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The climate change - security nexus

Editorial by Anna Brach

Humanity is currently faced with one of the most important systemic crises. Climate change is a reality, and there is no doubt that we have to act quickly. The implications of missing the 2˚C warming target would be runaway climate change, resulting in disastrous consequences such as rising sea levels, violent weather events, melting ice caps, droughts, and floods. Permafrost melt will liberate huge amounts of methane into the atmosphere. Reaching tipping points will lead to this so-called runaway climate change.

Reaching tipping points will lead to this so-called runaway climate change.

We seem to understand: countries are including climate change in their security strategies; Pope Francis is putting the issue on the moral agenda, and Bill Gates has just announced that he will double investment in green energy technology and research to combat climate change. The hopes for the upcoming United Nations Conference on Climate Change in Paris (COP 21) are huge and all the involved actors are thinking of ways to contribute, or at least this is what one would expect. And yet there is still hesitance on the part of governments over how to have their cake and eat it too by insisting on the argument that economic growth is crucial and should not be undermined by actions that need to be taken to decrease the potentially dire consequences of climate change. As said in a widely cited phrase by Professor Guy McPherson, from the School of Natural Resources at the University of Arizona: “if you really think that the environment is less important than the economy, try holding your breath while you count your money”. There is no possible trade-off. Creative solutions allowing sustainable development are the only way of preserving the life support system of humans and of millions of other species.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), World Bank and many many other organisations offer first-rate analysis of the situation. Yet, in spite of awareness campaigns, policy makers still fail to grasp the importance of the challenges at stake. Traditional security concerns are at the top of the agenda and spending efforts. Climate change is, however, the most burning (sic!), security issue as it affects the sheer survival of the species, when taking a long-term perspective. It is therefore crucial to understand the security – climate change nexus.

Firstly, climate change is a threat multiplier. As estimated by the latest World Economic Forum 2015 Global Risk Report [1], water security is the greatest security risk. Climate change will also impact food and health security and there is an almost certain impact of climate change on migratory movements.

Climate change will also impact food and health security and there is an almost certain impact of climate change on migratory movements.

Secondly, the consequences of climate change impact national security. Small island states face existential threats with rising sea levels. Violent weather events may impact coastal areas and nuclear installations within nation-states. Social unrest is another potential consequence of climate change, especially in weak states. Thirdly, while there is no robust evidence of a link between climate change and conflict [2], environmental factors are one of many factors contributing to the escalation and continuation of conflict. Already in 2007, UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon described conflict in Darfur as the first climate change induced conflict [3]. Syria may be another example where climate change has led to population movements, which in turn and in combination with other crucial factors, contributed to social unrest and civil war [4]. Without being alarmist, one could wonder what the impact of climate change on conflict would be in a world without a robust climate change agreement.

Climate change security challenges are real and need to be addressed. Civil society is currently a leading agent of change. However, without the support of ambitious governments and private sector actors, real and sustainable change will be difficult to achieve. There is a real opportunity for increased cooperation not only among states but also among different types of actors. The solutions to climate change will need to be found outside of the silos in which we are used to operating. Out, or rather against the box thinking will enable a much needed serious overhaul of systems including increased inclusiveness in decision- thinking and making, and improved governance on local, national, regional and global levels.

What if countries dropped subsidies for the fossil fuel sector, allowing for real prices for energy and giving more incentives to invest in renewables?

What if countries dropped subsidies for the fossil fuel sector, allowing for real prices for energy and giving more incentives to invest in renewables? What if China and India became global leaders in renewable energy? What if Paris COP 21 is a success and puts humanity on the path towards a sustainable future not only for humans but for other species as well? Finally, what if the challenge posed by climate change is the greatest opportunity for all strata of society to create a safer and more peaceful world?

In its effort to promote peace and security, the GCSP recognises the importance of the impact of climate change on security, and has debated the topic in various courses held in and outside Geneva. In 2015, we are launching the first course on “Climate Change: Security Challenges and Solutions”. This 5-day programme will engage participants in an exercise of analysis of the climate change – security nexus and most importantly reflect on solutions to address this challenge.

   

Anna Brach is Senior Programme Officer, Emerging Security Challenges Programme, GCSP. The views expressed here are the personal views of the author.

                            

[1] Global Risks 2015, The World Economic Forum, January 2015, Executive Summary
 
[2] Nils Petter Gledditsch, “Climate Change, Environmental Stress, and Conflict” in Managing Conflict in a World Adrift, United States Institute of Peace, 2015, pp. 147-168.
 
[3] Sec General Ban Ki Moon, A Climate Culprit In Darfur, in Washington Post, 16 June 2007.
 
[4] Colin P. Kelley, Shahrzad Mohtadi, Mark A. Cane, Richard Seager, and Yochanan Kushnir, “Climate change in the Fertile Crescent and implications of the recent Syrian drought”, PNAS 2015 112: 3241-3246.