When we don’t plan and prepare from a whole-systems perspective, our societies tend to respond to escalating crises by becoming more militarized to maintain order and control in an environment of escalating chaos. The irony is that this only tends to make our institutions even more brittle, weak and rigid—unable to meaningfully address the root causes of rapidly changing conditions.
That’s why we should be concerned to discover that the British government is planning for the inevitability of a catastrophic rise in global temperatures of nearly 4 degrees Celsius due to business-as-usual carbon emissions. The revelation comes from new research commissioned by the Ministry of Defence (MOD) in November 2019 to inform the MOD’S climate change strategy.
Noting that global temperatures “have been rising across the globe since the 1950s”, the final report from the MOD project published in June claims that “this trend is expected to continue and temperatures are predicted to increase by 2.3–3.5°C by 2100, despite the commitments of the 2016 Paris Agreement to limit the temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius, by 2100.”
The report, titled A Changing Climate: Exploring the Implications of Climate Change for UK Defence and Security, uses this scenario of a potential 3.5°C temperature rise by end of century to forecast major new climate change developments “which will require increase demand for the Armed Forces to respond to unforeseen or extreme climate-related events, both at home and abroad.”
The report was prepared by the Global Strategic Partnership, an academic and industry consortium led by think-tank RAND Europe, convened to support the MOD’s Development, Concepts and Doctrines Centre, which studies strategic trends for the UK government.
A spokesperson for the MOD told me that the report had been commissioned “to understand how defense can best adapt to the challenges of climate change, whilst maintaining critical defense outputs.” She said that the report “will contribute to our ongoing Climate Change and Sustainability Review and help to inform the government’s wider Integrated Review.”
A Catastrophic Scenario
A potential 3.5°C temperature rise is well beyond the 1.5°C level considered by scientists as an upper ‘safe limit’ to avoid tipping planetary ecosystems into a dangerous climate era.
But what’s notable is that the report to the MOD doesn’t treat this as merely one potential worst-case scenario out of many, for the purpose of contingency planning. Instead, it puts forward the scenario unequivocally as an outcome which the UK government should simply expect to happen, rather than attempt to avoid.
This level of temperature rise, it acknowledges, would usher in a new era of catastrophes consisting of more frequent “extreme weather events, such as droughts, heatwaves, floods, heavy rainfall, storms or hurricanes”; the disappearance of Arctic sea ice “before 2050”; “rising sea levels in coastal regions and severe droughts in the Sub-Saharan region” which could “trigger population displacement”; as well as “natural resource shortages and competition as drinking water becomes scarcer and crop yields lower, or as crops are destroyed by extreme weather.”
2030 Perfect Storm
In this business-as-usual scenario, the report warns that as early as 2030, the world would face a perfect storm of food, water and energy crises.
“The demand for food and energy is estimated to rise by 50 percent by 2030, while water demand has been projected to increase by 30 percent,” the report concludes: “In regions where food shortages are combined with poor governance, climate change could contribute to civilian protests, rioting and an increased likelihood of violent conflict.”
Climate change would also drive greater risks of exotic disease outbreaks, while simultaneously disrupting transportation networks needed to sustain healthcare delivery and critical national infrastructure.
That the MOD is increasingly taking climate change seriously is of course welcome.
What isn’t welcome is the unshakeable assumption that by the end of this century, global average “temperatures will have risen by a predicted 2.3 to 3.5 degrees Celsius by 2100.”
Unfortunately, this grim expectation is based on analyzing a recent data from the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The IPCC has warned that current government mitigation ambitions under the Paris agreement are heading well beyond the 1.5°C target toward exactly this dangerous scenario.
In other words, Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s defense mandarins are developing their new climate change strategy on the basis of assuming that current government business-as-usual approaches aren’t about to change.
What the MOD report neglects to acknowledge is that a 3.5°C global temperature rise represents the level of warming we would see if governments meet the inadequate emissions goals they signed up to under the Paris agreement. But as a team of climate policy scholars recently observed: “All major industrialized countries are failing to meet the pledges they made to cut greenhouse-gas emissions.”
This means that the catastrophic scenario expected by the MOD could still be conservative.
The economically optimal 3.5°C world
There could be broad ideological reasons behind the consistent reluctance of world governments to step up their climate commitments.
It so happens that the 3.5°C scenario has been prominently articulated not by the IPCC, but by the Dynamic Integrated Climate-Economy (DICE) model developed by economist William Nordhaus of Yale University. In this scenario, the world reaches 3.5°C by around 2100 and then continues to warm up to 4°C through the next century.
This model, which has significantly influenced government thinking around climate mitigation, sees 3.5°C as a desirable goal for international climate policy. But rather than aiming for climate safety, its goal is “economic efficiency.”
The idea is that it is better to ensure GDP growth now even if this locks-in dangerous warming, because this will mean that future generations will have far more wealth and therefore greater capacity to respond to climate catastrophe.
This scenario also coheres with the Trump administration’s expectations on climate change.
Two years ago, the Trump administration’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) concluded global temperatures would rise by as much as 4°C by 2100. Avoiding this outcome would require a shift away from fossil fuels that “is not currently technologically feasible or economically feasible,” the NHTSA report claimed, echoing Nordhaus’ thinking.
But Nordhaus was wrong. As a new study in Nature Climate Change found in July, many of his fundamental assumptions are outdated, and derived from “methodological shortcomings.”
The reality is that staying within the 1.5°C target for climate safety is feasible through a rapid transformation of energy, economy, land-use systems, agriculture, reforestation, and life-style changes—radical policy shifts which neither the US nor UK governments are pursuing.
The MOD’s current planning approach, then, is being developed on the basis of current government business-as-usual policy, which happens to closely fit the scenario that William Nordhaus considers “economically optimal.”
For all practical purposes, climate safety is being sacrificed on the altar of GDP.
When the climate collapses, war will save us
It is unsurprising, then, that having accepted the inevitability of catastrophic warming, the report calls for a massive program of new UK military interventions in response to a scenario of accelerating climate crises around the world.
The report identifies two main areas of heightened military activity. The first is “Military Aid to the Civil Authorities (MACA)” where British army support increasingly goes toward supporting societal functions in the homeland. This “is likely to grow in importance as more climate-related disaster events affect the UK.”
The second is “Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HADR)”, which “the Armed Forces may be requested to provide… to local agencies overseas as part of UK commitments to international disaster relief.”
One major area where the UK military is urged to increase focus is “the Arctic and High North”, which rising temperatures are making “more accessible and transforming… into a new geostrategic area of focus.”
According to a 2018 report by the House of Commons Select Committee on Defence, the key interest in the Arctic is “the possibility of exploiting resources that have previously been inaccessible or commercially unviable to access” due to the loss of sea ice:
“In 2008, the US Geological Survey (USGS) estimated that technically recoverable resources in the Arctic amount to around 30 percent of the world’s undiscovered gas and 13% of the world’s undiscovered oil… The region is also thought to contain considerable reserves of rare earth metals and minerals.”
Projecting influence in the Arctic and beyond
Thus, the RAND Europe report urges the MOD to ensure a major military role for the UK in the Arctic to “project diplomatic influence in the global strategic security arena.” This militarisation of the response to climate change is also a way of countering the UK’s great power rivals:
“UK preparedness to deploy in response to climate-related events could become part of strategic messaging to UK and NATO adversaries… Moreover, if adversaries are seen to be more active in addressing climate change issues or in implementing expeditionary missions in relation to climate change, this may have strategic implications for the UK’s ability to project diplomatic influence in the global strategic security arena.”
Thus, the Arctic is expected to increase in strategic importance as climate change causes melting ice to make its mineral resources increasingly available.
“Specifically, the UK Armed Forces’ preparedness to operate and carry out expeditionary missions in the High North and Overseas Territories as part of climate-related crisis response operations could become more important in the future,” the report explains.
“With a focus on the Arctic and High North in particular, the opening of new geo-strategically important regions could also have significant implications for global shipping patterns—including for defence equipment transportation routes—particularly if military presence in the region is enhanced.”
Other regions where UK military interventions may become more commonplace could be in relation to climate-related disasters in the Caribbean, East Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa.
British military forces may also be called on to respond to flooding in major cities. This, the report says, could become a regular occurrence given that approximately 50 percent of the global population lives in coastal regions, with most of the world’s largest cities on or near the coast.
Such purportedly humanitarian operations might also be needed to alleviate “resource shortages” due to complex climate impacts, the report admits:
“Climate change may necessitate lengthy HADR operations and environmental disaster relief interventions, while also requiring the ability to provide agile, short-term support in response to climate-related crises. Furthermore, resource shortages could lead to increased conflict and instability, requiring additional military operations.”
Resource shortages could directly undermine UK military operations by impacting key supply chains due to disruption from “extreme climate events.” In other words, the UK military might need to go to war simply to ensure its ability to go to war (by stabilising access to critical resources).
“Defence industry infrastructure is also likely to be exposed to climate-related events that could disrupt parts of or whole supply chains, affecting the supply of essential equipment and battle-winning capabilities,” the report warns.
Britain might lose “access to supply chain inputs such as minerals used for manufacturing defence equipment, platforms and components,” or if “violent conflict takes place in mineral-mining regions as a result of resource shortages.”
Such disruption could, in turn, undermine “force readiness.”
The MOD’s current planning approach demonstrates what happens when governments continue business-as-usual in the face of climate catastrophe: the military ends up stepping in to exert control. The problem is that you can’t defeat climate change with military intervention. In reality, then, the MOD’s climate strategy amounts to a recipe for losing control.