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Risky Business

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Like a family that has no homeowner's insurance, no fire detectors, a gas leak in the basement and a bad case of denial, the global community remains unprepared for irreversible and potentially catastrophic changes to the Earth's climate.

What's needed -- quickly -- is an international risk management effort, a process that's more familiar in military and national security circles than it is in environmental and scientific circles.

That process is described in "Degrees of Risk: Defining a Risk Management Framework for Climate Security" -- a report just released by the London-based think tank Third Generation Environmentalism (E3G). The report's recommendations are the result of consultations E3G held over the past two years with military and intelligence leaders in Europe, the United States and several developing countries. The bottom line:

Climate change is not currently well managed. Agreements at the most recent UN climate negotiations in Cancun in 2010 included a goal of limiting climate change to a 2 degrees celsius average global temperature rise. However, the emissions reductions pledged by countries at the same conference would actually result in a 50 percent chance of global temperatures rising by 3-4 degrees celsius.

The implications of current security analysis are clear: unless climate change is limited to levels where its impacts can be managed effectively, and unless successful adaptation programs are implemented, there will be major threats to national and international security.

Even in the most powerful countries, high levels of climate change would make open trade, travel, investments and progress against poverty "highly unlikely," the report warns.

Other security and intelligence organizations in the United States, from the Center for Naval Analysis to the National Intelligence Council, have reached similar conclusions. So have security analyses published by NATO, the European Union, the United Kingdom, Germany and Australia. But E3G takes the discussion to a new level, asking:

"If the security threat from climate change was analyzed as rigorously as nuclear proliferation, what would an appropriate risk management strategy to deliver climate security look like?"

An early step is to deal with several barriers to effective risk management. The report's authors -- Nick Mabey, Jay Gulledge, Bernard Finel and Katherine Silverthorne -- cite several:

• Current security analyses usually are based on mid-range scenarios developed by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. They don't reflect the most recent research and don't cover the full range of future climate risks.
• When policy makers and the public focus on global average temperatures, they fail to consider that climate impacts will vary widely across regions and latitudes.
• Policy makers tend to consider worst-case scenarios for climate disruption to be low-probability events. That's not necessary true, particularly if we push the climate to tipping points.
• Climate models have underestimated the rate of several impacts -- for example, the loss from the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets. One reason may be that some factors are not well understood and are not included in climate modeling.
• There remains a widespread perception that climate change will happen gradually over a long period of time. In the recent geological past, however, climate change occurred abruptly at large scale.
• There is a common perception that wealthy nations such as the United States are not as vulnerable to climate risks, so other problems have higher priority. But developed countries are just as susceptible as poor countries to stronger hurricanes, sea level rise, drought, heat waves, flash floods, blizzards and wildfires. Hurricane Katrina illustrated that even wealthy countries are vulnerable to disasters, particularly when they aren't prepared.
• Several countries that pledged to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions have given emission ranges rather than specific goals. Without a comprehensive global climate agreement, those countries will most likely fall back to the low end of their pledges -- a result that could push the global temperature increase nearer to 4oC.
• We are still at an early stage in our analysis of our vulnerabilities due to climate change, in part because we lack sufficient data. However, we should assume that "all critical systems will be vulnerable without adaptive measures."
• Policy maker are "systematically underestimating" not only worse case climate change scenarios, but even likely scenarios.

The authors point out that uncertainty about climate science is often used as an excuse for inaction, but inaction does not reduce risk:

Indeed, it is hard to imagine an American politician trying to argue that counter-terrorism measures were unnecessary because the threat of attack from al Qaeda was uncertain. But precisely this argument is often used by opponents of action on climate change to argue against even small measures to mitigate the threat...We do not have the luxury of waiting for certainty, even it were scientifically possible. Every day we fail to act the risk becomes incrementally and irreversibly higher. Like the hands of a clock, the risks of climate change can only move forward.

The E3G report recommends that policy makers employ a "responsible risk management strategy" that reflects the current international consensus on warming, but remains flexible to keep pace with the latest science. It calls the strategy the "ABC Framework":

• Aim to mitigate to stay below 2 degrees of warming
• Build and budget for resilience to 3-4 degrees
• Contingency plan for the capability to respond to 5-7 degrees

The authors say that now is the time to help fragile nations increase their stability, to plan for international responses to crises, and to develop the institutions and agreements necessary to manage climate risks. Among those risks is competition between nations for critical resources:

Climate change and growing resource scarcity will put great strain on international agreements to manage water, food trade, borders and other climate sensitive resources. These international agreements underpin the open global economy our prosperity depends on but there are clear trends showing major countries are hedging against the collapse of this order by securing bilateral access to vital strategic resources.

Nations must also work now on "crash mitigation programs" to reduce the danger and impact of catastrophic climate disruption, the report says. The lowest-risk strategy would be "rapid diffusion of non-nuclear clean energy technologies" facilitated by changes in government policy and new financing mechanisms:

Deployment of those technologies at a pace and scale needed to meet the emergency of extreme climate risks would require significant and costly immediate retirement of existing high carbon infrastructure at the same time. This will require direct government involvement in commissioning and constructing new low carbon energy capacity...

In its 179 pages, the E3G report offers scores of additional suggestions for assessing, mitigating and responding to climate risks. It also offers a specific methodology for risk management, too detailed to describe here. But its bottom line is simple:

Current responses to climate change are failing to effectively manage climate security risks. There is a mismatch between analysis of the severity of climate security threats and the political, diplomatic, policy and financial effort being expended to avoid these risks.

So, what's the risk if we don't regard climate change as seriously as we regard, say, nuclear weapons proliferation? As the authors put it:

In the face of existential threats, countries do not wait for the political conditions to change in favour of an agreement to materially reduce risks, but construct pro-active strategies to change the range of the politically possible in order to advance their national interests.

Which is a very polite way of saying that unless all nations act together now, it will be every nation for itself.

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