20th December 2017

By Nicholas Soames

19th December 2017

As the wells ran dry around Lake Chad, Boko Haram tightened their grip. An extreme drought, made worse by record temperatures, helped push farmers with nothing left to lose into the arms of Islamic extremists.

These new recruits would go on to help terrorise the region with bombings, abductions and assassinations.

This was just one of the chilling examples I heard last week from a visiting delegation of three and four-star US military men who came to London to deliver a stark warning to MPs and Peers on the growing security risks posed by climate change.

Climate change does not cause conflict. Yet in areas of political instability it is the equivalent, to quote Rear Admiral Neil Morisetti, formerly of the Royal Navy, “of pouring a bucket of petrol on a smouldering fire.”

Extreme weather events like severe droughts are increasingly linked to climate change, and the subsequent crop failures and high food prices have added to the political instability that we have seen across North Africa and the Middle East in recent years.

This instability cannot be treated as a quarrel in a far away country between people we know nothing about. As the recent migrant crisis in the Mediterranean shows, in a globalised world the effects of conflict in one region quickly spill-over into another, and mass migration will become only more common as areas of our planet become increasingly uninhabitable.

As our warming oceans expand and melting glaciers swell the seas, population centres from Miami to Bangladesh are at risk. In the case of the latter, a mere three-foot rise in sea level will submerge almost 20 per cent of the country, displacing more than 30 million people. 

The great thawing of the Arctic that we have seen on the brilliant Blue Planet II poses another strategic threat: by opening new navigable waterways for Russian ships it creates new theatres of operation for NATO soldiers and sailors.

The range and number of strategic challenges will continue to grow as our environment changes, while our soldiers will fight in increasingly hostile environments; one operation avoiding hypothermia, the next heatstroke. As we ask ever more of our Armed Forces, they must have the training and equipment they need to achieve victory.

Ultimately, however, there can be no military solution to the issue of climate change – no armoured brigade will see it off.

On Tuesday the Prime Minister rightly highlighted the duty we have to help poorer countries adapt to climate change through development aid. These efforts not only prevent disease and provide education: they can also nip nascent extremism in the bud and reduce the need for military force to be deployed in the first place.

As the US Defence Secretary James Mattis, formerly a Marine Corps general, said of cuts to the foreign aid and diplomacy budgets back in 2013, “if you don’t fund the State Department fully, then I need to buy more ammunition”.

I know that a number of Parliamentary Committees are considering examining the many security implications of a changing climate. Underpinning this strategic response must sit our efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Britain has always led the way in this regard – from our Climate Change Act, 10 years old next year, to the Government’s excellent recent Clean Growth Strategy.

Younger people sense the opportunities involved, and the risks in not taking action, with recent polling showing climate change as the number one issue young voters want to hear more about from politicians.

Unfortunately, they are right to worry. Without further action the consequences of climate change, from mass migration to extremism will continue to grow more and more unmanageable.

Securing our world will require continued international leadership on emissions reduction and we should seek to be ahead of the curve when it comes to reaching a net-zero carbon emissions economy.

As Churchill said of a different existential threat, “The era of procrastination, of half-measures, of soothing and baffling expedients, of delays, is coming to its close. In its place we are entering a period of consequences... We cannot avoid this period; we are in it now.”

Despite outbursts from the Oval Office, the American military establishment – not to mention the State Department, State Governors, and the private sector – take the issue of climate change immensely seriously, and want, in their words, their “closest ally by their side.”

We must make sure that we too are ready to face facts and to tackle head on the greatest existential threat that we now face.

| The Telegraph