Research associate in the Centre of International Relations at the University of British Columbia
PhD candidate in political science at UBC
Barack Obama understands global climate change and is determined to do something about it. His aggressive engagement on this intractable issue stems from worries not only about the associated economic and environmental costs, but also about the security risks.
During his first week in office, Obama warned that unchecked climate change "could result in violent conflict, terrible storms, shrinking coastlines and irreversible catastrophe." He has surrounded himself with advisers who speak frankly and frequently about climate change in security terms.
Energy Secretary Stephen Chu chose "Titanic, the Sequel" as the title of his recent YouTube presentation on the dangers of climate change.
During her confirmation hearing, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton characterized climate change as an "unambiguous security threat." She went on to explain: "At the extreme, it threatens our very existence but, well before that point, it could well incite new wars of an old kind over basic resources like food, water and arable land."
What about Canada? Does Stephen Harper's team grasp the security consequences of warming temperatures, rising sea levels, extreme weather events and precipitation changes? Do they realize that climate change may represent a more complex and serious threat than terrorism and crime, their current security preoccupations? Sadly for Canada, no.
Ottawa is not holding a security lens up to the scientific projections, not even to those set out in recent reports from its own natural resources and health departments. Doing so would reveal multiple scenarios in which simultaneous crises slam Canadian communities, businesses and governments.
Intense storm events, storm surges, erosion and flooding affecting coastal communities and economies in Atlantic Canada. Disruptions to Ontario's critical infrastructure, including water treatment and energy generation. Drought, wildfires and floods on the Prairies. Water shortages, forest fires and pest infestations in British Columbia. New tensions in Northern Canada as more vessels navigate Arctic marine waters and as land-based transportation expands. Growing risks to the health of Canadians through food, air, water, exposure to extreme weather and infectious diseases.
Even if Canada becomes a climate change superstar, the future security landscape still looks grim. The effects of years of inaction are largely irreversible, so the severity and magnitude of climate change-related events are sure to grow. These events will last longer and be more pervasive – occurring locally, nationally and internationally at the same time.
They will have dramatic social, economic and international relations repercussions. They could strain – if not overwhelm – our emergency preparedness, disaster response, critical infrastructure protection, public health, law enforcement and military capacities.
While Canada will be better off than many nations, we will feel the cascading effects from regions where climate change exacerbates already tense and desperate situations, acting as a threat multiplier. Poor, fragile nations will feel the brunt of climate change – and they will be least able to cope.
So, in addition to responding to a myriad of domestic catastrophes, Canada will not be able to avoid accepting climate migrants or joining missions to restore stability or peace in countries where climate change accelerates civil conflicts or triggers humanitarian crises.
Why doesn't climate change resonate as a "real" security threat in this country?
Because we hang on to outdated ideas about threats to our personal and national security. Spies, terrorists, criminals, insurgents or other bad actors are not responsible, so we frame climate change in strictly economic and environmental terms – not as a legitimate security worry.
Because security officials are preoccupied with today's headline-grabbing files, not strategic issues.
Because assessing our security vulnerability to climate change would depend on mining open information and leveraging outside expertise, not on collecting classified intelligence from clandestine sources.
Because Canada tends to focus on security risks only after they blow up.
And finally, because there is no consensus, no sense of urgency and no leadership on this issue in Canadian security circles.
Obama and Harper got off to a slow start on the climate change file during their first face-to-face meeting. Ottawa should brace for a more aggressive timetable as the new administration tackles its many dimensions. As part of getting ready for the next moves out of Washington, Harper and his ministers should start thinking strategically about how climate change will add to continental and international insecurity.
Indeed, Canada could provide global leadership by undertaking a serious assessment of how a changing climate will impact our national security, public safety and international security interests over the next 30 years. Ottawa could do what no other government has yet done – use a country-specific risk assessment as the basis for developing a national adaptation and preparedness strategy.
We have some of the best climate scientists and security analysts in the world, and we should take advantage of their talents. To borrow from Stephen Chu's Titanic analogy, we should do this soon – before we hit the looming iceberg dead on.