Arctic means global: Climate Change and Global Security

Minister of Climate and EnvironmentVidar Helgesens speech at NATO Parliamentary Assembly seminar, Longyearbyen, 9 May 2017


The Arctic is important to Norway. 10 per cent of us live in the Arctic. And most of Norway's territory is in the Arctic - if you include our ocean territory.

NATO is important to Norway, and to the Arctic as a region that is vital to security and prosperity.

But my topic today will be why the Arctic is not only a regional issue, but a global one. This holds true in particular when it comes to climate change,

Arctic warming is global in two ways.

Firstly, the Arctic is warming not primarily because of activities in the Arctic, but because of global greenhouse gas emissions.

Secondly, Arctic warming in turn will have global repercussions, including for global security. What happens in the Arctic, does not stay in the Arctic.

Evidently, global warming is also changing the geopolitics of the Arctic in significant ways. But I will leave this to later speakers today. Rather, I will provide some perspectives on how a warming Arctic may affect global security.

What is going on in the Arctic

I understand you had a nice boat trip yesterday.

15 years ago, you could not have done that. There would have been ice, so you would have had to do this trip on snow mobile at this time of year.

Changes are taking place not only on the surface, but also beneath the surface. This is a photo of a seal with an Atlantic cod in its mouth, in Kings Bay (Kongsfjorden) from my visit in October. This should have been an Arctic cod. Atlantic cod traditionally does not belong here. We are witnessing what scientists refer to as an atlantification of the Arctic.

The Arctic is still a cold place, but it is warming faster than any other region on Earth.

Over the past 50 years, the Arctic’s temperature has risen by more than twice the global average.

In 2016, the annual mean temperature here in Svalbard was 6 degrees higher than normal.

The Crown glacier outside Ny Alesund has retreated by more than 2 kilometers over the last 5  years. If you do the maths, that's more than one meter per day.

Yesterday I visited our impressive climate research establishment there.

I announced a new government grant to repair the administrative headquarters there: the building is unraveling from melting permafrost.

And you will probably have heard of the avalanches and the landslides here in Longyearbyen, prompting discussions of relocating entire parts of the town.

So we are already witnessing actual consequences of global warming to Arctic life.

What Arctic change does to the world

But these rapid changes have consequences well beyond the Arctic.

It is a known fact that a warmer Arctic means more rapid melting of the Greenland ice-cap and other glaciers. As we speak, melting ice in the Arctic contributes more than a third of the overall global sea-level rise.

But there is more to come. Once Arctic warming gets going, it has two important dynamics with unpredictable effects.

Firstly: As the Arctic warms and sea-ice and snow-cover retracts, this weakens surface reflectivity. The bare ground and open water absorb more heat from the sun and amplify warming further, as you can see from the upper figure on this slide.

This feedback is an important reason why the Arctic warms at twice the rate of the global average.

Secondly, the Arctic permafrost is a storehouse for trapped greenhouse-gases such as methane and CO2.  The lower figure on this slide shows the distribution of permafrost in the North. When the permafrost is thawing, these greenhouse-gases could be released to the atmosphere, amplifying global warming further.

These secondary effects are adding unpredictability.

Unpredictability in terms of consequences.

But also unpredictability in terms of the pace of climate change.

As we know, unpredictability means enhanced risks.

Arctic warming is accelerating

A new scientific assessment of climate change in the Arctic, by the Arctic Council’s Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme (AMAP), concludes that the Arctic is now shifting — rapidly and in unexpected ways — into a new state.

If we allow current trends to continue, they will have profound and accelerated impacts on ecosystems, human health and safety, industries and economies around the world. Certainly, this will also influence our security environment.

According to this study, Arctic temperatures are projected to continue to rise at twice the rate of the global average. By 2100, models project an increase of about 5– 9°C in Arctic annual mean temperatures, depending on future emissions of greenhouse gases. If we continue on our present course, Arctic winter temperatures could rise as much as 12 degrees.

Accelerated sea level rise

The study also points out that the melting of ice-caps and glaciers will accelerate as the Arctic continue to warm.

So will the contribution to sea level rise. The minimum estimates of sea level rise by 2100 presented by the IPCC in 2013, are now nearly doubled, only four years later.

If increases in greenhouse gas concentrations continue at current rates, the melting would contribute at least another 25 centimeters to sea-level rise between 2006 and 2100.

This could affect hundreds of millions of people.

For a country like Bangladesh, a global sea level rise of 1 meter would mean 1,5 meters, since sea level rise is not equal across the world. This map shows how 1,5 meters of sea level rise would change Bangladesh. 16 per cent of the country would disappear. Tens of  millions people would have to leave their homes.

When it comes to the global impact, an effective way to grasp the possible scale of change is to imagine North America and Europe during the last ice-age. This is what the world looked like when global mean temperatures were 4-5 degrees lower than today.

Northern Europe and Canada was covered by 2000 meters of ice. The rest of Europe north of the Alps and the Pyrenees, was tundra. Nice for mammoths, but not for Bordeaux winemaking.

Climate was colder and drier. The deserts were much larger and the air much more dusty. Sea level was 125 meters lower due to the large masses of water stored as ice on land.

If we do not reduce greenhouse gas emissions in accordance with the Paris Agreement, the result could be a climatological shift of similar scale, only in the opposite direction.

Try to imagine what 4-5 degrees of global warming would mean.

For the Middle East, the likely answer is "hotter, drier and nearly uninhabitable".

For Bangladesh, the answer is "partly under water".

For parts of Europe, and the US, too, the predictions are disturbing.

Loss of Arctic sea ice will impact global weather patterns

According to the new study, the Arctic Ocean could be largely ice-free in summer by the late 2030s, earlier than projected by most climate models.

Recent research indicates that this could increase risk levels not only in the Arctic, but in regions very far from here.

This is due to the climate system. It is highly interconnected on the global scale - even more so than our security system.

The Arctic region acts as a global cooling system by drawing warm ocean water from the south and cooling it down. This movement of warmer ocean waters to the north has a major influence on climate outside the Arctic; it accounts for northern Europe’s relatively mild climate, and it keeps the Tropics cooler than they would otherwise be.

The rapid melting of Arctic ice and snow is likely to weaken this global cooling system, amplifying global warming, and intensifying its consequences throughout the world.

Several studies have linked the loss of sea ice and snow cover in the Arctic to changes in Northern Hemisphere storm tracks, floods, and winter weather patterns. There is also evidence that Arctic changes may be influencing the Southeast Asian monsoons. This evidence suggests that the loss of Arctic sea ice will progressively affect weather patterns elsewhere in the world.

This map is from a recent study  is showing disturbing possible consequences for maize yield with 30 per cent less mean annual Arctic sea ice around year 2046.

The next map shows the impact with 70 percent less sea ice, around year 2088, 70 years from now. Both scenarios are based on business as usual emission pathways

And these maps show the impact on wheat yield, on the same conditions. Russia would lose dramatically, but China would gain.

These are of course uncertain estimates, but point to the risks of climate change to global food security.

Arctic warming will amplify security risks

So while global warming is a multiplier of existing security risks and threats, the Arctic is an amplifier of global warming. Indirectly, a warmer Arctic will indeed also amplify security risks worldwide. Let me touch on what that risk picture may look like.

We are seeing, and will see ever more extreme weather events. We are seeing more stress on critical ecosystems, including oceans, freshwater, and biodiversity. These changes, in turn, will have direct and indirect social, economic, political, and security effects.

Extreme weather can trigger crop failures, wildfires, energy blackouts, infrastructure breakdown, supply-chain breakdowns, migration, and infectious disease outbreaks.

We can expect climate change to exacerbate current conditions: making hot, dry places hotter and drier, for example. Over the longer term, global climate change will change how and where people live, where they can produce food, as well as the diseases they face.

We know this because current climate models project long-term increases in global average surface temperatures. But science is increasingly concerned that more sudden, dramatic shifts could be possible. Such shifts in the climate or climate-linked ecosystems could have dramatic economic and ecological consequences. 

We have overwhelming evidence that dramatic shifts are not conducive to human development. Human civilization has developed during a period of very stable global temperatures, as the blue line in the figure shows. If temperatures rise rapidly, natural and human conditions will change dramatically as well.

This unpredictability grows on you when you consider that most of the earth’s environmental and natural resource systems are under high pressure: the biodiversity crisis is less talked of than the climate crisis, but it is no less serious. Protection efforts are far from keeping pace with the deterioration. Moreover, there are complex interdependencies of water, food, energy, land, health, infrastructure, and labor - interdependencies that institutions in charge of single sectors will not be able to address.

A pressing example is the fact that according to the UN, half of the world’s population will face water shortages by 2035. Rising demands from population growth, greater consumption, and agricultural production will exhaust water supplies, which will become less reliable in some regions from groundwater depletion and changing precipitation patterns. More than 30 countries — nearly half of them in the Middle East — are likely to experience extremely high water stress by 2035.

This will inevitably lead to increasing economic, social and political tensions.

State fragility is exacerbated by climate change

When fragile states fail or collapse, climate change can act as a risk multiplier, whether we talk of civil war or of terrorism.

According to a recent report commissioned by the German Foreign Office, terrorist groups are using control of natural resources – such as water – as a weapon of war. The scarcer resources become, the more power is given to those who control them. Examples include ISIS and Boko Haram.

In Syria, the civil war and rise of Isis was propelled by one of the worst  droughts in the country’s history. The number of internally displaced persons increased considerably before the uprising, as you see from the figure.

Hundreds of thousands were driven from their land, and millions were sent into poverty and food insecurity.

A number of studies have pointed out that the record drought that ravaged Syria in 2005 to 2010 was likely stoked by ongoing manmade climate change. These studies are not saying the drought caused the war. They are suggesting that it helped push conditions over the threshold into open conflict, when added to all the other stressors.

Syria is just one example of how climate change is acting as a ‘threat multiplier’ that will increase state fragility, fuel social unrest and potentially unleash violent conflict and mass migration.

Climate change is not the only change we have to deal with

While the challenge of climate change is a huge one, it is not the only challenge of accelerated change we face as politicians. We are experiencing technological and economic changes that are increasingly hard to master for governments, and that can cause societal reactions and political shocks.

Accelerated climate change, therefore, is not only a significant risk factor in its own right - it is a factor that can interplay with and magnify other risk factors. Ironically, some of these risks are triggered by actions designed to help solve climate and environmental challenges.

Let me touch on three broad risk areas: economic, technological and demographic.

First, economic risks. The globalised economy is currently challenged by a backlash from nationalist populism and protectionist forces. This challenge finds different expressions in different countries, but the risks to free trade and the global economy are real. Should such risks come to pass, we would be in a weaker position to manage the economic disruption that may be caused by climate change as well as actions to combat climate change.

The Governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney, has pointed to climate change as a risk to financial stability, in three ways:

-   the physical risks that arise from the increased frequency and severity of climate- and weather-related events that damage property and disrupt trade. He points out that growing swathes of our economies could become uninsurable. Moreover, if coverage is not maintained, he says the broader financial system would become increasingly exposed to large and variable physical risks

-   the liability risks that we already see when some are taking action against companies on the grounds of failure to disclose the risks posed to their business models by climate change.

-   the transition risks which could result from the adjustment towards a lower-carbon economy. Changes in policy, technology and physical risks could prompt a reassessment of the value of a large range of assets. Just as we can have climate shocks and technological disruptions, we may also have "policy shocks" in response to dramatic climate events.

Secondly, technology-induced risks. Combatting climate change will require faster technological change. And indeed, technology is accelerating the pace of change around us, and in the process it is triggering new complex challenges, disruptions and tensions.

Advanced digital solutions, AI, new materials, robotics and automation, advances in biotechnology, and the energy revolution promise to disrupt labor markets; alter health, energy, and transportation systems; and transform economic development.

Some of these developments will magnify values differences across societies, and hence it will be difficult to agree on international regulations or norms in these areas.

Risks associated with some of these applications are real, especially in synthetic biology, genome editing, and AI.

As an example, we are seeing a revolution in biological research: this may help us address environmental along with medical, health, industrial, and agricultural challenges. But at the same time posing significant ethical and security questions.

These changes are already outpacing our ability as politicians to regulate or control very fundamental developments in society. Public reactions and political fallouts can be unpredictable.

Another dilemma is that of openness versus inward looking policies. Combatting climate change and seeking the necessary solutions, will require more international research and more mobility of ideas and people, not less. At the same time, the very speed of technological change is one of the things that is triggering public reactions that favor the closing of borders.

Yet another issue with security implications is how regional and global power relationships will transform with the energy revolution. Over the next decades, oil and gas will gradually cease to be resources of the highest strategic importance. This will disrupt relations within and between states, including in regions with high levels of instability.

Finally, on the list of risks pertaining to technology: imagine the tensions and potential conflicts that would arise if one or more countries decide to apply geoengineering technologies in an effort to manipulate large-scale climate conditions.

Thirdly, risks associated with demographic shifts

The changes driven by markets and technology will disrupt labour and welfare systems, causing social pressures. Labour unions are responding to shifts in the energy sector, for example, with calls for a just transition.

Urbanization is a welcome trend in terms of more climate friendly living with regard to housing, transport systems and other public infrastructure. At the same time, with more extreme weather events, rising sea levels and pressure on critical infrastructure, urban centres are increasingly vulnerable.

A critical factor is the growing young populations in societies under stress. The young and connected population in the Middle East/North Africa region is already restless. We saw this during the Arab spring, and the fundamentals have not changed. As one of the regions that is likely to be hardest hit by climate change, we can expect more upheaval, more conflict, more refugee and migration crises.

Climate action is of high strategic importance

As these examples illustrate, there is much at stake. Climate change is a security challenge, and hence climate policy is of high strategic importance.

This figure shows the long-term effect on global average surface temperature. Within the high emissions scenario, the globe could be between 8 and 12 degrees warmer in 2300. Within a low emissions scenario, the global temperature would stabilize after 2050, as you see from the blue line.

Climate policy matters!

Further climate change is, however, unavoidable in the near term, even if our follow-up of the Paris agreement turns out to be a success.

We therefore also need to prevent unavoidable climate changes from undermining security in the shorter term.

This is in our shared self-interest. In a government white paper on Norwegian foreign and security policy, launched two weeks ago, we point out that climate change increases security risks and unpredictability, in particular in fragile states and regions. Regions near Europe's southern border, such as the Middle East and Africa, are among the regions expected to be the hardest hit. 

The white paper announces plans for intensified efforts in unstable countries in these regions.

Our long-term support to the stabilization of fragile states and countries in conflicts will take impacts of climate change into consideration, through measures that reduce vulnerability and enhance resilience.

The key to minimize fragility risks is not first and foremost security policy in the strict sense. It is rather "soft security" measures such as humanitarian and development aid, climate finance and adaptation, clean energy and better environmental management.

The Svalbard seed vault as an example

Climate change will affect food production and consequently global food security in the coming decades. A major resource – according to IPCC - that can help us create a more climate-resilient agriculture is the genetic diversity of our agricultural plants.

This facility right around the corner, The Svalbard Global Seed Vault, provides the ultimate secure back-up of this important heritage.

The Seed Vault was recently put to the test for the first time, as a result of the war in Syria. It provided samples of grains and pulses to research centres in the Middle East. The catastrophic events in Syria made it impossible to rely on the Aleppo seed bank.

We are happy to host this important resource for adapting to climate change.

A global security imperative

But broadly, we do not intend to act alone. One key conclusion in our white paper is that Norway should develop closer security policy cooperation with European allies and the other Nordic countries.

In this new reality, NATO too must consider how to adapt to the new climate risk reality, prepare for new security challenges, and manage the unforeseen. Last week, general Denis Mercier, NATO's supreme allied commander for transformation, said to Reuters that climate change poses a global security threat that all countries must fight together.

US military leaders have long expressed the same. Last year I paid an interesting visit to the Pentagon. They left no doubt that in terms of factoring risks and threats into military planning, they are dealing seriously with a range of threats that are clearly less probable than those of climate change. And so they do see climate change as an important national security challenge.

This, while President Donald Trump is nearing a decision on whether to pull US out of the Paris climate deal. It is, frankly, an example that even in the face of very clear realities, politics can be surreal.

Ladies and gentlemen,

In conclusion, Arctic climate change matters, also in a global security perspective. We must address it through effective implementation of the Paris Agreement, and systematically stricter climate policies, but also through precautionary policies to minimize climate related security risks in fragile regions.

Meanwhile, enjoy your stay in the Arctic while it is still a cool place.

Thank you for your attention.