The views expressed in this report are those of the authors. Their statements are not necessarily endorsed by the affiliated organisations or the Global Challenges Foundation.

In the face of rapid climatic, social and technological transformations, our current world order is facing unprecedented levels of uncertainty. However, this is balanced by considerable progress in our capacity to foresee those transformations and their possible effects. In this context, it is our strategic duty to change the way that we prepare for the future. We must anticipate the challenges of those rapid climatic, social and technological transformations, address associated risks in advance of catastrophe, and embrace our responsibility to prepare.

The current world order brings together sovereign nation-states as participants in a web of international and regional security institutions. This current world order is experiencing great uncertainty in the face of rapid climatic, technological and social change, as well as a growing capacity to reduce uncertainty by more accurately foreseeing unprecedented changes. A main feature of the 21st century is the ability to harness scientific and technological tools to better predict, monitor, and prepare for a range of plausible future scenarios. However, heightened predictive capacity does not, by itself, lead to preparedness. The leaders of nation-states, and of the institutions that underwrite international security, must have compelling rationales for preventing and responding to these risks in a responsible fashion – rationales that can help them transcend local political and economic pressures. Unprecedented phenomena with potential for global disruption, climate change in particular, present one such rationale. 

The window of opportunity to strengthen global governance in a significantly altered geostrategic environment is narrowing.

In the face of rapid climate change, as well as other social, demographic, and technological changes, nation-states and intergovernmental security institutions have a responsibility to use their enhanced predictive capacities to manage and minimize risks. This combination of “unprecedented risk” and “unprecedented foresight” creates the strategic imperative for a Responsibility to Prepare – a responsibility to build a resilient global system against a more reliably foreseeable future, while also creating a buffer for those risks that we still cannot imagine. A failure to meet this responsibility could significantly strain the viability of state sovereignty and the international system built on it. 

This responsibility builds on hard-won lessons from the Responsibility to Protect doctrine for preventing and responding to mass atrocities, which lays out means of using mediation, early warning systems, economic sanctions and, as a last resort, UN Security Council-authorized use of force, when civilian populations are at risk of mass atrocities. A Responsibility to Prepare requires a reform of existing governance institutions to ensure that critical, nontraditional risks are anticipated, analyzed and addressed robustly and rapidly by intergovernmental security institutions and the security establishments of participating nations. 

A Responsibility to Prepare agenda should be developed and adopted by all nations, while adhering to the overarching principle of “climate-proofing” security institutions at international, regional and national levels – essentially incorporating climate resilience into the international security architecture. As climate change constitutes a foreseeable international security challenge, and multiplies other security threats across the world, an international agenda that addresses its security implications can help inform governance reforms for managing other related risks. These reforms should include the following principles:

  • Mainstreaming. Mainstreaming climate security could range from including climate considerations in security and intelligence decision processes within security institutions to consistently holding forums on the subject. At the UN Security Council, for example, a commitment to regular Arria Formula dialogues or other informal modes of conversation, as well as annual resolutions for addressing critical climate and security hotspots (such as the recent Lake Chad resolution) would help ensure that the issue is resilient to changing political winds.
  • Institutionalization. At the international level, institutionalization could involve establishing semi-independent “Climate Security Crisis Watch Centers,” staffed by expert analysts and issuing regular recommendations to the UN Security Council. The centers could be new structures or integrated into existing early-warning systems, and could be replicated at regional or national levels.  
  • Elevation. Elevating such issues within governing bodies is critical for ensuring preparedness. Within the UN system, for example, the establishment of a senior Climate Security position, reporting directly to the UN Secretary General and communicating regularly to the UN Security Council, would go a long way toward ensuring that these issues were heard at the highest levels. 
  • Integration. Climate change affects the whole security landscape, and cannot be siloed. Integration could involve embedding climate and security analysts across issue siloes within governments and intergovernmental institutions, or creating interagency structures to facilitate such integration.
  • Rapid response. Developing scaled warning systems that identify long, medium and short-term risks, and that include clear “triggers” for emergency action on climate and security, would help ensure that foreseeable events are acted upon with commensurate levels of urgency. This is particularly important for low probability/high impact risks, and creating a governance capacity to prepare for “unknown unknowns” or “black swans.” 
  • Contingencies for unintended consequences. Despite best efforts, unintended consequences of solutions to these risks may inevitably arise. Governments should seek to identify these potential eventualities and develop contingencies for addressing them. 
In the 21st century we cannot lean on the excuse that we did not see the threat coming. We do see it coming. That foresight makes the Responsibility to Prepare a strategic imperative.

Such an agenda – focused as it is on reforming security institutions – would ensure that critical, nontraditional challenges are appropriately managed as global security risks, rather than niche concerns.  A practical fulfilment of the goals and principles articulated in this Responsibility to Prepare framework would increase the likelihood of a more stable global governance systems in the face of rapid but foreseeable change. However, the window of opportunity to strengthen global governance in a significantly altered geostrategic environment is narrowing. Delaying action may result in diminishing returns, and, in the worst-case scenarios, difficult and potentially inhumane choices in the face of continued strains on natural resources and political will. This scenario is preventable. 

Whether the response to climate risks from the international security community will be commensurate to the threat remains to be seen. However, in the 21st century, we cannot lean on the excuse that we did not see the threat coming. We do see it coming. That foresight makes the Responsibility to Prepare a strategic imperative. 

This article is an abridged version of a recently-released report by the Center for Climate and Security: “A Responsibility to Prepare: Governing in an Age of Unprecedented Risk and Unprecedented Foresight”

Sherri Goodman

Sherri Goodman is a Senior Advisor for International Security with the Center for Climate and Security, a member of its Advisory Board and  former U.S. Deputy Undersecretary of Defense (Environmental Security).