22 January 2019

UK Ministry of Defence identifies climate change and resource use among the highest risks to defence and security

The UK’s Ministry of Defence has published a new report which places climate and related risks among the highest impact and certainty threats to defence and security. ‘The Future Starts Today’, the sixth edition of the Global Strategic Trends report written by the Ministry's think tank, the Development, Concepts and Doctrine Centre, identifies increasing environmental stress as one of six key trends that require action.

In addition to trends the report has developed non-linear insights including the production of ‘future worlds’ to explore potential shocks, shifts and surprises, and an assessment of the scale and uncertainty of impact of 16 focus areas. Among these are:

  • Increasing competition in the global commons
  • Increasing disruption and cost of climate change
  • Increasing demand and competition for resources

The disruption and cost of climate change is assessed as entailing the highest certainty of all 16 focus areas, which also feature artificial intelligence, unregulated information space and the erosion of state sovereignty. All three of the above climate-related concerns are assessed as being at the upper end of both impact and certainty, all with a high level of confidence from the authors. Additional related focus areas include adaptation of the rules-based international system, managing technological change and managing demographic change.




A number of strategic implications are identified based on these focus areas, including the following regarding climate change and resource pressures:

  • The demand for a coordinated global campaign to address climate change will grow as acute effects are felt from an increasingly volatile climate and concerns develop about an approaching ecological ‘tipping point’.
  • Geoengineering (deliberate, large-scale manipulation of an environmental process) could become a strategic geopolitical (and irreversible) choice for governments.
  • Defence and security planning assumptions, not least access, basing, routes, logistics and the environmental envelope in which military capabilities will have to operate, will need to be reviewed.
  • Increasing national and global resilience to resource disruptions is essential to national defence and will reduce the need for humanitarian interventions.

In particular climate change is expected to exacerbate migration and security challenges through, for example, low rainfall, impacts on agriculture and aggravated natural disasters, especially in developing countries with less capacity to mitigate these effects.

Emerging from the analysis according to the report’s authors is a central idea: that “the rate of change and level of uncertainty may outpace good governance and unity”.