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'Adapt and Survive': The British Establishment's Answer to the Security Threat of Climate Change

11/11/2014 14:55 GMT | Updated 11/01/2015 10:59 GMT

At the height of the Cold War, the British establishment deluded itself into believing it could survive a nuclear war. Civil defence planners constructed deep underground bunkers, made elaborate plans for post-apocalypse governance and even produced a public information film - 'Protect and Survive' - whose ludicrously naive recommendations for surviving atomic blasts ('paint your windows white') were lampooned in the popular graphic novel When the Wind Blows.

Today, the British establishment appears to think the same thing about runaway climate change. 'Adapt and survive' seems to be the official attitude. Civil servants quietly confide that there's "not a cat in hell's chance of keeping the world below two degrees" of global warming, the safe threshold recommended by climate scientists. But our leaders carry on regardless, assuming we can just muddle through.

This is an outrageous folly - and one blown apart yesterday by a senior military figure, Rear Admiral Neil Morisetti, during an event in Parliament on the risks posed by global warming. "You can probably secure a 2C world", he stated; "it's most unlikely you can secure a 4C world." Climate change is a "threat multiplier", argued Morisetti, increasing the likelihood of conflict by threatening water stress, the greater movement of peoples, and wars for resources. "There may be occasions where the impact is so severe, there's conflict in those regions and we may have to deploy British forces," he said. A sobering thought on Remembrance Day.

In fact, the Ministry of Defence has known about the risks posed by climate change for some time. In their latest horizon-scanning report, Global Strategic Trends 5, the MOD warns that "without concerted action, it is unlikely that it will be possible to prevent global average temperatures rising more than 2°C above pre-industrial levels". They warn climate change could lead to "an increase in the magnitude of humanitarian crises", the collapse of fisheries, "severe" impacts on agriculture in sub-Saharan Africa, and "wholesale international migration" from drowned island nations. And if you think the impacts of 2 degrees sound bad, just imagine turning the global temperature up a further 2 degrees. As one UK climate scientist recently put it, "At 4C the impacts are very high and we cannot adapt to them."

Nor does the MOD see climate change as solely an international threat. They have also quietly been assessing the risks posed by rising sea levels and increased flooding to their defence estate in the UK. Earlier this year, Friends of the Earth obtained a set of unpublished documents showing the MOD has considered abandoning some of its most low-lying coastal bases - such as the Lydd Ranges near Dungeness on the south coast - because of rising sea levels.

When you realise this, it's hard not to see politicians' lackadaisical response to the climate threat as rather akin to the pre-World War Two policy of appeasement. Every now and then, a Minister will fly to an international climate summit, returning with a piece of paper proclaiming that the world has been saved, when in fact the pledges governments have made will still pitch the world over the precipice of runaway climate change.

Domestically, too, the political response to climate change has uncanny echoes of the 1930s. Faced with an economic crisis, the coalition governments of the 30s cut back on defence spending, even as what Winston Churchill termed 'the gathering storm' brooded darkly on the horizon. Today, a coalition government responding to an economic crisis chose to cut back on flood defence spending and has, according to a recent report by the National Audit Office, left our flood defences in a state of neglect. We are woefully underprepared for the gathering storm of climate change - let alone doing enough to prevent its worst excesses from taking place.

Today's political establishment has sought to appease those forces reluctant to act on climate change - the fossil fuel lobby and their useful idiots, the climate sceptics - by hiding behind the excuse of 'uncertainty'. Not every single aspect of climate science is certain, so there are endless reasons to delay action. But this is a basic failure to appreciate and manage risk. People faced with making risky decisions every day - from the military, to insurance companies, to public health professionals - look at the problem of climate change differently. As Morisetti stated yesterday: "We know enough, we've got to act now to manage the risks. We have far more confidence about the impacts of a changing climate than other threats."

Of course, there is no military solution to climate change. You can't resolve it with bombs and bullets. You can only solve it by ending our usage of fossil fuels, and protecting the public from the climate change impacts already in the pipeline. That is a rather different security challenge to the one usually faced by the military. But it also makes fossil fuels and the firms lobbying for them Public Enemy Number One.