Last week, the UN Security Council met for a special session on the ‘Security Dimensions of Climate Change’.
You may have not heard about this. The meeting was held behind closed doors because some permanent members of the Council were opposed to it being a ‘formal meeting’. Hence, there were no official press releases, no quotes from senior UN officials and no written record or outcome, besides the limited media coverage.
The meeting was co-chaired by Pakistan. To the people of Pakistan, the links between climate change and security are not a secret and cannot be kept behind closed doors. Many of them experience the impacts on a daily basis.
Pakistan tops the Global Climate Risk Index as one of the most vulnerable nations to a multitude of climatic risks. In 2010, it was listed as the number one country in the world affected by climate related disasters; floods taking place that year affected a fifth of the country, impacting 18 million people. Record breaking monsoon rains in 2011 and a glacier melt that killed 135 people in 2012 have kept the country in the top three most vulnerable countries.
And while heightened vulnerability is making the impact of exposure to extreme events in Pakistan worse, it is also no secret that the occurrence of these extreme events is not limited to Pakistan, or to the developing world.
A satellite image provided by NASA of Hurricane Sandy. Copyright: NASA
This is something people in the US and Australia could personally attest to in recent months. In the US, 2012 has been declared the hottest year on record, with the 12 hottest years on record all coming in the last 15 years. Superstorm Sandy has demonstrated once again the full might of extreme weather events, while the Australian summer has brought record-breaking high temperatures, fires, floods and droughts.
The adverse impacts of climate change make it clear that security cannot be confined to the absence of conflict or to military terms.
Back in 1994 the UN Development Programme said: "Human security is a child who did not die, a disease that did not spread, a job that was not cut, an ethnic tension that did not explode in violence, a dissident who was not silenced. Human security is not a concern with weapons – it is a concern with human life and dignity."
It is therefore clear that when we talk about true security we must insist on acknowledging that climate change now poses the greatest risk to both national and international security. Climate change causes droughts, storms, fires and sea level rise. These all lead to increased vulnerability, famine, poverty, migration and conflicts.
This is no secret. The risks can no longer be hushed up, nor ignored.
The international community has been painstakingly slow to address the challenge. And while bringing the issue before the Security Council, the UN’s most powerful body, may help in injecting a sense of urgency into the debate, so far the Council has also been reluctant to take an active role.
Last week’s discussion is in fact the third time this issue was debated at the Security Council. The first occasion, back in 2007, the discussion was dominated by questions of jurisdiction: many delegates (Pakistan included) thought the Security Council was not the correct forum to discuss the risks of climate change, as it was an issue of ‘sustainable development’, while the Security Council role was ‘to maintain international peace and security’.
Then, four years later in 2011, the Council held another open debate on the impact of climate change on peace and security. The Council, once again focusing on issues of jurisdiction, was not able to agree on a resolution but did adopt a watered down statement, cautiously talking about ‘possible adverse effects of climate change’.
Call for action
But don’t be fooled by the diplomatic language – adverse impacts are not only possible nor probable, they are certain.
And what really brought home this realisation to those following the discussion was the call for action by President Marcus Stephen of Nauru, exposing the hypocrisy behind the Council focusing on procedure rather than on the matter at hand.
Speaking on behalf of some 14 island states vulnerable to disappearing or at least losing significant territory to rising sea levels, Stephen said: "What if the pollution coming from our island nations was threatening the very existence of the major emitters? What would be the nature of today’s debate under those circumstances? Let history recall that once again we have sounded the alarm and the world chose not to act."
It seems that finally, the realisation that it is not only Island States that are at risk, is starting to hit home, at least with some of those ‘big emitters’. Earlier last week we watched as US President Barack Obama made a commitment during his State of the Union address to protect future generations from the risk of climate change. And while this commitment is yet to be translated into actions, it seems that it will no longer be possible to treat climate change as something threatening other people only, in distant parts of the world.
So why is it that the Security Council is still shying away from openly discussing it? Why keep it behind closed doors?
Jen Maman, Greenpeace International peace adviser