Global security efforts must be a post-Paris climate imperative

by Nick Mabey, E3G & Janani Vivekananda, International Alert
Wednesday, 18 May 2016 11:30 GMT

A woman makes bread at a camp for families who have fled from drought-affected areas of eastern Syria near the village of Dael in Hauran plateau, March 8, 2011. REUTERS/Khaled Al-Hariri

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

World Humanitarian Summit is an opportunity to link processes for tackling conflict, disasters and climate

It often feels as if the times we live in are unprecedented. Certainly, if we look back over the last 18 months, it is not hyperbole to describe the challenges the world has faced as such - from the Syrian conflict and the subsequent migration crisis, to the Ebola and Zika outbreaks, to continued conflict in Ukraine and the Central African Republic and natural disasters in the Philippines and Canada.

What’s more, climate change is driving the nature and intensity of these crises and as a result, more countries are on the brink. Despite hard work and best intentions, the humanitarian and first responder community has been stretched like a rubber band in its attempts to cope.

That’s why the first World Humanitarian Summit being held in Istanbul on May 23 and 24 is a once in a generation opportunity to reset the conversation and put into practice our newfound understanding that if conflict, disasters and climate are interlinked, so too must be our processes for dealing with them.

For while the Paris Agreement commits countries to the largest emissions reductions in history, the world still faces catastrophic risks from climate change, which we know drives fragility in our societies. A stronger global effort to manage security risks should be the next international climate priority.

Unfortunately we have already begun to see how the first, second and third order impacts of climate change will affect fragility at the local, national and regional level. 

We’ve known for years, for instance, that climate-exacerbated droughts could devastate crops and throw fragile nations over the edge into instability.

This worry has come to life with the Syrian refugee crisis. Immediately prior to the revolution, Syrian farmers were crippled by the worst drought in at least 900 years. To provide for their families they sought work in urban areas, bringing an influx of people the Assad regime was ill-equipped to handle. This was one of the factors leading to the conflict we now see playing out.

What’s more, the devastation in Syria has had cascading effects around the world from which we are still reeling, including migration in Europe and economic impacts in China. 

The linkages between climate change and security have been acknowledged at least since the UN Security Council in 2007, and have begun to inform national security planning including the US Department of Defense climate adaptation strategy, and the current drafting of the EU Security Strategy, due out next month.

The scale of the threat we face requires intelligent and coordinated efforts. Fortunately, 2015 saw the launch of a number of reform initiatives that promise greater climate security and resilience, including the Paris commitments on loss and damage, environmental refugees and adaptation, the G20 Financial Stability Board task force on climate risk, and the G7 climate risk insurance initiative.


Yet the global political response has moved slowly. When it comes to addressing the risks from climate change, solutions have been piecemeal and ad hoc. The constructive dialogue that has taken place has had a low impact on diplomatic, military or development investment in key regions, including the Middle East and North Africa.

But if we build stronger international cooperation on risk management, resilience and stability measures, our humanitarian efforts will be more effective. In short, we’ll save lives and money.

So what can be done? Climate change bears similarities to other global threats. Like any financial or security threat, a response requires three prongs: monitoring the risk so we know what we’re up against, reducing the risk as much as possible, and managing and adapting to the risks we know await us.

That’s why the UN, which has already had enormous success in facilitating climate diplomacy, should launch a comprehensive reform process designed to keep the people of the world safe in the face of increasing climate risk.

This process should aim to ensure that the international community is making progress on all three fronts and ensure the best and most up-to-date science is at the forefront of policymaking so leaders can base decisions on the best information possible.

The UN should coordinate its risk analysis and investment strategies across different agencies to improve it’s capacity for early warning, early action and planning for worst-case scenarios.

Finally, the election of a new UN Secretary General is an opportunity to make sure governments choose a candidate who is committed to integrating climate change across the UN system and ensure that the most vulnerable people and most at risk countries get the help they need before unmanageable disaster strikes.

Security, development and humanitarian actors have a strong stake in delivery of a robust international climate regime that helps strengthen key bilateral and multilateral relationships. Given the unrest we’ve already started to experience with just a one degree temperature rise, there is no reason to expect things to improve if these climate fragility is not made a geopolitical priority.

The global community faces many challenges. But in order to deliver sustainable security and resilience, the urgent must not displace the important.

Nick Mabey is chief executive and a founder director of E3G (Third Generation Environmentalism) a non-profit European organisation dedicated to accelerating the transition to sustainable development.

Janani Vivekananda is head of environment, climate change and security at International Alert, which was founded in 1986 to help people find peaceful solutions to conflict.