While the risks of terrorism should not be downplayed, the extensive nature of climate change risks should not be downplayed either. Often times, the impacts are less visible but more significant, argues Janani Vivekananda.
Janani Vivekananda is a senior project manager at the international think tank adelphi, where she specialises in climate change and peacebuilding.
World leaders on international security policy meet in Munich this week to discuss the most pertinent security risks facing the world today. High on the agenda will be the big ticket risks: nuclear proliferation, the ongoing tensions in the Middle East, the new world order vis-à-vis the U.S., Russia and the EU.
Also on the agenda is climate change. The inclusion of non-traditional security risks such as climate change is very welcome. It is a step towards better understanding the inter-linked risk landscape we face.
However, whilst climate change-related security risks are on the table for discussion, the extent of the risks climate change poses to international security is not matched by the financial resourcing which goes towards tackling these risks.
A look at defence balance sheets reflects this asymmetry. Terrorism was responsible for 265 deaths in OECD countries in 2016. In the same year, 688.5 million people or 9.3 percent of the world’s population suffered from severe food insecurity, exacerbated by climate-related events, and 24.2 million people were displaced as a consequence of slow-onset climate disasters.
The EU budget contributing to counter terrorism was €4,052 million in 2016. Spending on climate-related security risks by the EU in 2016 was €5 million in 2016.
Policy makers in Munich deciding security and foreign policy budgets need to balance low probability, high impact risks (such as terror attacks) with high probability, low impact risks (such as climate change) – especially when the latter can actually catalyse the risk of the former.
Recent research shows that climate change-related drought in the Lake Chad region contributed to the worsening of livelihood prospects for young people in Northeastern Nigeria.
With few other prospects available, securing a decent job to put food on the table or afford to marry, and no support from the national government which had neglected and marginalised the region for decades, these unemployed young people were left ripe for recruitment by armed groups such as Boko Haram, who offer cash, loans and food.
While the risks of terrorism should not be downplayed, the extensive nature of climate change risks should not be downplayed either. Whilst the impacts are often less visible than a terror attack, they are a highly pervasive and significant risk to international security, interacting with various other risks, with the potential to catalyse or accelerate their impacts.
The Munich Security Report – the annual synthesis of international security risks which accompanies the conference, rightly notes that climate change impact on international relations will go beyond natural disasters and should be a major factor when states consider security risks.
The report notes that “while climate change will affect economic, security and political systems all over the world, it will mainly act as a ‘threat multiplier’ in those states with limited capacities to deal with it”.
However, this consideration should go on to be reflected in actions: starting with the adequate financing of measures to address these risks, and also, importantly, including climate change risks in other security engagements such as post-conflict reconstruction and ex-combatant reintegration processes.
When it comes to risks, we know that prevention is better – and cheaper – than cure. But prevention means truly understanding all the linked issues which underlie conflict and risk – including climate change, and adequately factoring them into responses. This needs the right kind of analysis.
It also requires the right kind of resourcing. If the decision makers in Munich really want to have a serious shot at addressing some of the most serious risks we are facing today, they need to be ready and willing to put in the funding required to address the lower impact risks like climate change, which often catalyse bigger shocks.
Fear or the perceived need to respond to the most visible risks might drive some countries to spend vast amounts of money on low-probability risks like terrorism. But far-sighted foreign policies, which invest sufficiently in preventing risks such as vulnerability to climate change, would have great and lasting rewards.