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Illustration by Egle Plytnikaite

Why You Should Be Thinking About Climate Proofing

Bushfires consumed more than 12.6 million hectares (49,000 square miles) in Australia in January 2020, scorching the landscape, endangering many of the continent’s native species, and launching a massive evacuation effort not seen in the nation before.

Soon after, the U.S. state of California also caught fire in numerous locations in mid-2020, setting ablaze more than 4 million acres and stretching the state’s resources to combat the fires and ensure residents’ safety.

While these locales were dealing with major wildfires, others around the world were forced to respond to floods, landslides, tornadoes, derechos, and an Atlantic hurricane season the likes of which has never been seen before—all while authorities and communities nearly everywhere were struggling to contend with the coronavirus pandemic.

And if history is a precursor of the future, this trend will likely continue. Between 1970 and 2019, 79 percent of disasters around the world involved weather, water, and climate-related hazards, according to the World Meteorological Organization’s 2020 State of Climate Services: Risk Information and Early Warning Systems report.

“These disasters accounted for 56 percent of deaths and 75 percent of economic losses from disasters associated with natural hazards events reported during that period,” the report found.

Such events place stress on first responders who deal with disasters and their subsequent fallout, but they also create a national security threat that scientists, military representatives, and others say needs to be addressed as part of a global response to climate change. Another challenge arises from the resulting changes in mass migration patterns, increases in social tensions, and challenges to human health.

“Based on our research, we have determined that even at scenarios of low warming, each region of the world will face severe risks to national and global security in the next three decades,” according to A Security Threat Assessment of Climate Change, published by the Center for Climate and Security (CCS). “Higher levels of warming will pose catastrophic, and likely irreversible, global security risks over the course of the 21st century.”

But organizations still have time to improve their resiliency and ability to mitigate the effects of climate change, enhancing security in the process.

“I am constantly struck by the fact that we have—as a global scientific community—an unprecedented ability to peer into the future and say, ‘If we continue on this road, what will that look like?’” says Kate Guy, panel chair and principal investigator for the CCS report, and senior research fellow, Center for Climate and Security. “We have a pretty good idea of what warming is going to do…we need to translate that into national security language.”

The Global Stage

In December 2020, the United Nations Environment Programme released an update on where the world stood in terms of fossil fuel emissions that contribute to global warming. It was not good news.

The UN’s analysis found that countries are on a path to exceed the limits agreed to in the Paris Climate Agreement by 120 percent. This could lead to “catastrophic” levels of global warming.

Despite “a brief dip in carbon dioxide emissions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, the world is still heading for a temperature rise in excess of 3˚ Celsius this century—far beyond the Paris Agreement goals of limiting global warming to well below 2˚ Celsius and pursuing 1.5˚ Celsius,” according to the Emissions Gap Report 2020. “However, a low-carbon pandemic recovery could cut 25 percent off the greenhouse emissions expected in 2030, based on policies in place before COVID-19.”

A recovery like this would put the globe in a better position than originally anticipated under nations’ pledges to cut emissions as part of the Paris Agreement, as well as put the world closer to the 2˚ Celsius mark.

An encouraging sign is that more nations—126 so far, which together produce 51 percent of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions—are committing to net-zero emissions goals by the mid-century point.

“If the United States of America adopts a net-zero GHG target by 2050, as suggested in the Biden-Harris climate plan, the share would increase to 63 percent,” the UN assessed, referencing the plan U.S. President Joe Biden laid out during his 2020 election campaign.

In the plan, Biden pledged to ensuring the United States recommits to the Paris Climate Agreement and achieves a 100 percent clean energy economy with net-zero emissions by 2050.

The National Security Threat

To understand what even a low warming scenario would look like from a security perspective, CCS, an Institute of the Council of Strategic Risks, gathered a group of climate, intelligence, and military experts to assess the current climate change situation and the ramifications it has for global security.

Their analysis came together in the first report of its kind, A Security Threat Assessment of Climate Change, published in February 2020, says Guy. The assessment looked at two warming scenarios’ impacts on national security—levels that reached 2˚Celsius by mid-century and levels that reached 4˚Celsius—and found that if global emissions are not “reigned in,” the entire world will experience “destabilizing changes in both the near and medium-to-long terms which pose significant threats to security environments, infrastructure, and institutions.”

The council’s assessment found that threats posed by even the lower global warming temperature of 2˚ Celsius would pose a “severe threat” with “catastrophic results.”

“Severe heat and drought, more powerful and destructive storms, declining agriculture and rapidly spreading health risks, and multiple meters of global sea level rise will significantly threaten international security if global greenhouse gas emissions continue to grow unchecked,” the assessment found. “In high-end scenarios, entire regions of the world will be left uninhabitable due to dangerous temperatures, and crop and water resources will become increasingly strained, with severe consequences for food availability, prices, and livelihoods. These conditions could unseat whole societies, leading to waves of migration, state fragility, and new hotspots of political instability, violence, and conflict.”

Climate change is a threat multiplier that acts to accelerate existing national security threats and cause further destabilization through natural disasters and aggravated social tensions, the assessment found.

“First, the sudden shifts in regional climate and weather patterns increase localized physical shocks, causing new constraints in resources and making natural disasters more frequent and intense in communities across the world,” the assessment said. “Then, as human systems are disturbed by shocks to local environments, second-order effects creating new migration patterns and community fragility can create or exacerbate social tensions at the state and regional levels. This increased regional friction may threaten new territorial disputes, conflicts, trade and economic shocks, and harmful unilateral actions.”

For instance, the assessment highlighted the risk of water scarcity and how rising global temperatures, melting glaciers, and drought conditions will put increased pressure on securing access to fresh­water sources. This was demonstrated recently when farmers in drought-stricken northern Mexico occupied the La Boquilla Dam to prevent officials from providing the United States with water as part of a treaty agreement made in 1944. Throughout 2020, Foreign Policy reported, farmers clashed with the Mexican military over payment of water debts to the United States.

“National governments may move to guarantee their water access by diverting or damming the resource, or securing the basin militarily, thereby increasing diplomatic tensions among resource users, particularly in areas with recent histories of conflict and tensions,” the CCS assessment explained.

Another example of a physical shock analyzed in the assessment was the increasing number of extreme weather events. For instance, between 2014 and 2018 the United States experienced climate and weather-related disasters that cost more than $400 billion in damage.

In 2020, the Atlantic Ocean experienced a record-breaking hurricane season of 30 named storms and 12 landfall storms that hit the continental United States. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) said 2020 marked the fifth consecutive year with an above-normal hurricane season.

NOAA said this can largely be attributed to the warm phase of the Atlantic Multi-Decadal Oscillation (AMO), which began in 1995 and creates stronger, longer-lasting storms. NOAA has also been tracking record water levels caused by storms, particularly along the Gulf Coast. This can be incredibly damaging to coastal areas with large populations, such as when Hurricane Sandy hit New York City in 2012 and water swelled above Manhattan’s barriers, driving seawater into the subway system.

“Whether instability follows a natural hazard depends on how the local and national governments respond to care for impacted populations following a severe event,” the assessment found. “If response capabilities and funds are not deployed quickly, the likelihood of food and water insecurity, disease, immobility, and economic disturbance can build into prolonged situations of community breakdown and disaster, followed by potential political stress or conflict.”

The assessment also touched on how future migration patterns, health risks, and sea level rise will impact national security in the future, and not just for vulnerable or developing nations, Guy says.

“There’s often a sort of idea when we see reports looking at future warming that there are going to be winners and losers—that some will fare better than others in a globally warmer world,” Guy explains. “Once we finished the analysis, everywhere is actually worse off. Even the most adaptive, rich, northern nations were facing chaotic, destabilizing impacts—especially at that higher, longer warming scenario.”

Beyond laying out the national security risks of climate change, the assessment also touched on recommendations and actions that can be taken now to mitigate future risk. In addition to cutting global emissions, the report recommended that nations, institutions, and organizations engage in climate proofing.

“When you talk about building resilience from a security perspective, that could mean hardening of infrastructure or moving or softening of infrastructure—allowing it to adapt and withstand,” Guy explains. “Climate proofing requires you to consume the forecasting analysis.”

This means looking at the climate change data that is available; thinking through how that will impact an organization’s resilience, security, and ability to meet its strategic goals; and making investments accordingly.

“No planning process, no budget, no decision making, nothing across U.S. foreign policy should be done without taking into account climate and climate models,” Guy adds. “Where severe storms or hot temperatures are likely to occur—if you’re leaving that out of the equation, you’re going to be blind to what those plans put in place should include.”

Recently, there has been increased appetite around the world to include climate change in security planning. NATO is addressing the issue with its 2030 strategic planning process, and, as of Security Management’s press deadline, the Biden Administration pledged to take a similar approach.

“There is no way to climate proof in the way that you would fireproof. Climate change is more intense and more frequent with each passing year,” Guy says. “But just like when you fireproof, you’re planning for the worst—where you might be most vulnerable. That’s something the security community is good at; they are trained to do that—to look at areas where there might be risk and to think about how to address it.”

The Insurance Push

While some organizations might be slow to begin climate proofing themselves, they may receive an additional push to take action based on requirements from their insurance provider.

“At first glance, the effects of climate change may not seem detrimental to property and casualty (P&C) insurers. They can use the annual policy cycle and their sophisticated understanding of evolving risks to reprice and rearrange portfolios to avoid long-term exposure to climate events,” according to analysis by McKinsey & Company. “And the growth in the value at risk—and possibly volatility—should increase the demand for new and different insurance solutions and services, which, in turn, could expand the industry’s opportunities.”

For instance, the insurance industry is seeing rising numbers of claims from extreme weather events that are fueled by climate change. In 2017, Hurricane Harvey caused $125 billion in economic damage, and the Australian bushfires in 2019 and 2020 caused more than $4.4 billion in damage. More frequent catastrophic events and changing regulatory requirements could make insuring some business models unaffordable or unfeasible in the future, the McKinsey analysis found.

One method to help reduce this risk could be encouraging customers to make their organizations more resilient to physical risks posed by climate change, which could limit the need to make an insurance claim or at least decrease damages on claims.

“For example, one North American insurer gives its homeowners insurance customers access to wildfire-defense services to help them with prevention and mitigation measures,” McKinsey found. “Services include relocating valuables and deploying certified fire professionals to homes if a wildfire is approaching. Adjusting premiums to individual behaviors may also become more common.”

Other measures could include limiting building in areas prone to flooding and improving building standards. And the topic is top of mind for those in the industry, says Antonio Grimaldi, partner at McKinsey’s London Office and the lead author on the analysis.

“European insurance groups are already making statements around how they are helping customers cope with climate change and supply chain operations,” he adds. “Europe has been more active, regulators—particularly in the United Kingdom and Bank of England—have made important statements around climate change, and the Bank of England has requested many of the regulated entities to run stress testing.”

Over the past year, Grimaldi says, general awareness of the effects of climate change has increased, along with the realization that the time to act to mitigate risk is now. Part of this may be due to the COVID-19 pandemic—a previously unconsidered risk that disrupted everyone’s sense of normalcy and how society perceives slow-moving, systemic risks.

“Clearly, this pandemic has been a systemic risk,” Grimaldi says. “Climate risk is another way of saying systemic risk. But there is no vaccine for climate change. You need to act before it happens.” 

Read more about security's role in business continuity here. 

Megan Gates is senior editor at Security Management. Connect with her at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter: @mgngates.

Interested in a deep dive into this topic including more expert insights and live peer-to-peer exchange? On 23 March as part of ASIS Europe, there will be an interactive workshop on “Getting to Grips with Environmental Risk”. To attend, register for a Premium Online Pass here.