The Integrated Review: A New UK Vision for Climate Security?

Duraid Jalili, Defence Studies Department and Co-Director of Environmental Security Research Group, King’s College London

On 16 March 2021, the UK government released its much-anticipated Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy. The notable foregrounding of climate change and biodiversity loss within the review has already led to a range of responses and commentaries across broadcast and social media. This includes praise for the prominence that is given to climate change and biodiversity loss, and the signal that this sends to UK government departments and international partners. On the other hand, some reactions include emphatic critiques that the Integrated Review is neither ambitious enough in terms of the scale and pace of action required to mitigate the climate crisis, nor sufficiently honest or transparent with regards to the mismatch between government policy and practice.

Separate to the varying critiques and praise being levelled at the Integrated Review, there is value in considering what the language and focus of the review tells us about the UK government’s perspective on the nexus between climate change, biodiversity loss and security, as well as its vision for its own global climate and biodiversity role. This short piece does not seek to provide a comprehensive overview of all of these issues, but instead to point out some prominent themes and nuances within the Integrated Review.

The Climate and Biodiversity ‘Challenge’

In its framing of the links between climate change, biodiversity loss and security, the Integrated Review strikes an ambitious tone whilst seeking to retain room for manoeuvre. This is, of course, inherently related to the nature of such strategic reviews as broad visions or handrails for policy and strategy formulation. However, it has implications for the government’s approach to the interrelated climate and biodiversity crises. Key examples of this include the statement that climate change and biodiversity loss are “long-term challenges that if left unchecked threaten the future of humanity” (19), and that:

The window of opportunity the world has to tackle the climate and biodiversity crisis is shrinking. Urgent action is needed to limit global warming to 1.5°C and to end species decline and environmental destruction.

These statements set a strong tone on the ‘impact’ of these issues whilst still providing lexical flexibility on the degree and immediacy of these impacts, the perceived time available for solutions and the level of attention required. This stands somewhat in contrast to the 2015 National Security Strategy and Defence and Security Review (SDSR) which explicitly named 2035 as the point after which the “full effects” of climate change on UK national security were likely to be manifest.

Statements such as these also highlight an important facet of how the UK government wishes to frame the issue, in that climate change is referred to throughout the review as a “challenge” rather than a “threat”. This is consistent with the common lexicon of climate change as a ‘challenge’, ‘issue’, ‘risk’ or ‘threat multiplier’, which is found both across contemporary security sector commentaries and earlier strategic defence and security reviews (although the 2015 SDSR does in one instance refer to climate change as a ‘threat’). In addition to demonstrating strategic consistency, this framing could be seen as indicative of the government’s ongoing desire to avoid ‘securitising’ global heating and biodiversity loss. This serves to avoid a potential political backlash from those who would interpret this as a precursor to diverting finances from ‘natural’ solutions to ‘defence’ solutions. Not labelling climate change as a ‘threat’ may also serve to mollify those who remain concerned about spreading defence resources too thin (i.e. by tasking the military with solving the causes of insecurity, rather than the symptoms).

In terms of the specific security implications of climate change and biodiversity loss, the review names several issues in a dedicated section on “transnational challenges”. It explicitly notes that the extreme weather patterns caused by global heating “can amplify displacement and migration – increasing food and water insecurity” (31). It also states that climate change and biodiversity loss aid in “driving poverty, instability and migration”, and that the loss of natural habitats can increase the likelihood of pandemics (31) and would “result in a cumulative economic cost of up to $10 trillion between 2011 and 2050” (89). At the same time, the review also acknowledges – within a sub-section on resilience, climate change and biodiversity loss – that “it is not possible to predict or prevent every risk” (18).

These contexts highlight both continuity and change in UK governmental thinking on the nexus between climate change, biocapacity loss and security. In the first instance, the content of the Integrated Review highlights a continued preference for framing climate and biodiversity issues in relation to more traditional security challenges, in comparison to human security challenges. It also highlights an ongoing disinclination to engage in more complex or politically inexpedient debates on the linkages between these environmental challenges, and other transnational threats such as radicalisation or serious and organised crime (32). At the same time, the review does highlight a significant increase in the frequency and degree to which climate and biodiversity ‘challenges’ are being foregrounded by the government as key lenses through which to understand global insecurity and instability.

A UK Vision for Climate Leadership

In line with these contexts, the Integrated Review seeks to outline how the UK can help to mitigate global heating and biodiversity loss, whilst adapting to the irreversible climate and environmental changes already underway (89). The review clearly highlights the government’s desire to be seen as an international leader on this issue. This is particularly redolent in the stated principle that the government will make “tackling climate change and biodiversity loss its number one international priority” (4).

In achieving this prioritisation, the review seeks to strike a balance between leadership and followership. Most obviously, it places significant emphasis on the UK’s upcoming role in international ‘climate-related’ events (including COP26 and the G7), framing this as a “year of leadership in 2021” (14). It also states the need to “lead sustained international action” beyond 2021 (4, 21), as well as to identify “where we are best placed to support others in leading the advance towards our shared goals” (19).

This latter concept of ‘leading’ by ‘supporting’ enables the government to publicly frame certain supportive actions and activities as being representative of global ‘leadership’. It also enables them, in theory, to use climate diplomacy as a politically neutral channel for security and economic cooperation. Indeed, throughout the review, climate is used as a routine example of where the UK, and the Foreign Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) in particular, can work with other nations to solve joint challenges (21, 22, 60-64), including specifically with adversaries such as China (22). This framing is extremely similar to that found in the 2015 Strategic Defence and Security Review (52, 54, 58, 59), to the point whereby it highlights both the nature of this principle as a consistent theme in UK government thinking and the degree to which the Integrated Review has actively borrowed certain framing mechanisms from the SDSR.

Understandably, there is a level of ambiguity regarding the ability to use climate issues as a point of common ground, given the highly politicised nature of historical and contemporary climate negotiations, as well as the Integrated Review’s notable lack of comment on whether climate issues represent a possible point of collaboration with adversaries such as Russia and Iran. This raises the question of where the limits lie in the UK’s goal “to find new ways to cooperate through creative diplomacy and multilateralism” (17). Indeed, despite the framing of climate change and biodiversity issues as points of common ground or shared interest for international relations, the review highlights the government’s awareness of the ways in which climate and environmental activities can tie in with alternative political and security gains.

A prominent example of this is in the section on “supporting a resilient ocean” which outlines the pivotal role of the ocean in ensuring global environmental and economic security, and the simultaneous pressures it faces from “climate change and environmental degradation” alongside wider issues such as great power conflict, piracy, and organised crime. The section outlines an “integrated” solution to this issue in the form of the Royal Navy’s new Multi-Role Ocean Surveillance Ship, tasked simultaneously with “protecting our CNI at sea and improving our knowledge of the maritime environment” to aide with environmental protection (92).

In addition to its implications for the UK’s diplomatic strategy, the Integrated Review’s approach to climate change and biodiversity loss highlights clear governmental priorities in terms of finance, technology and development. In the first instance, it provides a fairly clear approach to international development, centred around using public and private climate finance, with a focus on “climate action across Africa, Asia and Latin America” (9). This ties in with wider goals for the ‘greening’ of financial activities, including the creation of the Sovereign Green Bond, the disclosing of records for the Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosures, and the goal of “integrating biodiversity into economic decision-making in response to the findings of the Dasgupta Review” (90-91). Alongside this, the review seeks to foreground the need to “increase finance for nature and for nature-based solutions to climate change” (91). At the same time, however, it reiterates the government’s intention “to maintain secure global oil supplies” as “oil and gas will remain an important, if diminishing, part of the UK’s energy supply” (92). It also talks about prioritising investment in “green” or “clean” technologies (4, 7, 19, 30), including hydrogen research (9), space applications (29), as well as unnamed “novel technologies and applications” (30). 

This approach is unlikely to reassure critics of current UK targets and actions. In the first instance, the stated potential for “new and cheaper tools to tackle climate change” (30) aligns with a commonly used and often criticised policy development habit of assuming that nascent or as-yet unknown technologies will present solutions to current challenges later down the line. In the second instance, the framing of pre-existing targets as being sufficiently “ambitious” (e.g. a 2050 net-zero target and £11.6 billion International Climate Finance commitment) is unlikely to ameliorate critics and reports which conclude that current targets and policy actions are insufficient for the UK’s mitigation, adaptation and resilience needs. This includes the government’s own independent Climate Change Committee which, in its July 2019 progress report, noted that the government’s policy actions remained “well short of those required for the net-zero target”, as well as concluding, in its December 2020 roadmap for Net Zero, that “the UK needs to increase its ambition on climate change adaptation, as it is not prepared even for the 1.5-2°C world.”

This latter issue of adaptation and resilience is of particular importance for the Integrated Review. Specifically, in line with the principle that “climate change and biodiversity loss present the most severe tests to global resilience” (24), the review pushes for enhanced resilience measures both nationally and globally, including in areas such as critical national infrastructure, education, governance, human rights and health security. This is interesting not merely in demonstrating the government’s tacit acknowledgment of the adaptation gap, but also in highlighting the degree to which the theme of resilience enables the Integrated Review to circle around the edges of some human security issues without having to frame these as core security threats.

Indeed, and perhaps above all, the language of the review highlights the continuation of the government’s growing emphasis on the concept of ‘resilience’ as an overarching means of framing climate security issues. As noted by Boas and Rothe (2016), the breadth and fuzziness of this resilience narrative enables the government to bring together a wide range of diverse actors and issues under a common theme or aim. This is seen particularly strongly in the fact that the review situates a major set of ‘mitigation’ and ‘net-zero’ goals and targets within its wider ‘resilience’ objectives (89-91).

The Final Word?

As is commonly acknowledged within the defence sphere, the value of a strategic review is often ambiguous. The ability to create a policy vision that retains its relevance over a five-to-ten-year timespan is increasingly at odds with the rapidly changing character of the international security environment. The potential for global heating and biocapacity loss to catalyse significant and unforeseen security threats in the next five years (both within and beyond the UK), alongside increasing public awareness and concern regarding these issues, reinforces the prospect that the mitigation and adaptation targets of the Integrated Review may need to be expanded and exceeded in a faster timeframe.

Indeed, two weeks after the release of the Integrated Review, the UK Ministry of Defence released its own Climate Change and Sustainability Strategic Approach document (which was used in part to inform the Integrated Review). Although this document uses the same framing mechanisms of adaptation and resilience, sustainability and net zero, and global leadership, it also provides an interesting counterpoint in relation to certain deliverables. This includes a more assertive stance on the UK’s adaptation and resilience needs, citing the military’s need to be “readied for a climate-changed world of between +2° and 4°C, as recommended by the Committee on Climate Change” (12). It also includes the acknowledgment that climate risks represent a potentially fertile ground for defence diplomacy (17), rather than confining this diplomatic role to the FCDO. As the present article highlights, whilst the specific deliverables and responsibilities foregrounded by the Integrated Review are already subject to reframing, it is likely that the use of resilience and sustainability narratives are here to stay within UK defence and security policy.

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