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United Kingdom

Security and Crisis management United Kingdom

A very detailed overview on security implications of climate change has been presented by O’Brien et al. (2008) in the report: Disaster Risk Reduction, Climate Change Adaptation and Human Security. An extensive summary of this report is presented on the page for Norway.

Vulnerabilities - UK


West and Gawith (1) present an overview of expected climate change impacts on several activities for different regions of the United Kingdom, based on several regional scoping studies. The results for security and emergency planning are listed below.

A blank cell indicates that no specific issues were identified for the region besides those noted in the first row. Each region identified and discussed issues differently, so this table might not provide comprehensive coverage of all issues.


Region Positive impact on security Negative impact on security Uncertain impact on security
Majority of regions   Increased risk of extreme weather events and more demand for services  
London   Population displacement  
East of England   Increased requirement for emergency response to extreme events  

Emergency services

Emergency planning and security were not considered in any depth. Most of the studies that addressed this activity discussed the increased risk to and demand for emergency services, largely relating to flooding and storms. The London study considered the potential implications of population displacement (1).

An important lesson from the 1998 and 2000 floods is the need for effective and well orchestrated responses on the part of all the emergency services, including local and national government, the Environment Agency, the fire brigade, the medical services, and so on. It was found that a clear command centre is required at a suitable spatial scale (i.e. relative to the scale of the flooded catchment itself), which liases with lower-down local emergency response centres (4).

A continued increase in weather-related emergencies will necessitate more resources being devoted to the emergency services. An issue that needs to be addressed is the public’s understanding of procedures following weather-related emergencies. This is an issue for emergency planning in general but climate change may contribute to an increased frequency of emergency events. Previously, many people’s response to an emergency has been to seek shelter in the underground system. In a flood emergency such as failure of the Thames Barrier this would not be appropriate as the underground system may also be subject to flooding. Therefore there is a need for improved public communication on flooding, its consequences and flood warning (2).

There is a need for further work in the emergency planning, waste management and telecommunications sectors. The financial sector in general is not well covered, with the exception of the insurance industry which has undertaken several projects on climate impacts and risk assessment. In addition, a cross-sectoral analysis of the impacts on different land uses would be valuable (1).

Food security

Several recent global-scale assessments suggest that the UK could remain food-secure under climate change scenarios, largely due to its high adaptive capacity associated with an ability to import food. The UK also presents a very low vulnerability to climate change impacts on fisheries (9).

Vulnerabilities - Overview Europe

Since the EU’s neighbours include some of the most vulnerable regions to climate change, e.g. North Africa and the Middle East, migratory pressure at the European Union's borders and political instability and conflicts could increase in the future. The European Commission published a paper that enumerates all the threats driven by climate change and related in one way or another to security issues (5):

  • Conflicts over diminished resources: shortage of water, reduction of agricultural land, increased flooding and longer droughts may lead to economic losses and increased food prices. The overall effect is that climate change will fuel existing conflicts over depleting resources, especially where access to those resources is politicised.
  • Economic damage and risk to coastal cities and critical infrastructure: Mega-cities, with their supporting infrastructure, such as port facilities and oil refineries, are often located by the sea or in river deltas. Sea-level rise and the increase in the frequency and intensity of natural disasters pose a serious threat to these regions and their economic prospects. The East coasts of China and India as well as the Caribbean region and Central America would be particularly affected. An increase in disasters and humanitarian crises will lead to immense pressure on the resources of donor countries, including capacities for emergency relief operations.
  • Loss of territory and border disputes: Receding coastlines and submergence of large areas could result in loss of territory, including entire countries such as small island states. A further dimension of competition for energy resources lies in potential conflict over resources in Polar regions which will become exploitable as a consequence of global warming. Desertification could trigger a vicious circle of degradation, migration and conflicts over territory and borders that threatens the political stability of countries and regions.
  • Environmentally-induced migration: Europe must expect more migration from its neighbouring and more vulnerable countries.
  • Situations of fragility and radicalization: Climate change may significantly increase instability in weak or failing states by over-stretching the already limited capacity of governments to respond effectively to the challenges they face.
  • Tension over energy supply: Intensified competition over access to, and control over, energy resources is, and will continue to be, a cause of instability. There is a possibility of greater energy insecurity and greater competition for resources. As previously inaccessible regions open up due to the effects of climate change, the scramble for resources will intensify.
  • Pressure on international governance: Climate change impacts will fuel the politics of resentment between those most responsible for climate change and those most affected by it. Impacts of climate mitigation policies (or policy failures) will thus drive political tension nationally and internationally.

In the worst-case scenario, there would be very high climate changes and associated impacts in southern Europe, which would contribute towards a general northerly shift in the EU’s population. The level of climate change and impacts would have to be rather extreme for this to happen, however. Many people in Europe appear to be more than content to live in their hotter southerly climates, however, and indeed they are joined by many thousands on holiday, or permanently to live, from the north of Europe. It appears that many citizens of the EU are not yet near the higher end of their ‘preferred’ temperature regime (2)!

Too much importance should not be attached to climate change in understanding migration. The exception was where a major climate-related disaster or catastrophe struck (a drought, flood, storm, extended problems over water supply, etc.): in this case then there could be large-scale movements of people, ‘environmental refugees’ as they have been termed, though the UN does not currently recognise such refugees. Experts in refugee studies have stressed that environmental events by themselves rarely, if ever, produce ‘refugees’ (3).

Vulnerabilities - According to the German Advisory Council on Global Change

Climate-induced conflict constellations

The German Advisory Council on Global Change (WGBU) made an assessment on global security risks of climate change (6). WBGU considers that climate-induced inter-state wars are unlikely to occur. However, climate change could well trigger national and international distributional conflicts and intensify problems already hard to manage such as state failure, the erosion of social order, and rising violence. WBGU identifies four conflict constellations in which critical developments can be anticipated as a result of climate change and which may occur with similar characteristics in different regions of the world. “Conflict constellations” are defined as typical causal linkages at the interface of environment and society, whose dynamic can lead to social destabilization and, in the end, to violence.

  1. Climate-induced degradation of freshwater resources.  1.1 billion people are currently without access to safe drinking water. The situation could worsen for hundreds of millions of people
  2. Climate-induced decline in food production.More than 850 million people worldwide are currently undernourished. This situation is likely to worsen in future as a result of climate change, due to a drop in agricultural productivity, desertification, soil salinization and water scarcity.
  3. Climate-induced increase in storm and flood disasters.The risk of natural disasters occurring in many cities and industrial regions in coastal zones will be further amplified by deforestation along the upper reaches of rivers, land subsidence in large urban areas and the ever greater spatial concentration of populations and assets.
  4. Environmentally-induced migration.It can be assumed that the number of environmental migrants will substantially rise in future due to the impacts of climate change. Most environmental migration is initially likely to occur within national borders. Transboundary environmental migration will mainly take the form of south-south migration, but Europe and North America must also expect substantially increased migratory pressure from regions most at risk from climate change.

Six threats to international stability and security

In light of current knowledge about the social impacts of climate change, the German Advisory Council on Global Change (WGBU) identifies the following six key threats to international security and stability which will arise if climate change mitigation fails (6):

  1. Possible increase in the number of weak and fragile states as a result of climate change.
  2. Risks for global economic development.Unabated climate change is likely to result in substantially reduced rates of growth. This will increasingly limit the economic scope, at national and international level.
  3. Risks of growing international distributional conflicts between the main drivers of climate change and those most affected.A key line of conflict in global politics in the 21st century would divide not only the industrialized and the developing countries, but also the rapidly growing newly industrializing countries and the poorer developing countries. The international community is ill-prepared at present for this type of distributional conflict.
  4. The risk to human rights and the industrialized countries’ legitimacy as global governance actors.Unabated climate change could plunge the industrialized countries in particular into crises of legitimacy and limit their international scope for action.
  5. Triggering and intensification of migration.The associated conflict potential is considerable, especially as “environmental migrants” are currently not provided for in international law.
  6. Overstretching of classic security policy.A climate-induced increase in the number of weak and fragile states or even the destabilization of entire sub regions would overstretch conventional security policy.

Definition of water security according to the UNDP

Water security is about ensuring that every person has reliable access to enough safe water at an affordable price so as to lead a healthy, dignified and productive life, while maintaining the ecological systems that provide water and which also depend on water. If these conditions are not met, or if access to water is disrupted, people face acute human security risks transmitted through poor health and the disruption of livelihoods. Sufficient, safe, acceptable, physically accessible and affordable water for personal and domestic use are the five core attributes that represent the foundations for water security (7).

Adaptation strategies - UK

A priority area is risk management that mitigates and plans for the potential and actual consequences of natural disasters (such as floods) and man-made hazards (such as industrial accidents). Possible adaptation measures that could be taken in this area include (8):

  • ensuring business continuity management accounts for severe disruptions to the supply chain during floods and storms;
  • creating plans that ensure effective social care and reduce the impacts on vulnerable groups, and ensuring healthcare is sufficient during heatwaves and floods;
  • making better use of probabilistic weather forecasts to anticipate extreme weather events more effectively and improve preparedness.

Adaptation strategies - According to the European Commission

According to the European Commission (5), the EU should focus on:

  • Enhancing capacities at the EU level: build up knowledge and assess the EU's own capacities, followed by an improvement in the prevention of, and preparedness for early responses to, disasters and conflicts. Monitoring and early warning needs to include in particular situations of state fragility and political radicalisation, tensions over resources and energy supplies, environmental and socio-economic stresses, threats to critical infrastructures and economic assets, border disputes, impact on human rights and potential migratory movements.
  • EU multilateral leadership to promote global climate security: the EU needs to continue and strengthen its leadership towards an ambitious post-2012 agreement in 2009, including both mitigation and adaptation action by all countries as a key contribution to addressing climate security.
  • Cooperation with third countries: greater prioritisation and enhanced support for climate change mitigation and adaptation, good governance, natural resource management, technology transfer, trans-boundary environmental cooperation (inter alia water and land), institutional strengthening and capacity building for crisis management.

Adaptation strategies - According to the German Advisory Council on Global Change

According to the German Advisory Council on Global Change (WGBU) a number of initiatives are needed (6):

  1. Shaping global political change.In order to ensure the acceptance and, above all, the constructive participation of the ascendant new world powers China and India, a multilateral order is needed which is viewed as fair by all countries.
  2. Reforming the United Nations.In general, WBGU is in favour of better coordinating the efforts of the relevant organizations and programmes under the auspices of the UN and significantly enhancing their role in the interests of prevention.
  3. Ambitiously pursuing international climate policy.WBGU recommends the adoption, as an international standard, of a global temperature guard rail limiting the rise in near-surface air temperature to a maximum of 2°C relative to the pre-industrial value.
  4. Implementing the energy turnaround in the EU.In order to be a credible negotiating partner within the climate process, the European Union should achieve its Kyoto commitments and set more far reaching and ambitious reduction targets for the future. In WBGU’s view, a 30 % reduction target for greenhouse gas emissions by 2020 compared with the 1990 baseline and an 80 % reduction target by 2050 are appropriate.
  5. Developing mitigation strategies through partnerships. In development cooperation, path dependencies of emissions-intensive technologies should be avoided, and high priority should be granted to the promotion of sustainable energy systems in order to overcome energy poverty.
  6. Supporting adaptation strategies for developing countries.Adapting water resources management to climate change and avoiding water crises, a.o. in order to avoid water conflicts, cooperation on transboundary water management should be encouraged for regions sharing waters. Focus should also be on gearing agriculture to climate change.
  7. Stabilizing fragile states and weak states that are additionally threatened by climate change. Crisis prevention costs far less than crisis management at a later stage. Specifically, fragile states’ capacities to manage environmental risks must be maintained and reinforced, and if necessary re-established, even under difficult political and economic conditions.
  8. Managing migration through cooperation and further developing international law.
  9. Expanding global information and early warning systems.Both the gradual changes caused by climate change and the natural disasters which are expected to occur with increasing frequency could destabilize the affected regions and, in extreme cases, constitute a major risk factor for national and international security. Global information and early warning systems can therefore do much to mitigate these adverse effects and make a major contribution to conflict and crisis prevention.

WBGU anticipates that in the event of mitigation efforts failing, climate-induced security risks will begin to manifest themselves in various regions of the world from around 2025–2040. The key challenge is to take resolute climate policy action within the next 10–15 years, in order to avert the socioeconomic distortions and implications for international security that will otherwise intensify in subsequent decades (6).


The references below are cited in full in a separate map 'References'. Please click here if you are looking for the full references for the United Kingdom.

  1. West and Gawith (2005)
  2. London Climate Change Partnership (2002)
  3. Barnett (2001), in: London Climate Change Partnership (2002)
  4. Speakman (pers. comm.), in: London Climate Change Partnership (2002)
  5. European Commission (2008)
  6. German Advisory Council on Global Change (2007)
  7. UNDP (2009)
  8. Committee on Climate Change Adaptation (2010)
  9. Met Office (2011)