Research and analysis

International dimensions of climate change: briefing note

Published 11 July 2011


The UK’s position within (and dependence upon) the rest of the world has many facets. It is an influential member of many leading international institutions, and has strong international links on a range of security issues. It is a leading centre for global trade and finance with multiple interdependencies relating to energy and commodity flows. It also has wide-ranging international transport connections, and many diaspora communities. Whilst this connectedness brings substantial advantage, it also means that the many direct and indirect impacts of global climate change will be transmitted to the UK through these diverse international links.

The risks to the UK due to climate change are not necessarily far in the future. That climate change is taking place, and projected to continue until at least 2030, is well-supported by the evidence. The issue therefore is not whether the world, and hence the UK, will experience climate change over the coming decades, but how its impacts will be felt.

Climate change is expected to act as a ‘risk multiplier’, interacting with other trends. It is likely to make it even more difficult to address poverty, disease, and food and water insecurity. In particular, rising temperatures and changing patterns of precipitation may affect the availability of food (including crops and livestock) and water, leading to more hunger and increased volatility in food prices, and heightened regional tensions, affecting international stability and security. An increased frequency of extreme weather events may adversely affect human health, disrupt the flow of natural resources and commodities, and threaten global infrastructure for transport and energy. Moreover, the inherent uncertainty of these various impacts is likely to increase risks significantly in the business and financial sectors.

Risks to the UK

The report examines the risks to the UK in the following areas up to 2030 and beyond.

Foreign policy and security

It is important for the UK to understand how its networks of global governance, legal instruments, and the maintenance of international networks of trade and diplomacy will be affected as the world experiences changes in temperature, extreme weather, sea level rise and precipitation from climate change in the decades ahead.

Finance and business

The UK’s position at the financial centre for global trade and its reliance on global networks mean it is likely to experience indirect and systemic effects from any substantial climate change events or trends.


The UK relies heavily on wide range of global infrastructure to provide international transportation, energy security, and communications networks. This infrastructure which is distributed across many countries in different parts of the world is likely to be at risk from the effects of global climate change.

Resources and commodities

As a centre for global trade, the UK may face risks through its trade in and use of a variety of resources and commodities. The risks to energy, agriculture, fishing and aquaculture, rare earth elements and manufacturing are discussed.


There are a number of overseas health effects attributable to climate change which could directly or indirectly impact upon the UK and its health services, either through the arrival of affected individuals from overseas visiting, returning or migrating to the UK, or through increased pressure on aid and humanitarian assistance provided by the UK.

Building on UK strengths

However, there are opportunities to build on UK strengths in:

The UK’s role in global governance

By taking a lead on climate change, the UK can help ensure that the global policy agenda and international community is proactively combating climate change, as well as being effective in coping with its effects.


Coastal engineering, insurance, infrastructure development and the opening of new trade routes all represent significant opportunities for UK businesses to benefit from a global approach to adapt to the changing climate.

Capitalising on leadership in areas of professional specialism

The global response to the challenges of climate change in the areas of mitigation and adaptation will demand skills and capabilities from many areas of professional specialism. This presents the UK with the opportunities to capitalise on its strengths in financial services, scientific understanding of climate change, and engineering and technology.

Trade and resources

The UK’s low exposure to extreme climate change impacts relative to other nations and its large domestic renewable energy resources place it in a relatively good position to capitalise on new market opportunities, along with the commercial opportunities from the increased availability of Arctic sea routes.

Values and behaviour

Effective, consistent communication and education linking climate change impacts to events overseas may allow the UK government to encourage domestic behavioural change and the adoption of low-carbon technologies.


The top level message of the report is that the consequences for the UK of climate change occurring in other parts of the world could be as important as climate change directly affecting these shores. The UK will inevitably be affected by these global impacts, and will need to give careful consideration to the implications for diplomacy and foreign policy, security, resources and commodities, finance and trade, human health and social values.

This is not an argument for the UK to become more insular. The UK is closely connected to the global economy and has an important role in addressing international risks. There are significant opportunities for the UK in business, finance and international leadership to help tackle global climate change though investment, innovation and collaboration. To realise these the UK will need to maintain its networks of trade and diplomacy, and its role on the global stage.

The report gives 5 further conclusions:

  1. The diversity of risks to the UK from climate change impacts overseas (including diplomacy and foreign policy, security, resources and commodities, finance and trade, human health and social values) underlines the need for a broad approach to possible responses.

  2. It is vital for policymakers to develop strategies to mitigate these risks, to plan for unavoidable consequences, and to understand better how such consequences may increase other pressures on the UK. In many cases, action taken now or in the near future will address future problems for significantly less resource than action at a later date.

  3. That climate change is taking place, and projected to continue for at least several decades, is well-supported by the evidence. Uncertainties in specific areas of climate science, along with the inherent uncertainty of considering the future over several decades, particularly beyond 2040, do not diminish the need for policymakers to take action now. Rather, they imply the need to develop policies which are resilient to future uncertainties by taking a risk-based approach.

  4. UK business has significant strengths which could help other countries to mitigate and adapt to climate change. They include low-carbon technologies, coastal engineering, finance and insurance expertise, and climate and weather science. There will be growing demand for these skills as the world adapts to climate change, although the UK is not alone in having industries capable of providing such expertise. Positioning UK business for these opportunities would be beneficial.

  5. UK policymakers should consider how to factor in the assessment of risk where climate change effects overseas may have an impact. Acting as a risk multiplier, threats from climate change cannot be treated in isolation, and should be considered alongside threats across the wider policy spectrum.