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United Nations Misses Broader Climate Change Connection

Fails to Tie Global Warming to Global Human Security

SOURCE: AP/Mohamed Sheikh Nor

Somalis displaced by famine sit in their makeshift shelters in Mogadishu, Somalia, Friday, July 22, 2011.

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The United Nations earlier this week made a rare and grave declaration of famine for two regions in southern Somalia, a crisis attributed to one of the worst droughts in the region in the past 50 years. The situation is so dire that the United Nation’s humanitarian coordinator for the country announced that “every day of delay in assistance is literally a matter of life or death for children and their families in the famine-affected areas.”

Coincidentally, this announcement came on the same day that another U.N. body, the Security Council, took up debate on the relationship between climate change and human security and fell far short of the recognition needed to galvanize action on this critical and growing threat. The Security Council’s unsatisfactory final statement on the issue recognized only the potential for climate and security links, and did not include a commitment to consider the issue as part of its regular work on international security concerns.

This approach, which the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice, termed “disappointing” and “pathetic,” vastly underestimates the interdisciplinary challenge that climate change poses to the global community. Indeed, humanitarian disasters such as the famine now occurring in southern Somalia hinge on the simple fact that environmental change can have outsized effects on human lives and livelihoods. This connection is embraced and addressed in the humanitarian community of aid workers and environmental groups, yet the nexus of climate change and human security is viewed with a skepticism that is neither merited nor productive by most of the nation states in the United Nations, which look at the concept of security almost solely in simplistic terms of national defense.

The Security Council, particularly under the rotating presidency now held by Germany, should be commended for addressing the issue of climate security, but those in the global community who understand the need for much more robust action on climate change should have stepped up sooner. There were a number of missed opportunities throughout the process of considering this issue. Except for one public event at the German mission in New York City, almost all the conversations leading up to the climate-security discussion were confined to the diplomatic community. The Germans did not manage to involve the substantial capacity of nongovernmental organizations, which could have been a game changer by creating more thrust in the U.S. administration’s advocacy on this issue.

In addition, the Germans could have engaged democratic developing nations such as Brazil, whose help could have been crucial to producing a better outcome. Given Brazil’s solid standing with many African states and its increasingly important role as a likely future member of the Security Council, getting it involved would have created pressure on states such as Russia and China to advance the discussion on this important topic.

Furthermore, the many actors in the human security community—including the U.S. Departments of State and Defense—that talk about climate change as a threat multiplier or an accelerant of instability could have been used much more efficiently. It is common sense that while a climate event may not, in isolation, lead to conflict, an extreme weather event in an already unstable region could contribute to the emergence of violence or deepen an existing crisis. Look no further than the deteriorating human and political conditions in Somalia.

Moreover, other effects of climate change, such as forced migration out of affected areas, may have secondary effects on security by creating new burdens on resources, or changing the traditional demography of communities and regions. Case in point: The increasing number of sub-Saharan migrants that end up in Morocco and Algeria.

In the U.N. Security Council debate, Germany framed the need for that body to address climate-security links in a much less ambitious way by noting the looming threat that climate change poses to low-lying small island nations, yet recognizing the broader implications only in very general terms: “Conflicts over dwindling land and resources as well as the resultant increasing number of refugees and displaced persons could pose a serious threat to world peace.”

Predictably, not all members of the Security Council were convinced that the issue merits further attention from that body. Russia and China argued that climate change issues could be more appropriately addressed through the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change―a twenty-year-old U.N. treaty to stabilize greenhouse gas concentration in the atmosphere. The Russian envoy, Alexander Pankin, remarked that bringing the climate-security link into the council’s area of operations “will not bring any value whatsoever and will merely lead to further increased politicization of this issue and increased disagreements between countries.”

Pankin couldn’t be more wrong. As the Center for American Progress noted in a past brief on this issue, “traditional frameworks for understanding global security threats are insufficient to deal with the looming specter of climate change.”

While the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change must continue to play a central role in confronting the global challenge of climate change, conducting this work through a single U.N. body will ultimately be detrimental to all of the United Nation’s member states. Climate change is not simply an environmental issue, or a development, health, or security concern. It poses such a substantial, global challenge precisely because it cannot be contained within the traditional disciplines of international relations.

Climate change is an issue that overlaps the mandates of nearly all of the U.N. bodies. This argument should have been made by the current rotating head of the Security Council, Germany, in a more consistent and public way before this week’s meeting. And others, including the United States, should have been more engaged in framing the debate beforehand. To be sure, the complexity of consequences of climate change makes certain that the security-climate nexus will be a difficult and messy issue for the Security Council to address. But putting off the responsibility to sort out those complexities will not alter the inevitability of the threat.

The bottom line: The United Nations needs to act. Even if the global community begins to immediately mitigate carbon emissions, some additional warming of the global climate is inevitable. This means giving the human and national security dimensions of the crisis a permanent spot on the agenda will give the Security Council more time to be prepared for an issue that is likely to define international security in the 21st century.

Laura Conley is a Research Associate at the Center for American Progress, Michael Werz is a Senior Fellow.

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