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Climate change risks

July 21, 2011

The United Nations Security Council has for the first time admitted that global warming poses a major threat to world security and peace. The move catapults climate change higher up the global agenda.

A pair of human hands hold a crop over dry, cracked earth
Extreme climatic events such as drought are raising the potential for conflictsImage: picture alliance / dpa

What might appear self-evident to many took days of complicated discussions and negotiations at the UN Security Council in New York. But in the end, the 15 member states of the most powerful UN body agreed that a rise in global temperatures could pose a serious threat to world peace.

They point out that drought, for example, could lead to conflicts over food and water. Even floods, such as the devastating one last year in Pakistan, or a rise in sea levels could threaten the very survival of island nations.

An important step forward

It was the first time in four years that the Security Council formally debated the environment. And it was the first-ever Council statement - at the insistence of this month's council president, Germany - linking climate change to global peace and security.

The final statement expressed "concern that possible adverse effects of climate change may, in the long run, aggravate certain existing threats to international peace and security."

Germany's Ambassador to the United Nations, Peter Wittig
Germany's ambassador to the UN, Peter Wittig, pressed for the climate declarationImage: picture-alliance/dpa

It also requested UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to include information on possible climate change impacts in his regular reports on global trouble-spots.

The statement does not amount to a resolution, rather it reflects a position by this month's council president, German Ambassador Peter Wittig.

But it still is a breakthrough because it's the first time that the Security Council has officially admitted the possible security and political dimensions of climate change.

The declaration had to be voted on by all the 15 member states. In 2007, a similar initiative under the presidency of Britain failed to get the necessary backing.

‘An unholy brew'

Whether it's an exodus of refugees, conflicts over water and food or rising sea levels, scientists have long been warning about the possible security risks of climate change.

On Wednesday, UN chief Ban Ki-moon too sounded the alarm about the risks associated with rising temperatures.

"Extreme weather events continue to grow more frequent and intense in rich and poor countries alike, not only devastating lives, but also infrastructure, institutions, and budgets - an unholy brew which can create dangerous security vacuums," he told a Security Council debate on the issue.

Also on Wednesday, the UN declared a famine in parts of war-torn Somalia. It was a sad but effective illustration of the possible links between climate change, drought, food shortages and security.

Political wrangling

The climate statement in New York was preceded by heated debates and wrangling about the right formulation. There was disagreement whether climate change alone could trigger strife or whether it "only" aggravated existing potential for conflict - a view long accepted by the US defense department and other experts.

Somali refugees head for camps in Kenya
Somalia is struggling with food shortages and armed conflictImage: dapd

The answer to that may not make a difference to the victims of climate change. But it does to the heavyweights at the negotiating table. The fact that countries such as China and especially Russia tried to prevent the declaration is proof of its significance.

China wants to "leave climate change to the experts" and would prefer to see it discussed only in connection with sustainable development and not on the agenda of the powerful Security Council.

Russia, in particular, tried to block the German-led declaration and keep it out of the Council.

"We believe that involving the Security Council in a regular review of the issue of climate change will not bring any added value whatsoever and will merely lead to further increased politicisation of this issue and increased disagreements between countries," Russian envoy Alexander Pankin argued.

Security concerns

But there's no doubt that climate change will enjoy a higher priority once it moves to the security agenda. In the fight over funds and resources, it would appear to be an advantage if the powerful nations of the world view climate change as a possible threat to world security.

The UN Security Council declaration isn't as strong as Germany, the US, European countries and island nations would have liked and UN procedures are notoriously long-winded. But climate change is advancing at a rapid pace and is now gradually making its way to the global stage.

The international climate change negotiations seem to have stalled and it's unlikely that a successor to the Kyoto Protocol can be found fast enough to stem climate change before a dangerous level of global warming is reached.

The poorest countries are already feeling the impacts of rising temperatures. Most experts agree that it can only be good news for the climate if it makes it to the top of the Security Council's agenda and is given a different priority under mounting global pressure.

Author: Irene Quaile (sp)
Editor: Rob Mudge