Climate or military?

The publication of the latest volume from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) – which focuses on reducing carbon emissions – has coincidentally come as the annual figures on global military spending are released. Comparing these sources provides a revealing insight into the priorities of our political masters – and how they misuse science and technology.

ResponsibleSci blog entry by Dr Stuart Parkinson, SGR, 14 April 2014

Global military spending in 2013 stood at a whopping $1.75 trillion, according to new data from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI). This is a small decrease in real terms from the post-Cold War peak in 2011. The USA continued to dominate, spending 37% of the total – though its spending is finally falling following the huge rises during the ‘War on Terror’. Nevertheless it still spends as much as the next eight countries put together. Chinese and Russian spending continued to grow rapidly – driven by various territorial disputes, economic growth, and a desire to close some of the spending gap with the US. Spending in Western Europe was down, but the region still spent an enormous $312 billion – more than China and Russia combined – with France, the UK and Germany being responsible for the majority of this. Numerous other regions and countries saw increases due to local arms races or war, but less obvious drivers were high levels of oil and gas extraction or just economic growth.

Compare these spending levels with those on tackling climate change. The IPCC estimates that recent global spending on both mitigation – reducing carbon emissions – and adaptation to climate change stands at only about $364 bn a year, a small fraction of the total military spend. They estimate that – to give a better than 50% chance of staying below internationally agreed target of a 2°C global temperature rise – world annual spending on mitigation needs to rise by about $483 bn. This would be equivalent to about a quarter of current global military spending. It is the minimum extra in funding that we need to tackle climate change – although many researchers and commentators (myself included) believe we need to do considerably more.

What of the UK? Despite recent falls in total military spending, the UK still has the sixth largest budget in the world, and its spending per head is, for example, six times that of China’s. And it is important to realise that the budget for UK military technology has not been cut. Indeed the latest Defence Equipment Plan includes spending of £164 bn over the next ten years as the UK plans to replace its nuclear-armed submarines, complete building of the two biggest aircraft carriers in its history, introduces the new F-35/ Lightning II strike plane and much more. And a look at its recent research and development spending highlights the continued focus on ‘force projection’ well into the future. Analysis by SGR shows that nuclear weapons-related R&D is the largest area of the MoD’s programme – and this spending is, for example, five times the public spending on R&D for renewable energy. The current crisis in Ukraine has led to calls for UK (and other Western) military spending to rise, but solving such complex international disputes really needs much better diplomacy and rather less military sabre-rattling on all sides.

Meanwhile, despite the UK government still claiming green credentials, and pointing to some important achievements – such as being the world leader in offshore wind energy – most recent climate-related policy is certainly not positive. We see tax breaks for UK oil and gas exploration (including fracking), major cutbacks and failures in home energy efficiency programmes, and threats of a moratorium on new onshore wind turbines.

The IPCC has warned of “severe, pervasive and irreversible impacts” if action to reduce carbon emissions is not considerably increased soon, and has pointed out that climate change can destabilise societies increasing the risk of violent conflict. So the security arguments for putting the required funding into tackling climate change are clear.  

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has said that “the world is over-armed and peace is under-funded”. We need world leaders to accept this perspective and pursue positive change. One key way would be to shift a large fraction of current military spending – including redirecting associated scientific and technical skills – to tackling climate change. This is what would really make the world safer.