Climate change now a security concern

Published Feb 23, 2013 11:18pm

Today, it is becoming increasingly clear that no country — whether rich or poor — can escape from the impacts of climate-related disasters. Hurricane Sandy, a late-season cyclone, swept through the Caribbean and up the East Coast of the United States in late October 2012, leaving dozens dead, thousands homeless and millions without power. Devastating floods triggered by heavy monsoon rains have hit Pakistan in both 2010 and 2011, destroying homes, infrastructure and crops and earning it a ranking in the Maplecroft risk assessment studies as one of the 10 most vulnerable countries in the world.

Pakistan has been very active in the global UN climate change talks, led by a very competent team of negotiators. However, these talks under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change have reached a stalemate, and it is perhaps time now to turn to other avenues in the hope that the world will actually start taking action to curb climate change. Last week, Pakistan initiated a closed Security Council meeting on the “Security Dimensions of Climate Change”.

Pakistan has been elected to the 15-nation UN Security Council for a two-year term (2012 and 2013). Pakistan co-hosted the meeting along with the United Kingdom and they invited the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research to speak at this in-depth discussion event for the UN Security Council members. The meeting aimed at addressing “potential threats posed by possible adverse effects of climate change to the maintenance of international peace and security”. It took place on February 15 at the UN headquarters in New York City.

“With unabated greenhouse-gas emissions, humankind would venture into an uncertain future that is much hotter than ever before in its history — so from a scientist’s perspective, climate change is a global risk multiplier,” explained Dr Jochim Schellnhuber, director of the Potsdam Institute based in Germany who spoke at the meeting. Millions of people could be affected by severe climate change impacts, ranging from sea-level rise that could cause coastal flooding, to changes in atmospheric circulation patterns that could trigger heavy rains and droughts.

Clearly climate change is an issue for both developing and industrialised countries and both Pakistan and the UK felt that it was important to debate climate change once again in the Security Council (the first time was in 2007 but there was no outcome).

The debate was presided by the Permanent Representatives of Pakistan and the United Kingdom and was open to the General Membership of the UN as well as the UN Agencies.

The two organisers had envisaged an “open, frank and interactive debate on the security dimensions of climate change with emphasis on how the climatic threats are multiplying and what possible steps can be considered to move from a culture of reaction to one of conflict prevention”. According to the note prepared by the organisers, “climate change is a reality that cannot be wished away… There is growing concern that with faster than anticipated acceleration, climate change may spawn consequences, which are harsher than expected”.

After the debate, Tony deBrum, an assistant to the President of the Marshall Islands, a small island state that is being inundated with seawater, pointed out that they were facing opposition from Russia, China and a group of mainly developing nations, who argue that the Security Council is the wrong place to address climate change. He called upon the Security Council to bring its “political weight” to the issue and help low lying countries survive, for example, by harnessing new technologies and ensuring alternative energy supplies.

According to Rachel Kyte, the World Bank’s vice-president for sustainable development who also attended the meeting, “The question is: Do you want to keep on cataloguing all of the terrible things that are going to happen if we continue on a business as usual track, or are we actually going to start doing anything about it?” She had explained to the council that: “It is possible to stop the worst from happening but it will require real, concerted policy action globally at every country level.”

Pakistan’s UN Ambassador Masood Khan hoped the meeting would galvanise actions in all UN forums to combat climate change. “Our response should not be anchored only in politics; it should also be guided by science and technology,” he said.

Although Pakistan is not a significant contributor of greenhouse gas emissions (in fact it is one of the lowest per capita emitters), it already ranks high on the list of countries that are suffering the most from the effects of climate change.

The price of doing nothing about climate change will mean a world dramatically different from the one that we live in today. A world where runaway climate change will have even more devastating impacts than we can possibly imagine.

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