Coping with the climate change – real and political (2)
Arvamus 26 Oct 2009  EWR
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Tomas Jermalavicius, ICDS

October 15th is a Blog Action Day’09 on Climate Change, whereby thousands of bloggers from around the world – concerned individuals as well as NGOs and corporations – join to discuss this issue and underline its importance to their readers in the bloggospace ( Security and defence community is notably absent from this action, but it does not mean it is not preoccupied with the matter: climate change and its security implications are a prominent subject in academic papers, policy reviews, foresight exercises and various gatherings.

One example is Global Trends 2025 study by the U.S. National Intelligence Council, published at the start of 2009, which puts abrupt climate change at the heart of one of the scenarios (entitled, coincidentally for the moment of writing this blog entry, “October Surprise”). Another perfect example is an extensive study, prepared by a group of retired U.S. generals and admirals from all services in 2007, “National Security and the Threat of Climate Change”, which assesses global and regional security consequences of this phenomenon as well as its implications to military systems, infrastructure and operations.

Politicians are not far behind. The 2007 Munich Security Conference was most commented upon for the speech of Vladimir Putin, where he lambasted the United States in all possible ways, prompting the analysts to declare the near-return to the Cold War. This fuss about an aggressive rhetoric of one cocky Russian, unfortunately, left other more balanced and much wiser speeches like the one of German Chancellor Angela Merkel out in the cold and unheeded. But this is what she said: “If the climate researchers’ reports are to be believed, global warming is a huge medium and long-term threat, one which could have dramatic consequences such as refugee flows and armed conflicts.”

President Obama also turned combating global climate change into one of his key foreign and domestic policy pillars, well highlighted in his maiden speech at the UN General Assembly in September (moments before a wacky Libyan colonel stole the show). In his typically forceful and eloquent fashion, he pointed out that “The danger posed by climate change cannot be denied…If we continue down our current course, every member of this Assembly will see irreversible changes within their borders. Our efforts to end conflicts will be eclipsed by wars over refugees and resources.” And so on, and so forth…

Obviously, this sets a good tone for the meeting in Copenhagen at the end of the year to strike a new global deal to replace the lame and expiring Kyoto Protocol (it would certainly help if the U.S. domestic political process churned out a reasonable bill on capping and trading American carbon dioxide emissions too). In a meantime, in Copenhagen, they are as busy with preparations for the grand gathering as with pondering how to handle security consequences of the ice sheet meltdown in the Arctic: Danish Institute of Military Studies has just held a conference “On Thin Ice: Climate Change and Arctic Security in the 21st Century”.

Looming challenges in the Arctic region, prompted by the climate change, such as a rush for (presumed) mineral wealth lying under seabed or for control of new shipping routes as well as unavoidable environmental damage of increased industrial human activity in the region are already causing headaches in many quarters (as well as salivation by those who see it as a golden opportunity). The now famous “Stoltenberg report” to the Nordic foreign ministers dedicates quite some space for pondering them, although some analysts are getting really worried about what they call “sexying up” the Arctic security issue with alarmist predictions of a major inter-state conflict.

And the Baltics? Rhetorical action aside, are we really concerned about all this? After all, we have never been very famous for a long-term view and foresight. Unless “October Surprise” from Global Trends 2025 materializes and we hit a tipping point beyond which climate change becomes sudden and severe, we can always count on our ability to adjust and adapt as well as the “big guys” to carry most of the burden, right? So why worry, we can just keep on parroting those “big guys” and their worries, but probably only to maintain appearances and please them rather than out of a serious concern.

Honestly, how many of us think that, for instance, Estonia will experience an influx of refugees or armed conflict as a result of global climate change? Or that Arctic is our business? I am quite sure that, should the ICDS hold a conference on security dimensions of climate change, it would be largely ignored by the local audiences (bar a catastrophic flooding of Pärnu or a sudden outbreak of malaria in Tartumaa, of course) and would end up as a chat with a few Nordic experts and representatives of foreign embassies. Climate change and its security repercussions are not on our mental radar screen, because we do not really recognize and believe that they will dramatically alter the sources of our insecurity.

However, if we held an event on the ongoing change of political climate in the region, with sub-topics on a “reset button” in the U.S.-Russia relations or newly regained NATO’s wish to turn Russia into a strategic partner – everyone would turn up. It is always a splendid opportunity to complain about the U.S. betrayal, Russia’s threat, NATO’s lack of credibility or EU’s mercantilism. But, quite frankly, this unchanging tune of our security discourse is like rushing to dig for more oil in the Arctic, while the seas are rising and fertile lands are turning into deserts exactly because of the addiction to fossil fuels – it is counterproductive and out of touch with the big picture.

The Baltics, along with their friends and partners in Central and Eastern Europe, are steadily marginalizing themselves in the changing political climate. It is, of course, good to point out to the visiting new NATO Secretary General that we beg to differ on his upbeat views about future rosy relations with Russia, or to urge the new U.S. administration not to forget us. But when it comes to new security agenda, we have little to offer in terms of new thinking about ways and means of coping with global security challenges (Estonia’s focus on cyber defence being a nice and very welcome exception). Our lack of attention to security and defence ramifications of climate change is quite symptomatic of that, not to mention, for instance, such subjects as non-proliferation, where we have even less to say.

Keeping ourselves relevant, visible and constructive partners in the new, post-Bush, political climate will take some effort, but it will eventually pay off with very tangible security benefits. Going back to the real climate change, we should start with developing a very thorough and complex understanding of how it will affect our security, directly and indirectly. Having a good analysis will lay a good ground for taking a meaningful part in the discussion with our allies, partners and even not-so-friendly opponents, where we can surprise everyone by saying something more than just voicing our usual (and increasingly annoying to everyone else in the room) security worries. Even better, if it comes from the bottom of our hearts, as a genuine concern and interest, not as a manipulative attempt to catch attention.

Do we know what impact it will have on our food and water security and how to mitigate it? What new diseases may appear within our borders as a result of warming conditions? What capabilities will be required to cope with increasingly volatile weather and ensuing disruption or destruction? How will we respond to the desperate pleas of our EU partners in Southern Europe to share the burden of coping with the flow of hungry refugees? How will requirements for military capabilities be different to be able to operate in the areas devastated by climate change?

These are just a few questions which beg attention. But to be able to answer to them, the Baltics need to start investing more into expanding and maintaining their knowledge base in the areas critical to global, regional and national security. Other countries do it by means of investing into security and defence R&D, the outcomes of which are translated into competence to anticipate various developments, understand their implications and prepare for them. As an example, had policymakers been forewarned by technology watchers that the technology underpinning the (already cancelled) elements of the U.S. ballistic missile defence system was too unreliable and expensive, they would have been able to anticipate its cancellation well in advance. There would have been one nasty surprise less.

Perhaps we, as small nations, cannot affect in any substantive way many big things – be it climate change, Russia’s political trajectory or American foreign policy. But we can always try to stay ahead of the curve of a major change and be mentally as well as practically prepared to make a small but valuable contribution to managing it. This is what it means and takes to be good allies and good global citizens. And thus, in the end of the day, when real as well as political climates warm up, we will hopefully find ourselves better rather than worse off.
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