Climate Change and National and Energy Security

March 18, 2010

On Thursday, March 18, 2010, the American-German Institute (AGI) hosted a seminar with Dr. Sabrina Schulz, Climate Security Project Leader for the British High Commission in Ottawa/ British Embassy, Washington DC, on climate change and its effect on national and energy security. The seminar was made possible by AGI’s Foreign & Domestic Policy Program. Dr. Schulz began the seminar with a presentation concerning possible effects of global warming on security, especially in current conflict-ridden areas around the world. Glacial melting, Dr. Schulz proposed, could negatively impact the water supply in areas that are already experiencing disputes over natural resources, such as the Tibetan Plateau. The melting of the Arctic could lead to international competition over natural resources that would become available (e.g., as-yet undiscovered oil, gas, minerals, diamonds, or fishing grounds). The rise in sea levels could threaten the very existence of some small island states, such as the Maldives. There could be increased health risks from food- or vector-borne diseases that travel faster in warmer temperatures. Infrastructure, and especially energy infrastructure located along the coastlines, could also be in serious danger as a result of climate change. Extreme weather events, such as hurricanes or tsunamis, could increase in frequency and intensity.

Dr. Schulz continued her presentation by explaining the risks and costs of climate change for governments in the future. There will be significant differences in the impact climate change will have depending on the extent of the actual temperature increase. According to Dr. Schulz, if there is only a 2 degree Celsius increase in average global temperatures, the aforementioned risks to national security could be contained. However, if the currently projected increase of 4 degrees Celsius were to occur, Dr. Schulz believes the global security risks from climate change cannot be contained. In addition, according the UK government sponsored Stern Review, the cost of inaction with regard to climate change will be much greater in the future in comparison with the costs of action today. If emissions are not reduced significantly now, adaptation will eventually cost 5-20 percent of global GDP annually – and this does not even comprise any second and third order consequences of climate change, including implications for national and international security. However, the cost of action today to reduce greenhouse gas emissions would only be 1 percent of global GDP annually.

The discussion began with comparisons of climate policy in the United States, Germany, and Canada. Dr. Schulz argued that the United States is beginning to adopt a defense- and security-related view on the dangers of climate change, one of only two countries (the other being the United Kingdom) to do so. Participants then discussed Germany’s climate policy in light of national security concerns and found little domestic reasons for Germany to link climate change concerns to national security. The reluctance in Germany to create a security-related view on climate change could be due to the hesitance to “militarize” what is considered a “soft” issue. Other participants suggested the divide between the two issues in Germany is due to the success of climate policy in Germany without the need for further impetus to action. Around the globe other countries have also been slow to link climate, energy, and security policies. Canada, for example, is a net energy exporter so the energy security argument cannot be used to garner support for ambitious action on climate change. This may in part account for Canada’s currently passive stance toward energy and security. Moreover, the debate in Canada, like elsewhere, is currently overshadowed by economic concerns. Countries like Mexico and Australia, it was suggested, might also be more likely to join climate change discussions after the U.S. and Canada take a leadership role.

The seminar continued with participants discussing the effects of domestic politics and political leadership on the climate security debate. In the UK, political leadership – starting under Margaret Thatcher, who had a background as a scientist, and continuing under Labor during Tony Blair’s and Gordon Brown’s times in office – helped make that country more innovative in this arena. The discussion concluded with a debate on what would encourage U.S. action on climate change. One participant suggested coupling the idea of climate policy with the promise of job growth in the new green technology sector. Participants debated whether the new green sector promises more jobs than it delivers, but in Germany there has been significant job creation as a result of the governmental focus on renewable energy. Because the United States will be starting its emissions-cutting program at least a decade after its European counterparts, there will be a need for the United States to eventually accelerate its emissions reduction goals to catch up with Europe.

The final discussion centered on the cap-and-trade proposal as a possible U.S. policy to address climate change. One participant noted that small businesses do not understand the policy or the ramifications of non-compliance to the degree that large corporations are familiar with the idea. Though there is speculative job growth and creation in these sectors, the current economic climate in the United States makes it an unconvincing prospect at the moment considering, in particular, that job losses in one sector might be compensated with job gains in a very different sector. Small and medium enterprises in Germany, it was countered, are often too small to exceed the emissions limit and have adapted to higher energy costs from their utility providers by becoming more energy efficient.