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It's time to act on climate change and security

by Marcus Stephen | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Thursday, 15 September 2011 11:43 GMT

* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

By Marcus Stephen

Standing before the United Nations Security Council on July 20, I described the existential threat posed by climate change to Nauru, my country, and other island nations in the Pacific, arguing that it endangers regional and international security.

 After a vigorous open debate, the president of the Council issued a carefully parsed statement that acknowledged that climate change, in some circumstances, could exacerbate pre-existing tensions and undermine the resolution of armed conflicts.

Elsewhere in the UN complex that same day, officials were preparing to announce that a threshold for misery - separating a humanitarian crisis from a full-blown famine - had been crossed in the Horn of Africa. Today we know tens of thousands of people have died and another 750,000 are at risk of starvation across the region because of the drought.

The timing of the announcements was coincidental, but their convergence reflects how environmental catastrophes made more frequent and intense by climate change are surpassing the ability of political institutions at all levels to respond effectively.

As UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon noted when he opened the debate, the impacts of climate change are transforming the world’s geopolitical map.

“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. Pakistan, the Pacific Islands, Russia, Western Europe, the Philippines, Colombia, Australia, Brazil, the United States, China, the Horn of Africa - these examples should remind us of the urgency of what we face,” he said.

I can report that in the Pacific our situation continues to grow more tenuous by the day. Ocean acidification and warming are steadily undermining the reefs and fisheries many of us depend on for employment and sustenance. Last year, record high temperatures led to widespread coral bleaching, further harming marine ecosystems. At the same time, warmer waters have increased the risk of a devastating cyclone hitting our islands.


Meanwhile, research showing the polar ice sheets are melting more quickly than previously believed has prompted scientists to revise their projections for sea level rise in the Pacific to over a meter by the end of the century.

This would inundate Tuvalu, Kiribati, and the Marshall Islands and leave much of our region, including my country of Nauru, uninhabitable. Already, communities in Tuvalu and Kiribati as well as in Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands have been forced to flee their homes to escape swelling tides.

It remains unclear where they, or any of us, will settle permanently if our countries go under.

Worldwide, the International Organization for Migration projects that sea level rise, coastal flooding, and other climate impacts could lead to as many as 200 million refugees by 2050.

The security establishment has long warned that such disruptions can destabilize vulnerable regions and spark conflicts. In fact, a paper recently published in the journal Nature established the first strong statistical link between climate and conflict, noting that the cyclical warming of the equatorial Pacific Ocean every few years correlates with a doubling of the risk of violence breaking out in affected countries.

So what can be done?

The best strategy to minimize the security risks associated with climate change, of course, is to dramatically reduce the greenhouse gas pollution responsible for the problem. As members of the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS), a coalition of some of the most vulnerable countries to climate change, Pacific island nations have called for deep emissions reductions that will give all of our nations the best chance for survival.

While the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change is the most appropriate forum to negotiate an international agreement to ensure this happens, we must recognize that there is already so much pollution in the atmosphere that many impacts are now unavoidable. Complementary steps to manage the associated risks should be taken.


Thus I am compelled to reiterate my call for the appointment of a special representative on climate and security when I address the United Nations General Assembly later in September. Similar positions have been created in the past to help manage a variety of issues with international security implications, such as children in armed conflict, sexual violence, and human rights.

A special representative would focus international attention on the threat of climate-related conflicts - one of the biggest peacekeeping challenges of our time - and raise the issue to the highest levels of United Nations decision-making.

The office would enable member states to conduct vulnerability assessments and develop adaptation strategies that minimize the risk of conflict. If a crisis does arise, the representative would be in a position to coordinate an effective response, assisting in preventative diplomacy and conflict resolution when necessary.

In the coming decades, the world will see food and water shortages and mass migrations at levels never before experienced. Preventing a corresponding rise in conflict is a choice we can make today.

Marcus Stephen is the president of Nauru, which is a member of and currently chairs the Pacific Small Island Developing States group at the United Nations.