THE BLOG
02/06/2015 11:33 BST | Updated 02/06/2016 06:59 BST

Not Only Obscene But Wrong

Exactly one week before the Queen's Speech President Obama gave a speech - not in London, but in New London, Connecticut - to the United States Coast Guard Academy. He said: "I am here today to say that climate change constitutes a serious threat to global security, an immediate risk to our national security, and, make no mistake, it will impact how our military defends our country... And so we need to act - and we need to act now."

He said that climate change would shape how every one of America's services plan, operate, train, equip and protect their infrastructure, because climate change poses risks to national security, resulting in humanitarian crises, and "potentially increasing refugee flows and exacerbating conflicts over basic resources like food and water."

Last summer I was critical in this House of the government's decision not to provide financial support to the Italian government's coast guard operation to rescue refugees from Libya. The Government's responded to me then that such rescue operations acted as a "pull factor" and were only increasing the number of attempts. I thought it an obscene argument then and in the intervening months we have seen that it was not only obscene, but wrong. The numbers have increased. This Saturday the Italian Coast Guard announced that more than 4,000 migrants had been rescued off Libya's coast in 22 separate operations in just one day.

We need to look deeper into why those migrants are coming in the first place. It would be convenient for me to point to the British and French air strikes, not to mention the failure to prepare a post-Gadhafi strategy that left that country in chaos. But I want to look deeper still into why the civil war started in the first place. It was part of a much wider pattern of regional upheavals that we called the Arab Spring that began in Egypt in 2010 with the uprisings in Tahrir Square.

If we track back those disturbances we come inexorably to the 2010 drought in Russia's wheatbelt. It was the longest and most severe drought in Russia in over 50 years. The country lost 25% of its crop and it led Russia to impose an export ban on wheat that it had traditionally exported to Egypt. The food crisis in Egypt was the pre-curser to the Arab Spring. It was the same in Tunisia and the rest of the Arab world.

On the 9th September 2010 when the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation warned that Syria's drought was affecting food security and had pushed 2-3 million people into "extreme poverty" few people took any notice. In fact Syria had suffered four successive years of drought: the longest and deepest failure since records began in 1900. The losses from these repeated droughts were particularly significant for the population in the northeastern part of the country, in Al-Hasakeh, Deir Ezzor and Al-Raqqa.

Small-scale farmers were worst affected -- many of them not able to cultivate enough food or earn enough money to feed their families. Herders also lost 80-85 percent of their livestock. Thousands left the northeast and migrated to informal camps close to Damascus. Experts warned at the time, that the true figure of those living in "extreme poverty" was higher than the official 2-3 million estimate. What is astonishing in military terms is that nobody predicted in September 2010 that such a tinder box might give rise to civil unrest and civil war only six months later.

The International Institute for Strategic Studies is very clear on the impact of resource shortages. In 2011 they published a report claiming that climate change "will increase the risks of resource shortages, mass migration and civil conflict" and the MoD has said that it will shift "the tipping point at which conflict occurs".

The degradation of natural resources such as forests and freshwater has removed much of the resilience that societies formerly enjoyed. And what is perhaps equally disturbing is that we are beginning to see evidence that efforts to mitigate or adapt to climate change by some countries can actually shift increased risk onto others.

Climate change brings pressures that will influence resource competition between nations and place additional burdens on economies, societies and governance institutions around the globe. These effects are threat multipliers. They will aggravate those things that lead to conflict: poverty, environmental degradation, political instability and social tension. If Britain is to play a positive role in the world then this must be understood by our military and we must adapt.

We as politicians have to understand that the greatest threats to our security are no longer conventional military ones. You cannot nuke a famine. You cannot send battleships in to stop the destruction of a rainforest. But you can spend money on clean technology transfer that enables countries to bring their people out of poverty without polluting their future. You can invest in adaptation measures that will protect communities from the effects of climate change that are already placing their societies under stress.