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Climate Change’s Links to Conflict Draws UN Attention

February 15, 2013

Climate Change as Source of Future Conflict Draws UN Attention

Climate change is a “reality that cannot be washed away,” according to notes prepared for diplomats at today’s session. Photographer: Santosh Verma/Bloomberg

Imagine India in 2033. It has overtaken China as the most populous nation. Yet with 1.5 billion citizens to feed, it’s been three years since the last monsoon. Without rain, crops die and people starve.

The seeds of conflict take root.

This is one of the scenarios Joachim Schellnhuber, director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, presented today to members of the United Nations Security Council in New York to show the connection between climate change and global security challenges.

Either rich nations will find a way to supply needy nations suffering from damaging climate effects “or you will have all kinds of unrest and revolutions, with the export of angry and hungry people to the industrialized countries,” Schellnhuber said in an interview yesterday.

In the Marshall Islands -- site of U.S. nuclear tests in the 1940s and 1950s and now being lost to a rising Pacific Ocean -- global warming has “threatened our very existence,” said Tony deBrum, minister-in-assistance to the president of the island state. In the future, the 68,000 inhabitants of the low- lying coral atolls could become stateless.

“Our roads are inundated every 14 days,” he told reporters in New York after the meeting. “We have to ration water three times a week. People have emergency kits for water. We can no longer use well water because it’s inundated with salt.”

Serious Consequences

The Security Council session was evidence of the increased focus on the link between climate change and global security.

Climate change is a “reality that cannot be washed away,” according to notes prepared for diplomats at today’s session. “There is growing concern that with faster than anticipated acceleration, climate change may spawn consequences which are harsher than expected.”

Yet, today’s discussions were not held as a formal meeting of the council because China and Russia, two of the larger emitters of the greenhouse gases that scientists tie to climate change, raised objections, said two UN diplomats who asked not to be named given the sensitivity of the subject. China was the largest gross emitter of carbon dioxide in 2011, followed by the U.S., the European Union, India and Russia, according to the European Commission’s Joint Research Center.

Informal Talks

Instead, the informal, closed-door discussion was kept away from the council chamber and led jointly by the U.K. and Pakistan, where floods have left millions of people homeless in a foreshadowing of the extreme weather scientists say will result from a warming planet.

“Before it was always an issue of the developed world, so the involvement of Pakistan is a very interesting sign,” said Schellnhuber, a climate change scientist who is German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s top adviser on the issue.

Representatives from nations not on the 15-member Security Council were invited to the session, and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon participated. In 2011, the council agreed to a statement expressing “concern that the possible adverse effects of climate change may, in the long run, aggravate certain existing threats to international peace and security.”

“It was OK, but it was rather vague,” said Schellnhuber.

With 2012 one of the world’s hottest years on record, the implications for both domestic and foreign policy of wildfires in Australia and Russia, floods in Asia and hurricanes in the Americas gave today’s discussion an added sense of urgency.

Hurricane Sandy

In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, it’s a topic that has moved higher on the list of U.S. domestic issues. President Barack Obama presented climate change as a priority for his second term during his Feb. 12 State of the Union address.

“Heat waves, droughts, wildfires, and floods -- all are now more frequent and intense,” Obama said in his speech. “We can choose to believe that Superstorm Sandy, and the most severe drought in decades, and the worst wildfires some states have ever seen were all just a freak coincidence. Or we can choose to believe in the overwhelming judgment of science -- and act before it’s too late.”

U.S. intelligence agencies said in a December report that climate change coupled with water shortages will alter global patterns of arable land, while greater demand for energy may curb the amount of raw materials available to make fertilizers.

Climate change will complicate resource management, particularly in Asia where monsoons are crucial to the growing season, according to the 140-page Global Trends 2030 report, produced by the U.S. intelligence community. It will worsen the outlook for availability of critical resources of food, water and energy, the report said.

Fossil-Fuel Deposits

Rising global temperatures may provoke conflict between the European Union and Russia as Arctic ice melts, easing access to fossil-fuel deposits in that area and opening new sea routes, Schellnhuber said.

The conflict in the Sudan’s western region of Darfur has generated headlines over the years as the first climate war because drought and the advancing desert stoked tensions.

“Many developing and fragile states -- such as in Sub- Saharan Africa -- face increasing strains from resource constraints and climate change, pitting different tribal and ethnic groups against one another,” according to the Global Trends report.

The millions of environmental refugees, such as those displaced by natural disasters and rising sea levels due to melting ice, will be one focus of the UN session, as will be the potential for conflicts.

Glacial Melting

The UN’s decision-making body will discuss the challenges from reduced water availability, a critical issue in the Middle East and Africa, and also explore the implications of glacial melting.

Melting ice caps has led to a push to strengthen the Law of the Sea, an accord granting countries bordering the Arctic rights to economic zones within 200 miles (322 kilometers) of their shores. Russia, for example, has staked a claim to a North Pole seabed worth billions of dollars in oil and natural gas.

“The impacts of climate change, such as sea-level rises, drought, flooding and extreme weather events, can exacerbate underlying tensions and conflict in part of the world already suffering from resource pressures,” according to the U.K.- Pakistan notes.

-- With assistance from Alex Morales in London. Editors: Terry Atlas, Michael Shepard

To contact the reporter on this story: Flavia Krause-Jackson in United Nations at fjackson@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story:


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