Degrees of Risk: Defining a Risk Management Framework for Climate Security

February 2011

By E3G

Authors: Nick Mabey, Jay Gulledge, Bernard Finel and Katherine Silverthorne

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Executive Summary:

There is a growing consensus in the security community that climate change presents significant risks to the delivery of national, regional and global security goals. Through sea level rise, shortages of food and water and severe weather events, climate change will have significant impacts on all countries, which in turn could affect their social stability and economic security. In the coming decades such impacts will increase the likelihood of conflict in fragile countries and regions. Peaceful management of even moderate climatic changes will require investment in increased resilience in national and international security and governance systems.

Security analysis has mainly examined the implications of climate change over the coming two decades. These are largely unavoidable under all plausible greenhouse gas emissions reduction scenarios, given the inertia in energy infrastructure and the global climate system. However, if immediate action is not taken to reduce the steady rise in global emissions, there will be a rapid increase in the risk of far more severe impacts, resulting in security challenges that are much more significant than current estimates indicate.

But 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, at most, a 2°C 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°C. Fragile areas such as Southern Africa could experience 50 percent more warming than the global rate. If countries failed to deliver on their emissions pledges, or if we have underestimated climate sensitivity, increases of up to 7°C are also possible. But the risks are not symmetrical. There is a ‘long tail’ on the probability distribution which makes more severe outcomes much more likely than more benign ones. In addition, above 3°C of warming the probability of breaching thresholds for “tipping elements” in the climate system rises sharply. For example, events such as a major die-back of the Amazon rain forest or release of methane from the Arctic tundra would further increase global warming levels.

E3G is an independent not-for-profit organization that works to accelerate the global transition to sustainable development. Visit E3G's website at www.e3g.org