This means that limiting cumulative CO2 emissions, reaching at least net zero CO2 emissions, reductions in other greenhouse gas emissions and reducing CH4 emissions would “limit” the warming effect.

While we wait for policy to take effect, there is a lot we can do as individuals right now that would have a positive impact on the security issues we are seeing as a direct result of climate change. Huge change is needed to confront the problems confirmed in the IPCC report, but a lot of people doing a little can have real, meaningful impact. One way governments can help citizens to do this would be to incentivize such actions, and make it more difficult and more costly to act in ways that impact climate change. Regretfully, the latter would potentially lose votes and therefore be unpalatable to most world leaders and both would no doubt take months, even years, to pass. For example, the U.K. is now in its third year of implementing a returns payment for plastic bottles to cut back on plastic waste, and does not expect the deposit scheme to be operational before 2024. The IPCC calls for big changes now, not small changes several years from now.

That we need to adapt is not in doubt. And adapt we can. The COVID-19 pandemic has been brutal, but it has also proven just how adaptable and resilient we can be, both individually and as a nation. One example the report highlighted to emphasize the importance of human activity on climate change was the emissions reduction in 2020. This reduction came from measures put in place to stop the spread of COVID-19. While the measures and reductions were temporary, they created detectable effects on air pollution. “Scenarios with very low or low [Greenhouse Gas] emissions would have rapid and sustained effects to limit human-caused climate change,” the IPCC report said.

President Biden has been one of the most vocal world leaders on the “green reset” or “build back better”, where we use the small gains in climate resilience achieved through the pandemic era to springboard us to a more climate-friendly way of living. Unfortunately, as countries return to their new normal, all we are seeing is business as usual. For example, despite the Biden administration pledging to direct COVID-19 recovery investments toward green policies, a research coalition including Oregon State University experts said only 17% of such funds had been allocated that way as of early March 2021.

There has been some progress though. For example, the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is working directly with communities to increase their resilience to climate impacts, an example of which can be seen in the recently released 2021 Climate Action Plan for the Chicago Region, which serves as a model for regional climate action.

The security challenges already created and exacerbated by climate change will not miraculously go away, and each additional level of warming brings dramatic destabilization and security threats on the ground. The last six months have shown us that even with clear climate policy, real beneficial action is hard to find. But we are present in a situation in which we can all “play our part”.

This IPCC report is just the first installment, and it will be followed in 2022 by a second that will focus on the vulnerabilities of humans and nature to global warming, and a further report detailing what can be done to prevent catastrophic temperature rise. As the Center for Climate and Security says, both these reports “will be critical tools for the global security community to integrate into its planning operations, and to identify emerging climate vulnerabilities to build resilience against.”

Read the full IPCC report

Lindsey Wilkinson
Lindsey Wilkinson is a News Media Major and Political Science & French Minor at the University of Alabama. She is Food & Health editor for Alice - where she also serves as editor-in-chief for the 2021-2022 school year, a contributing writer for The Crimson White, quarterly article chair for Moxie Alabama, resident advisor in Presidential Village 1, and a mentor for the Media Writing Center. Lindsey started her internship at Homeland Security Today in 2021.

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