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Science and security must work together against climate change
Science and security must work together against climate change

Janez Potocnik, EU Commissioner for Science and Research (© European Communities )
European Commissioner for Science & Research, Janez Potocnik, explains why he feels that climate change means science’s role in security issues can only grow more important.
Let me start with a question. When do you think the UN Security Council first debated the impact of climate change? During the 1980s? The 1990s? Just a few years ago?

Not even close. The answer is actually 2007.

It’s a sign that, at last, there is a growing consensus that climate change is our major environmental challenge. Studies, such as the Stern report, have shown it is also an industrial challenge. But its consequences are likely to make it a huge security challenge too.

At a recent UK Foreign Office briefing, maps of recent areas of conflict and civil unrest were overlaid on countries hit hardest by climate change. They were almost an exact match.

So why is climate change a security issue? Because climate change’s threat to our key resources for life – land and water – have a major political impact.

We need land for agriculture. But the clearing of tropical rainforests, for example, will only exacerbate the effects of climate change.

In the Sahara, every hectare of land that can be cultivated is being used. The IPCC’s (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) 4th Assessment says that as early as 2020 yields from rain-fed agriculture in Africa could be reduced by 50 per cent.

As ice-caps melt and open up the possibility of accessing reserves of oil and gas, or opening new shorter navigation routes, the chance of territorial disputes grows
Pressure on the cultivated land there will lead to tensions between nomadic peoples and farmers, between neighbouring tribal groups and between states. As agricultural output falls, populations will move, internally or across national borders.

Another consequence of climate change will be changes in rain patterns. Some parts of the world will see devastating flooding. Others will suffer from drought. Freshwater will become a scarce and sought-after commodity, and its sources will be potential flash-points for conflicts.

As ice-caps melt and open up the possibility of accessing reserves of oil and gas, or opening new shorter navigation routes, the chance of territorial disputes grows.

This scenario is only possible. As time goes by, and if we do nothing, it becomes probable. But it is not inevitable. Action, and science’s contribution, can improve the outlook.

At a fairly simple level, if we want to tackle a problem, we need to understand it. The scientific community has come a long way in developing detailed and accurate models that help us understand the implications of environmental change.

As the science develops and the models become more sophisticated, these forecasts can be made at a local level. This will help us not only anticipate what will happen, but maybe also mitigate the impact of particular events.

In environmental matters, science is not just a practical tool. Where many issues can bring people into conflict, science often brings them together.

Tackling problems in the pipeline? Research can offer new ways of meeting rising energy demands
(© NATO )
I attended a good example of this recently in Cape Town, at the Global Earth Observation summit. I saw ministers and officials from over 70 governments and 40 international organisations committed to working together to develop a "system of systems" to monitor what is happening to our planet. This system will not only keep everyone better informed and working with the same data, but there will also give momentum to work together to find solutions.

A root issue in tackling climate change is to break the link between economic development and fossil fuels. Various options are available – biomass, solar, wind, water, wave, nuclear, carbon capture and storage. But all require more work if they are to be real market competitors.

The European Commission recently proposed a Strategic Energy Technology Plan, which highlights how Europe can pool its energy research resources and make them work more effectively, so that a low-carbon future becomes a present reality.

Of course, tackling climate change is not just about energy research. I believe that the EU's Seventh Framework Programme for Research and Development, worth over 50 billion euro, is a clear example of the multi-faceted research effort that is required.

Where many issues can bring people into conflict, science often brings them together
We are supporting the development of new, cleaner forms of technology in our transport research programme, including ?800 million for an integrated programme with industry that addresses the aviation industry.

We are looking at areas that can make a difference. For example
  • Materials research can make huge advances in the energy efficiency of buildings, or cheap sustainable production of solar panels.
  • In the environment field, we can work to improve waste treatment systems, protecting existing water supplies.
  • We can design more efficient irrigation systems.
  • Our biotechnology and agriculture research can support the development of drought resistant crop varieties and identify how to make the best use of the available land.
  • We can harness the power of information technology to help us use resources more efficiently.
  • And socio-economic research can be invaluable in understanding the scale of the problem, its impact on our economies and societies, and the policy responses.
Climate change is a security issue, just as it is a social and economic issue. I hope that finally understanding this will focus minds on finding solutions. And in turn, I hope this will lead to the recognition of science’s crucial role in our common future.
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