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A Clear and Present Danger: The Security Council and Climate Change

A Clear and Present Danger: The Security Council and Climate Change

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By Andrew Holland and Xander Vagg


Credit to the White House: http://www.flickr.com/photos/whitehouse/3993800049/in/photostream/

A Security Council Meeting, credit to the White House.

On February 15, the United Nations Security Council met in an unofficial capacity to discuss one of the most pressing and universally threatening issues of our time: climate change. The special meeting, their third to address the issue of how climate change impacts global security, was convened by Pakistan, the current holder of the rotating council presidency, and the United Kingdom, a permanent member. Notably, the UK also convened the first Security Council meeting on climate change in 2007.

Climate change is an appropriate topic for the Security Council because of the ever growing links between national security and state stability and how changing weather patterns are harming food, water, and energy security. Nevertheless, Permanent Council members China and Russia blocked the Security Council from considering this issue in a formal meeting by using their veto. In the end, the Council only was able to discussed and debate the security dimensions of climate change as a so-called “Arria-Formula” meeting: an informal, confidential meeting used to have a frank exchange of views.

A possible reason that China and Russia objected is that they have typically opposed any expansion of the Council’s peace-keeping responsibilities, whatever the cause. This makes addressing climate change, an emerging security issue, very difficult in the UN context. They were supported by a coalition of 130 (mainly developing) states who asserted that climate change has no place in the Security Council. Their opposition likely stems from UN politics, where in the General Assembly, developing countries rule by volume, while in the Security Council, the large developed states carry the day.

The truth is that climate change is a clear and present threat to global security and therefore should be an issue the Security Council addresses, whatever the politics. As the American Security Project’s Climate Security Report  outlined, climate change poses many security issues including unprecedented levels of drought, extreme flooding, wildfires, food security and water availability. This is to say nothing of climate change’s negative effects on  agriculture, infrastructure, economy and public health. While climate change is not likely to cause conflict on its own, the U.S. Department of Defense has called it an “accelerant of instability or conflict” while the U.S. Intelligence Community states that “shifts in human geography, climate, disease, and competition for natural resources have national security implications.”

Similarly, around the world, countries as varied around the world as varied as Lativa, Indonesia, Malawi, or Qatar have all made uncompromising statements saying that the impacts of climate change constitute a clear threat to security. The American Security Project is collating these statements, and our findings suggest that the threats from climate change are real.

This is not just a problem for the future. Already, there are examples around the world of how climate change is affecting local and regional security. Last summer, there were riots in India’s northeast Assam Province between the local inhabitants and new Muslim migrants from nearby Bangladesh. Many of those migrants are being pushed away from land that is being inundated and salinized by rising sea levels. In last year’s riots, over 100 people were killed, and 400,000 were uprooted. While sectarian violence is far too common in India, an underlying cause of this was certainly the migration caused by the encroaching seas in Bangladesh. As the climate grows more extreme and impacts increase, this tension will get worse.

That is why it is important for the UN Security Council to take up climate change. The Council is the primary international body responsible for “the maintenance of international peace and security” and is one of the only institutions legally authorized  to take collective action on behalf of the international community. Climate change is such a threat to international peace and security and requires a coordinated, multilateral response. It also uniquely affects all nations.

While most states do not dispute that climate change is an undeniable culprit, China, Russia and other states argue that the UNFCCC and the General Assembly, not the Security Council, are the most appropriate UN organs in which to take action.

Within this opposition is the strange fact that the countries most likely to be harmed by the impacts of climate change are many of the ones opposing action in the Security Council. Most apparently, the Chinese government specifically identifies climate change as a security threat in its most recent Defense White Paper. This double standard strongly suggests that the PRC’s opposition has more to do with UN Security Council politics, rather than the important concerns about dealing with the national security impacts of climate change.

Likewise, India, one of the coalition members opposing the Security Council action, relies heavily on monsoons to grow crops such as rice, wheat and corn, but climate change is already choking off the vital rains. Russia suffered from incredibly intense wildfires in 2010 which caused over 55,736 deaths and more than $15 million in damage, while also destroying approximately 2.5 million acres of forests and leading global food price to skyrocket. And as was noted in September, Chinese demand for fresh water is expected to exceed supply  in twenty years, an issue that will be exacerbated by climate change.

Currently, the Council maintains a “rather vague” position on climate security. We know that this is an issue the council will have to address in some form over the next decades. We have a choice now. We can either have an informed, results oriented debate in the Security Council of how to actually deal with the varied and real threats of climate change, or the Security Council can ‘punt’ on this issue and instead deal with each security crisis as they come. We think it is better to address this now and in a comprehensive manner.

ASP is releasing our new Climate Change and Global Security Index, a detailed listing of how governments around the world (and militaries in particular) plan for and anticipate the strategic threats of climate change. This Index will allow national governments and the global forums they engage with to understand how their own security communities view the clear and present danger of climate change. If diplomats understood the very real and immediate security consequences of our changing climate, perhaps they would hesitate before allowing petty UN politics to undermine addressing such important issues.

This article originally appeared as an op-ed in The Diplomat on March 30, 2013.

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