Climate Change and International Security

Nauru is one of several small island states that risks to literally be wiped off the map in the not-so-distant future if sea-levels rise to their predicted levels. Its president takes to the New York Times op-ed page to call for the Security Council to firmly establish the link between climate change and international security.

In 2009, an initiative by the Pacific Small Island Developing States, of which I am chairman, prompted the United Nations General Assembly to recognize the link between climate change and security. But two years later, no concrete action has been taken.

So I was pleased to learn that the United Nations Security Council will take up the issue tomorrow in an open debate, in which I will have the opportunity to address the body and reiterate my organization’s proposals.

First, the Security Council should join the General Assembly in recognizing climate change as a threat to international peace and security. It is a threat as great as nuclear proliferation or global terrorism. Second, a special representative on climate and security should be appointed. Third, we must assess whether the United Nations system is itself capable of responding to a crisis of this magnitude.

The stakes are too high to implement these measures only after a disaster is already upon us. Negotiations to reduce emissions should remain the primary forum for reaching an international agreement. We are not asking for blue helmets to intervene; we are simply asking the international community to plan for the biggest environmental and humanitarian challenge of our time.

The Security Council Report offers a useful backgrounder on tomorrow’s Security Council meeting:

On 3 June 2009, on the initiative of the small-island developing states of the Pacific Ocean, the General Assembly held a debate on climate change and its possible security implications. At the end of the debate, the Assembly adopted a resolution inviting the relevant organs of the UN to intensify their efforts in considering and addressing climate change, including its possible security implications, within their respective mandates. It also requested the Secretary-General to submit to it a comprehensive report on the possible security implications of climate change.

On 11 September 2009, the Secretary-General presented his report to the General Assembly. The report identified climate change as a “threat multiplier” that exacerbates existing threats, such as persistent poverty, weak institutions for resource management and mistrust between communities. It identified five further ways in which climate change might affect security:

• climate change could threaten food security and human health and increase exposure to extreme events;
• it could undermine the stability of states by slowing or reversing development;
• it could increase the likelihood of domestic conflict due to migration and depleting resources, with possible international ramifications;
• disappearance of territory might raise issues of sovereignty, rights and security; and
• international conflict might be a result of climate change’s impact on shared or demarcated international resources.

Even though these small island states are not necessarily politically powerful, they face an existential threat from climate change that surely makes this a topic relevant to the Security Council. We will know tomorrow what kind of action the Security Council plans to take, but I can’t help but feel that if the Security Council wants to remain a relevant platform for discussing pressing matters of international peace and security, it too will have to adapt to the realities of climate change.