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As the window closes, the focus may be sharpening: COP27, climate security, and future world (dis)order

Dr Maeve Ryan

Co-Director for the Centre for Grand Strategy

08 November 2022

Delegates have now assembled in the Egyptian city of Sharm el-Sheikh for COP27, the UN’s annual climate conference. Yet again, the conference takes place against a backdrop of formidable global upheavals – the immediate health crisis of the pandemic receding from prominence as spiralling debt and inflation take centre stage, and as the world braces itself for a looming recession, worsening food and energy security crises, the ongoing geopolitical, diplomatic, security, and humanitarian consequences of Russia’s war of aggression in Ukraine, and the now-regular drumbeat of ‘historic’ and ‘once-in-a-century’ climate-related natural disasters and biodiversity losses.

In a year packed with so many other issues competing for leaders’ attention, it is encouraging that some tangible progress has been made towards climate objectives since the last COP meeting – particularly in the area of green energy investments. Many of the states that are most vulnerable to rising sea levels and other destructive effects of climate change have welcomed COP27’s focus on implementation and financing for loss and damage. Hope remains – just – that this summit can make a difference.


But, as the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) noted in its latest Emissions Gap report, there is currently no credible path to limiting average planetary warming to 1.5 degrees. It begs the question: does humanity have the capacity to pull together the kind of leadership, cooperation, strategic vision, commitment, investment, and follow-through required to keep warming below even 2 degrees?


Perhaps, but it is difficult to think of any reassuring historical precedent demonstrating that we do. And in many respects, 2 degrees may be the best we can hope for: according to the UNEP predictions, ‘policies currently in place point to a 2.8°C temperature rise by the end of the century. Implementation of the current pledges will only reduce this to a 2.4-2.6°C temperature rise by the end of the century.’ The conclusion was stark: the window of opportunity is closing – and fast.


Climate experts struggle to communicate to non-specialist audiences the immense destruction that would be unleashed at 2 or more degrees of warming. In part, this is because (as noted in a recent ASPI report on ‘The Geopolitics of Climate and Security in the Indo-Pacific’) it is analytically very challenging to bring together in one model a set of climate hazards normally studied as independent variables, and to articulate both the wider context in which they interact with other hazards and with human systems, and the ways in which hazards can in turn trigger other disruptions and cause cascading impacts—and responses—in those human systems. It is also very hard to measure the real impacts of adaption and mitigation policies. In his 2020 book, Our Final Warning, the British journalist Mark Lynas attempted to paint an evidence-based picture of what each additional degree of warming looks like: at two degrees, immense stress on human societies and the destruction of many natural ecosystems including rainforests and coral reefs; at three degrees, ‘the stability of human civilisation seriously imperilled, while at four degrees a full-scale global collapse of human societies is probable, accompanied by a mass extinction of the biosphere that will be the worst on earth for tens or even hundreds of millions of years.’ At five degrees, he predicted ‘climate impacts so extreme that they will leave most of the globe biologically uninhabitable.’


Climate scientists rarely commit such definitive, broad-brush predictions to paper, and for understandable reasons. Whatever one accepts as evidence-based predictions for each warming scenario, it should be increasingly clear to the leaders assembling in Egypt this week that climate change is already a leading security issue that threatens not future but current generations, and should be front and centre in any strategic review or discussion of grand strategic priorities. Anthropogenic climate change is already manifesting deeply interconnected, cascading, and irreversible consequences that now affect in measurable ways the various systems that comprise international order. This is not a future probability: this is happening now. We are experiencing the onset of a systemic global crisis that is transforming the geopolitical landscape, and these stresses and security risks will continue to escalate and compound more quickly than many might like to imagine.


Some of the worst threats to international order can still be mitigated; however, some consequences are now irreversibly ‘locked-in’. The coming years will likely bring increasingly intense droughts, floods, food and water insecurity. On current trajectories, the coming decades will bring sustained heat and humidity conditions that will render some regions of the world no longer safe for human habitation, and will trigger the migration of tens – perhaps even hundreds – of millions of people. If (or when) that happens, it is highly likely that conflicts will be unleashed over increasingly scarce resources as whole populations begin to abandon these regions in order to survive.


If (or when) this begins in earnest, the states who have so far sought to manage domestic politics by stoking their populations’ suspicion of, and hostility towards, asylum seekers may regret the short-sightedness of this approach. Recent events in Britain – from the firebombing of an asylum processing centre in Kent to the inhumane, carceral conditions inflicted on the asylum seekers detained at the Manston centre – suggest that we are far from ready for the world that is coming. It is as inhumane as it is unlawful and fruitless to demonise as an ‘invading force’ people exercising their legal right to seek asylum, and to engage in strategies of deterrence by cruelty’. Such policies are not only contrary to the proud self-image many Britons hold of a country that once led a global slave-trade suppression movement and who historically helped to pioneer modern ideas about the state as a provider of refuge to persecuted foreigners. These policies are also thoroughly wasteful of time and resources in a world that needs to adapt quickly and smartly to the changes that are coming.


The long-delayed, recently published US National Security Strategy offered some indications that the Biden administration is ready to foreground in its grand strategic calculations the manifold regional and global security implications of climate change, and to treat climate change as a question – perhaps the most fundamental question – that will shape key ordering systems, and thus the future of world order. It remains to be seen what this may mean in practice.


Equally, it remains to be seen whether, and to what extent key allies follow suit – and, here in the UK, to what extent the planned ‘refresh’ of the 2021 Integrated Review will centre the national, regional and global security implications of climate change and link the UK’s ambition to ‘shape the open international order of the future’ with a realistic sense of what the most fundamental challenges to that order will be.


One thing is quite clear: if an adversarial state had the destructive power that 2 degrees or 2.5 degrees of planetary warming will unleash, we would speak of little else. Can delegates assembled in Egypt this week achieve something truly unprecedented, and set the UN Parties to the Framework Convention on Climate Change on a course to defeating this adversary of our own creation? Or will we waste more time failing to prepare adequately for a future that we ourselves lock in – for us and the coming generations – with every wasted month?


Contributing to society through our knowledge lies at the heart of our core mission at King’s and drives our commitment to addressing global climate change. For expert analysis and commentary from a cross-disciplinary hub of KCL’s leading scholars of climate change and climate policy, follow the KCL COP27 news tracker from the KCL Climate Hub. You can also subscribe to the King’s Climate Exchange Podcast. For expert analysis of the specifically security dimensions of climate change, follow the work of the KCL Environmental Security Research Group.

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Maeve  Ryan

Maeve Ryan

Reader in History and Foreign Policy

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