First posted on Facebook 29th December 2011

Firstly I would like to state that I have no military experience beyond four years at Liverpool University Royal Naval Unit, and I cannot claim to have held any high office in this land or any other.  I am not a military or naval strategist and I do not and have not worked in the defence industry.  So perhaps I am completely unqualified to offer this response.  I have, however, avidly followed the spiral of decline in our Armed Forces over the past decade or so: although I recognise that hardly qualifies me in the affairs of national defence.

I do however hold a first-class degree in Oceans, Climate and Physical Geography from the University of Liverpool and I am currently in the third year of a PhD in Physical Oceanography.  I am also an Associate Fellow of the Royal Meteorological Society and a member of the European Geosciences Union.  I do not claim to speak on behalf of my university, nor the society, nor the union – but I felt sufficiently motivated to bring my education to bear on the recent paper published by the UK National Defence Association entitled “Inconvenient Truths – Threats justify prioritising defence” (specifically section 4.2, paragraph 7).

There were a number of matters dealt with by the paper which I disagreed with (but many more which I find entirely agreeable), but I thought it best to focus on the field that I have experience in – climate change.  I shall deal with each point (in bold and italics) in turn:

“The last and major handicap to long-term economic growth is that the Government is imposing large climate change burdens on industry, especially the vital manufacturing industry to which it looks to spearhead economic growth.”

Climate change is the biggest threat to the human race.  We, as a civilisation are more exposed to changes in our climate than ever before due to a large increase in population and the increasing scarcity of a range of resources.  Our economy has already proven to be susceptible to relatively small fluctuations in the price of food and fuel: whether these fluctuations were as a result of natural factors or instead were man-made by commodity speculation is another topic for discussion.  One fact is for sure though; our economy is inextricably linked to the climate in which we live.

The manufacturing industry no-doubt faces many challenges, however ‘green’ technologies such as wind turbines is a source of growth in the UK economy and represents an area in which engineering skill and manufacturing expertise is required to delivery long-lived and cost/energy efficient machines.  This is surely to be welcomed?

“Equally it is imposing heavy charges on all individual electricity consumers thus significantly curtailing their spending power. These handicaps are greater than on any other nation is imposing. In contrast the main polluters, America, China and India, besides which Britain’s 2% of global carbon emissions is puny, are doing relatively little.”

The UK population forms less than 1% of the world’s population, yet we produce by the authors’ own assertion 2% of global carbon emissions.  That means that we produce twice as much CO2 per head as the global average.  Regardless of our overall contribution to global emissions, we still emit far more per head than most of the rest of the world.  Having built Britain on the back of the rest of the world’s economy over the course of the past 300 years, and having a large historical carbon footprint compared to most developing nations, it seems only fair that we should lead the way in altering our economy to a more sustainable footing.

Surprisingly, it turns out that China is actually one of the world’s leading investor in renewal technologies: it holds the leading role in solar panel manufacturing and is rapidly expanding its renewable power generation.  China’s aim is almost certainly to provide increased energy security for itself, whilst simultaneously dominating the market in the purchase of rare earth metals upon which the likes of photovoltaics are currently reliant.

“All this, based on the belief that the increase of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will lead to damaging rises in global temperature, is far from clear. An article by Lord Turnbull (a very senior distinguished former civil servant), shows that the basic scientific evidence is far from conclusive. The Government should urgently review these matters before continuing its present policy. It is unwise to have placed such heavy bets on just one interpretation of the evidence. Belief in serious man-made global warming has become, in the words of the most celebrated economic journalist, Sir Samuel Brittan, an unexamined „…collective craze‟. CO2 concentrations have risen steadily since the 1940s but global temperature rises occurred far earlier. The rises in temperature experienced between 1970 and the late 1990s have stopped, with no rise and more probably a fall in the last decade.”

Whilst I’m sure Lord Turnbull is indeed a very senior distinguished former civil servant, he is not a climate scientist.  In fact he is a trustee of the Global Warming Policy Foundation – a nicely named organisation, which is in fact fundamentally opposed to the idea that human activity is having any effect upon global warming and the GWPF is a proponent of the idea that we shouldn’t take any action to mitigate the impact of CO2 emissions.  Its academic advisory council includes several economists (of which Samuel Brittan is one of them) and a couple of scientists – but from what I can tell none of them are climate scientists.  I wouldn’t expect a climate scientist to be an authority on defence matters: nor should you expect a civil servant (or even a theoretical physicist) with links to a highly questionable organisation to be an expert on climate science.

As someone with a background in climate science, from all the evidence I’ve seen, the vast majority of climate scientists agree that enhanced global warming due to human activity is occurring.  However, any climate scientist worth his salt will acknowledge that there is uncertainty in what our future climate will be, and that there are some things we do not yet understand: but the underlying science is sound and almost unanimously agreed upon by those in the field.  Contrary to the last line of the above quote, the consensus of scientific opinion is that climate change is continuing unabated, albeit with varying rates of change in different parts of the world.

“Our very expensive Climate Change Act ignores the fact that other EU nations are mainly doing far less and the big overseas nations almost nothing at all. We are thus imposing a major handicap on British competitiveness for negligible global benefit even if it turns out that CO2 is the principal agent of climate change. The Government can have manufacturing growth or its present climate control policies – but it cannot have both. It should think again.”

Many EU nations are doing far more than we are: heading further and faster down the road to sustainable energy production than we are: as of 2008 only Luxembourg and Malta had a lower rate of renewable energy production than the UK.  Even if you don’t accept the CO2 argument for climate change – against the vast bulk of scientific evidence and educated opinion – switching to renewable power generation increases our energy security, provides a source of manufacturing and servicing jobs for wind turbines and other technologies.  Currently, the surge in demand for oil products from China and other developing nations is pushing up the price of fuel in the UK.  If we decrease our reliance on oil products then our economy will be less dependent on highly volatile regions of the world (e.g. the Arabian Gulf) and therefore will provide a more stable and competitive environment in which to do business.

When it comes to the defence industry here in the UK, the revelations since the coalition came to power about the sheer scale of waste and incompetence both within the MOD and defence companies is far more concerning than any impacts from the Climate Change Act.  Billions of pounds have simply been wasted through contract renegotiations (e.g. the carriers), changes to system requirements (any number of procurements) and failure to deliver projects to time and budget (Nimrod springs to mind as the most recent catastrophic example).  Industry and the MOD need a more efficient and healthy relationship as a priority to stimulate industrial growth (such as a sufficient drumbeat of orders for ships to keep the shipyards active on an ongoing basis).  There are many issues which affect particularly the defence manufacturing industry, but the Climate Change Act is the least of their worries.

Ironically, climate change is actually an argument in favour of properly funding the armed forces and having a manufacturing base to properly underpin that commitment:

  • Increasing pressures on key resources (water, oil, food, etc.) is likely to increase friction between nations with competing interests – which would require more intervention by the UN and an increased chance of our armed forces being called upon to enforce Security Council Resolutions, or indeed simply defend our own territories (e.g. The Falklands and the recent discovery of oil fields);
  • Whilst climate change cannot be directly linked as the cause of any specific event, the general consensus is that climate change will lead to an increase in severe weather events and related natural disasters.  The response to such events is often best handled through the military as they are often the only body with sufficient skills, strategic lift and mobility to provide effective relief efforts (e.g. hurricane season in the Caribbean to which we already provide relief efforts through the Royal Navy);
  • Medium to long-term shifts in overall climate could very well lead to serious humanitarian and political situations whereby millions of people are internally or externally displaced (e.g. sea level rise in low-lying Bangladesh is a prime example).  The political and economic ramifications of such changes are immense and make our manufacturing woes pale into insignificance.  Whilst I’m not necessarily suggesting that Somalia’s current famine is the result of human induced climate change, it is a prime example of how adverse climate combined with the collapse of governance can severely impact on the global economy through the rise of piracy which costs the global economy an estimated $7 to $12 billion a year.  A strong international response with the necessary military and naval resources at its disposal to respond to piracy, for instance, would be of great benefit to the British and wider global economy.

My greatest issue with the paper is that it raises matters which are at best tangential to the core issue of the proper funding of the Armed Forces for the task we expect them to do.  To the most critical of readers, the paper is pushing at least one other agenda – i.e. climate change denial – which actually does a disservice to the cause of ensuring our nation is properly equipped for the dangerous modern world we live in.  It risks placing the UKNDAs campaign (or at least members who are party to it) into the political wilderness and overshadowing the many other good solid arguments in favour of the UK Armed Forces.

By failing to recognise an entire spectrum of threats to our economic and physical security, the authors have missed a key argument for why HMG should reprioritise funding a properly equipped and capable UK Armed Forces.

With hope and regards

Matthew Donnelly