9 December 2009
Cleo Paskal

Cleo Paskal

Associate Fellow, Energy, Environment and Resources


We don't need a crystal ball to know that even the 'best case' at Copenhagen would not be enough to prevent fundamental destabilization. Already climate change is combining with other existing environmental change factors, such as consumption increases, depleted agricultural lands and water scarcity to create widespread disruptions to stability.

Energy infrastructure is a case in point. As a result of changing precipitation patterns and glacial melt, hydroelectric generation in India was down over 8% last year, and 12% this year. The ability to extract, refine and distribute oil and gas in the US Gulf Coast is being repeatedly disrupted by storm and hurricane activity. French nuclear power stations have had to power down or shut off in the summers of 2003, 2006 and 2009 due to the risk of overheating caused by water supply problems.

The existing volatility in the climate system is already damaging, and eroding stability. Even with the sort of increases that would rightly be considered a win in Copenhagen, one can expect large-scale geopolitical implications.

Sticking with energy infrastructure, for example, even with existing temperature increases, Russian pipelines that are built over permafrost may become unstable as the permafrost thaws, resulting in a costly disruption of supply to Europe. As a result, Russia may shift to more stable tanker delivery, which would dovetail with increasingly open Arctic waters, and make shipping from Russia to China through the Arctic and Bering Strait cheaper and easier. This could combine with political factors in shifting Russia from a focus on Europe to a focus on Asia. They say geography makes history. Well, climate change is remaking geography.

At this stage, mitigation and adaptation are obviously important, but they are not enough. A third front needs to be opened: integration. We need to accept that the existing extreme events, such as the scorching European summer of 2003 and the UK summer floods of 2007, are not likely to be one-off events. And we need to integrate that new variability into planning of all sorts, from local council planning regulations to geostrategic assessments. Rather than adapt after the changes happen, we need to get ahead of the curve as much as possible and see if we can not only defend ourselves from the coming changes, but even profit from them.

Before building new hydro installations, for example, assessments need to be made not only about the reliability of water supply in the long term, but if changes in precipitation patterns can be harnessed to improve output. Rather than have the installation overwhelmed when heavier rains hamper operations, they should integrate those changes in to the design to the degree that the added rains help produce more power.

In a UK context, for example, at its most basic level this means not only reevaluating building houses on floodplains, but also be sure not to build houses in areas that could become floodplains. Otherwise, what may seem short term gains will turn into major long term losses as government funds and effort are increasingly absorbed by dealing with emergencies at home and trying to secure stable supplies of energy, food and other critical needs abroad.

The change is here. It is not going away. Yes, we need to try to limit it, and adapt existing structures and infrastructures. And we also need to accept it. And start integrating it into planning across the board. Now.

Further Resources

Unlocking Finance for Clean Energy: The Need for 'Investment Grade' Policy
Kirsty Hamilton, December 2009

Europe's Energy Security After Copenhagen: Time for a Retrofit?
Briefing Paper
John V Mitchell, December 2009

Climate Change Talks: Copenhagen: The Darkest Hour

The World Today
Michael Grubb, October 2009

Deforestation and Climate Change: Not for Felling
The World Today
Duncan Brack And Katharina Umpfenbach, October 2009

Africa and Climate Change: With One Voice
The World Today
Michael Keating, October 2009

Climate Change and the Arctic: Ice Breaking
The World Today
Roger Howard, October 2009

Europe Controls Illegal Fishing: Caught with the Catch
The World Today
Heike Baumuller, October 2009

Who Owns Our Low Carbon Future? Intellectual Property and Energy Technologies
Chatham House Report
Bernice Lee, Ilian Iliev and Felix Preston, September 2009

Climate Change Politics: Dangerous Game of Dare
The World Today
Bernice Lee And Antony Froggatt, July 2009

The Vulnerability of Energy Infrastructure to Environmental Change
Briefing Paper
Cleo Paskal, July 2009