“Maintenance of international peace and security: The impact of climate change”

By | 20 July 2011

Security Council Debate UN Under-Secretary-General and UNEP Executive Director, Achim Steiner

Mr. President,
Mr. Secretary-General,
Distinguished Members of the Security Council,
Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,

Thank you for inviting me to address this debate of the Security Council on security and climate change—the second such debate you have held in the past four years.

My presentation today will focus on how our current understanding of the Earth’s changing climate has profound implications for global stability and security. In revising and presenting the available evidence I wish to highlight three perspectives which are particularly relevant to this debate:

  1. Science of climate change:  What are the implications of what we know and do not know for interpreting future scenarios? How significant are “tipping points” and feedback mechanisms in interpreting the impact of climate change on our economies, societies and the Earth’s life support systems?
  2. Climate change as a threat multiplier:  The scale and pace of climate change acts as a multiplier which could result in simultaneous and unprecedented impacts on where we can settle, grow food, maintain our built-up infrastructure, or rely on functioning ecosystems. Managing the potential disruption, displacement and adaptation to phenomena such as sea-level rise or extreme weather events, represents a profound challenge to sustainable development at the local, national and international level – both in economic and geopolitical terms.
  3. Managing the risks of climate change:  Uncertainty will continue to define our response to climate change. By its very nature, both in terms of its causes and its effects, climate change requires a global response. Accelerating the transition towards a low carbon future is but one dimension of reducing future risks. However, we must also develop a risk management strategy which anticipates and addresses the capacity of the international community to cope with significant disruptions to our societies which, left unaddressed, carry within them the seeds of tensions, chaos and conflict.

Underpinning the question of whether there is a link between climate change and security is the science.

Let us all acknowledge from the outset that the world does not have perfect knowledge on current or future climate change.

Determining the contribution of rising greenhouse gases in respect to an event such as the severe drought currently affecting the Horn of Africa is a challenge.

There may be a climate change signature, but there is also natural variation and wider environmental change underway, such as deforestation, land degradation and over exploitation of other natural resources such as freshwaters.

But human beings have never planned strategies or responses based on 100 per cent certainty, rather we make decisions based on risk assessments–intuitively when as an individual we cross a road, or deliberately when Governments or companies make decisions from economic planning and infrastructure to emerging security concerns.

Risk Assessments

The principal risk assessments in respect to climate change are the reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), hosted by UNEP and the World Meteorological Organization.

Its work is in turn based on the research of thousands upon thousands of scientists from government and university-linked institutes from across the globe.

The fourth assessment report of the IPCC in 2007 concluded that it was “unequivocal” that the Earth is warming and that human activities play a role in this change.[i]

Among its many findings then was that 11 of the last 12 years rank among the 12 hottest years on record.

Over the last 50 years, “cold days, cold nights, and frost have become less frequent, while hot days, hot nights, and heat waves have become more frequent.”

The linear warming trend over the last 50 years of, on average 0.13°C per decade, is nearly twice that for the last 100 years. The total temperature increase from the period 1850 to 1899 to the period 2001 to 2005 has been 0.76°C.

Among the IPCC’s other findings in 2007 was that storms and cyclones have become more intense over the past 30 years and that droughts, especially in the tropics and sub-tropics, have become more frequent with implications for food security.

Thermal expansion of the oceans is contributing to sea-level rise of on average 1.8 mm a year since the 1960s. Since 1978 satellites show that the extent of summer Arctic sea ice has fallen by 20 per cent.

Irrespective of the specific causes and drivers, there is clear evidence that our climate is changing and that the pace and scale of that change is accelerating in many areas.

Newly Emerging Science

The IPCC’s fifth assessment will be released in 2013/2014, but already many teams of scientists claim the forecasts and scenarios of future climate change in the fourth IPCC assessment are being overtaken.

For example, recent conclusions from the Snow, Water, Ice and Permafrost in the Arctic report of the Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme (AMAP), published in May, point to likely global sea-level rise of close to a meter or more by the end of the century as a result of, for example, faster melting of the Greenland ice sheets.[ii]

This compares with the 0.18 and 0.59 meters forecast by the IPCC four years ago.

A one-meter rise in sea level could, for example, flood 17 per cent of Bangladesh’s land area; threaten large parts of coastal cities such as Lagos, Cape Town and elsewhere and overwhelm, along with storm surges, small island developing States from the Maldives to Tuvalu.

The Copenhagen Diagnosis of 2009, designed as an update on the IPCC’s fourth assessment, identified the potential for a temperature rise by 2100 of as much as seven degrees C if there is no action to cut emissions.[iii]

In a series of papers published last year by the Royal Society of the United Kingdom, some researchers suggest a worst case scenario of a 4 degree C temperature rise by around 2060, with perhaps even higher rises in regions like southern Europe and North Africa.[iv]

What the newly emerging science is in many ways pointing to is also tipping points, sudden and perhaps irreversible changes accompanied by feedback mechanisms—an Arctic free of summer ice by 2030, for example, could reduce the amount of sunlight reflected back into space leading to more heat absorbed by the Earth.[v]

Another, related feedback mechanism is the thawing of the permafrost in the Arctic which in turn might trigger releases of ancient, stored carbon from the tundra.[vi]

One study led by scientists at the universities of Florida, California and Alaska has suggested that unchecked climate change might cause close to 100 billion tonnes of “old carbon” to be released from melting permafrost this century. This would have a warming affect equivalent to 270 years of carbon dioxide emissions at current levels.[vii] [viii]

In respect to food security, temperature rises alone may be more severe in impact than previously thought. A paper this year in Nature Climate Change has tapped previously un-utilized data from more than 20,000 maize trials in Africa. [ix]

It has concluded that roughly 65 per cent of present maize-growing areas in Africa would experience yield losses for a one degree C warming even under optimal rain-fed management.

Mr. President,

What the ever evolving scenarios and scientific findings suggest are continuing, accelerating and even “tipping point” trends linked to environmental change, including climate change.

These, suggest experts, have fundamental implications for weather, settlements, infrastructure, food insecurity and lives, livelihoods and development.

This is happening in a world of close to seven billion people, rising to over nine billion by 2050 and on a planet where resource constraints are rapidly emerging.[x]

There can be many ways to deal with climate change:  one definitively would be the adoption of mitigation measures to address one of the causes of the change, which is the increase of greenhouse gas emissions; another would be to deal with the change via adaptation measures.

In a world where population is rapidly rising, the sustainable use of resources becomes an imperative.

Indeed according to UNEP’s International Resource Panel, consumption of several key natural resources could triple by 2050 to 140 billion tonnes unless that consumption is decoupled from economic growth. [xi]

This gives rise to security concerns in its own right as witnessed by the public protests in countries such as Argentina, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Egypt, Haiti, India, Indonesia, Mauritania and Peru in 2008 when a range of factors coalesced including price spikes in food allied to shortages in some places.[xii] [xiii]

Many experts argue that climate change will aggravate or amplify existing security concerns and give rise to new ones, especially but not exclusively in already fragile and vulnerable nations.

Nationally and regionally climate change has the potential to sharply intensify human displacement bringing communities into increasing competition for finite natural resources with world-wide repercussions for the stability of the global economy.

Mr. President,

When one looks at the links between climate change and security, perhaps one might focus on three areas:

Natural Disasters—Sea-level rise, accompanied by storm surges and other extreme weather events, represents a key threat to the security let alone the future viability of small island States and low-lying coastal zones.

A World Bank study has estimated that a one-meter sea-level rise would affect 84 developing countries alone.[xiv]

In 1998, Hurricane Mitch impacted Honduras with 290km/hour winds and three meter waves. Nearly one meter of rain fell on the region.

An estimated 70-80 per cent of Honduras’s transportation infrastructure was destroyed and existing maps of the country were rendered obsolete.[xv]

President Carlos Roberto Flores said at the time that the hurricane had destroyed 50 years of progress in the country and caused US$3.8 billion of damage.

Last month the Norwegian Refugee Council and the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC) estimated that “sudden natural disasters” displaced 42 million people in 2010.[xvi]

In 2010, over 90 per cent of disaster displacement within countries was caused by climate-related hazards, primarily floods and storms.[xvii] Climate scenarios expect such weather events to increase and or intensify as a result of accelerating climate change.

The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) and the IDMC have suggested that at least 36 million people were displaced in 2008 due to “sudden-onset natural disasters” of which over 20 million were displaced due to sudden on-set of weather-related disasters.[xviii]

“Research from other sources suggests that many millions of people are also displaced annually as a result of climate-related, slow-onset disasters such as drought,” their report says.

Recent studies have found that up to 12 per cent of the world GDP is already at risk from existing climate patterns.[xix] For example, the value of GDP exposed to tropical cyclones alone more than tripled from US$525.7 billion in the 1970s to US$1.6 trillion in the first decade of the 2000s.[xx] 

Food Insecurity

Natural disasters challenge food security in several ways–loss of productive land from sea-level rise, destruction of crops and damage to food distribution networks.

Meanwhile, we now live in a world so interconnected that a drought or a flood in one part of the globe one day can challenge supply chains and move commodity markets the next.

Some of the emerging temperature rise scenarios may also challenge the basic ability of some parts of the world to practice agriculture as a result of crops being unable to tolerate new climatic conditions or, for example, as a result of the drying out of forests—natural systems that recycle nutrients needed to grow crops and which are also the font of many rivers needed for irrigation.

The IPCC’s 2007 assessment, for example, concluded that “Up to 40% of the Amazonian forests could react drastically to even a slight reduction in precipitation”.

In an open letter, published in March last year, Brazilian and American scientists carrying out research in the Amazon outlined findings from the 2005 drought that confirmed a large surge in tree mortality alongside sharp increases in forest fires.[xxi]

Meanwhile, many fish stocks are already depleted as a result of over fishing. Higher surface sea temperatures can also affect fish stocks. Higher sea temperatures in the North Atlantic have been linked to declines in copepods, creatures towards the base of the food chain upon which young fish such as cod rely for food.

Higher sea surface temperatures are also likely to threaten coral reefs—key ecosystems linked to healthy fish stocks. 500 million people in developing countries rely on fisheries and aquaculture for livelihoods.[xxii]

Conflicts over Resources

Competition over scarce water and land, exacerbated by regional changes in climate, are already a key factor in local-level conflicts in Darfur, the Central African Republic, northern Kenya, and Chad, for example–when livelihoods are threatened by declining natural resources, people either innovate, flee or can be brought into conflict.

In total, 145 countries share one or more international river basins.[xxiii] Changes in water flows, amplified by climate change, could be a major source of tension between States, especially those that lack the capacity for co-management and cooperation.

Changing glacial melt patterns will have major implications for populations living downstream of mountain regions like the Hindu-Kush, the Pamirs and the Andes, while key river systems such as the Nile, Mekong and the Tigris-Euphrates could all be affected by changes in water supply.

As climate change opens up access to natural resources in the Arctic, including major untapped reserves of oil, gas and minerals, how will increasing competition for ownership and access be managed? Can new forms of environmental diplomacy address such transboundary risks or are territorial sovereignty issues likely to increase political tensions?

Mr. President,

Today’s debate does not come in a vacuum. Only three weeks ago the High-Level Panel of Experts on Food Security and Nutrition of the UN Food and Agricultural Organization launched a new study on climate change and food security.[xxiv]

UNEP is a partner with the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization and the Scientific Committee on Problems of the Environment, working on framing a response to the climate change and food challenge issue with the Global Environmental Change and Food Systems initiative hosted by Oxford University.

The China Geological Survey Institute, under the Government’s Ministry of Land and Resources, is drafting new water conservation policies as a result of recent assessment of glacial melt in Qinhgai-Tibet Plateau.

The researchers, from the Qinghai Provincial Geological Research Institute and the Beijing-based China University of Geosciences, estimated that the area of glaciers at the headwaters of the Yangtze Rivers had declined from over 1,200 square km to close to 1,000 square km since the 1970s.[xxv]

Similar retreats are being seen across the Andes, with concern for water supplies to cities such as La Paz and Quito, considered high in 10 to 20 years time.

Earlier this month the Environment and Security initiative (ENVSEC) published a comprehensive assessment of the Amu Darya river basin in Central Asia and measures for improved cooperation between Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.

ENVSEC is a partnership between several UN agencies and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

Its conclusion was that tensions over this shared water resource—Central Asia’s longest river–are likely to intensify as a result of historical legacies but also emerging ones such as planned hydropower projects; irrigation demands and climate change with temperatures forecast to rise by 2-3 degrees C over the next 50 years or so.[xxvi]

Meanwhile, countries in the Sahel including Burkina Faso, the Gambia and Mauritania have also recognized the security implications of climate change and natural resource conflicts in their national policies and adaptation plans. A number of developed and developing countries alike have also reflected these risks in their national security strategies and defense plans.

These in many ways are intertwined with wider challenges and opportunities facing each and every economy—how can countries, at different points in their development path, work together on a transformative agenda on what is now being termed a low carbon economy—or more broadly defined as a resource efficient Green Economy?

Not as a break on development, but as a catalyst for investing and re-investing in the kinds of clean tech industries that produce markedly less greenhouse gas emissions and thus reduce the risks of dangerous climate change, while also more intelligently and sustainably investing in, and managing, our ecological infrastructure (for example, forest ecosystems which enhance resilience and store carbon) that will be central to a more stable, equitable and peaceful world.

This will be a key focus of Rio+20, taking place in June next year 20 years after the Rio Earth Summit of 1992, where the Green Economy in the context of sustainable development and poverty eradication, is one of the two major themes.

Implications for Maintaining Global Stability and Security

The question today is what kind of supportive or strategic role could or should the United Nations play in this landscape, assuming that Member States consider climate change to be a phenomenon with potentially profound implications for global security and stability in the future.

Mr. President,

If we look at the history of peacekeeping operations mandated by the Security Council, we find that 10 operations costing a total of US$35 billion dollars have been deployed to countries where natural resources have played a key role in the conflict.[xxvii] [xxviii] [xxix]

This figure represents half of the total peacekeeping budget ever spent.

The science informs us that the quantity and quality of these resources will be at increasing risk from climate change and its impacts and that, without broad and cooperative action, irreversible tipping points could occur with perhaps sudden and abrupt shocks to communities and countries.

There is a great deal of knowledge and analysis accumulated over many decades on the conditions and the triggers that can trip tensions and turmoil into conflict and war.

The scientific evidence that has been rapidly expanding and maturing over the past three decades on climate change adds a new and additional dimension to this analysis and knowledge.

Humanity is at a point in its history where it has, for the first time, the power to fundamentally alter within one or two generations the conditions upon which societies have evolved over millennia. It is the speed of environmental change, including climate change that will be increasingly at the heart of our collective concern and response.

The question is less and less one of whether climate change is a security threat or a threat multiplier.

But one of how we can assess and manage the risks associated with climate change and its security implications as an international community.

There can be little doubt today that climate change has potentially far-reaching implications for global stability and security in economic, social and environmental terms which will increasingly transcend the capacity of individual nation States to manage.  In that context the sustainable development paths of individual nations will increasingly be predicated upon the ability of the international community to act collectively in addressing these developments.

While a changing climate has already become an inevitability as a result of historical emissions, our ability to manage its consequences and avoid its most dangerous possibilities will depend on a proactive strategy of evolved and perhaps new international platforms, mechanisms and institutional responses:  Ones which both anticipate security concerns and facilitate cooperative responses.

Indeed there is no reason why the international community cannot avoid escalating conflicts, tensions and insecurity related to a changing climate if a deliberate, focused and collective response can be catalyzed that tackles the root causes, scale, potential volatility and velocity of the challenges emerging.

In bringing forward a response that enhances global security and cooperation on the climate challenge, the world can perhaps also better manage risk from numerous other challenges and in doing so diminish tensions between nations and lay the foundations and possibilities of a more sustainable and equitable peace.

Thank you.

[i]Pachauri, R.K. and A. Reisinger, Eds. 2007. Contribution of working groups I, II and III to the fourth assessment report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Geneva, Switzerland: IPCC. www.ipcc.ch/publications_and_data/ar4/syr/en/contents.html.

[ii] Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme (AMAP). 2011. Snow, water, ice, permafrost in the arctic (SWIPA). http://amap.no/swipa/.

[iii] Allison, N.L. et al. 2009. The Copenhagen diagnosis: Updating the world on the latest climate science. www.copenhagendiagnosis.org/press.html.

[iv] Liverman, M., R.A. Betts, K.L. Anderson, and C.C. West, Eds. 2011. Four degrees and beyond: The potential for a global temperature increase of four degrees and its implications. Philosophical Transactions of The Royal Society 369 (1934). http://rsta.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/369/1934.toc.

[v] National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC). 2007. Arctic Sea ice shatters all previous record lows. Press release, October 1. http://nsidc.org/news/press/2007_seaiceminimum/20071001_pressrelease.html.

[vi] Mascarelli, A.L. 2009. A sleeping giant? Nature Reports – Climate Change online, March 5. www.nature.com/climate/2009/0904/full/climate.2009.24.html.

[vii] Gray, L. 2009. Melting permafrost could trigger ‘unstoppable’ climate change. The Telegraph, March 26. www.telegraph.co.uk/earth/environment/climatechange/5049214/Melting-permafrost-could-trigger-unstoppable-climate-change.html.

[viii] Schurr, E.A.G., J.G. Vogel, K.G. Crummer, H, Lee, J.O. Sickman, and T.E. Osterkamp. 2009. The effect of permafrost thaw on old carbon release and net carbon exchange from tundra. Nature 459: 556-559. www.nature.com/nature/journal/v459/n7246/full/nature08031.html.

[ix] Lobell, D.B., M. Banzinger, C. Magorokosho, and B. Vivek. 2011. Nonlinear heat effects on African maize as evidenced by historical yield trials. Nature climate change 1(4): 42-45. www.nature.com/nclimate/journal/v1/n1/full/nclimate1043.html.

[x] United Nations. 2007. World population will increase by 2.5 billion by 2050; People over 60 to increase by more than 1 billion. Press release, March 13. POP/952. www.un.org/News/Press/docs/2007/pop952.doc.htm.

[xi] United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). 2011. Decoupling natural resource use and environmental impacts from economic growth. www.unep.org/resourcepanel/decoupling/files/pdf/Decoupling_Report_English.pdf.

[xii] Adam, D. 2008. Food price rises threaten global security. The Guardian, April 9. www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2008/apr/09/food.unitednations.

[xiii] Lacey, M. 2008. Across globe, empty bellies bring rising anger. New York Times, April 18.  www.nytimes.com/2008/04/18/world/americas/18food.html.

[xiv] World Bank. 2007. The impact of sea level rise on developing countries: a comparative analysis (by Dasgupta, Susmita; Laplante, Benoit; Meisner, Craig; Wheeler, David; Jianping Yan).


[xv] National Climatic Data Center. 2004. Mitch: The deadliest Atlantic hurricane since 1780. http://lwf.ncdc.noaa.gov/oa/reports/mitch/mitch.html.

[xvi] Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC). 2010. 42 million displaced by sudden natural disasters in 2010 – report. Press release, June 6. Geneva/Oslo: IDMC. www.internal-displacement.org/8025708F004BE3B1/(httpInfoFiles)/3D76B7DE0E98B377C12578A7002CB49D/$file/PR_IDMC_climate-change_2011.pdf.

[xvii] Norwegian Refugee Council. 2011. Displacement due to natural hazard-induced disasters: Global estimates for 2009-2010.


[xviii] United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs and the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (OCHA and IDMC). 2009. Monitoring disaster displacement in the context of climate change.  http://ochanet.unocha.org/p/Documents/OCHA%20IDMC%20Displacement%20climate%20change%202009.pdf.

[xix] Economics of Climate Adaptation. 2009. Shaping climate-resilient development: A framework for decision-making. http://ec.europa.eu/development/icenter/repository/ECA_Shaping_Climate_Resilent_Development.pdf (page 6).

[xx] United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Reduction. 2011. www.unisdr.org/files/19849_2011no15.pdf.

[xxi] Nepstad, D. et al. 2010. Scientists’ statement on recent press release on Amazon susceptibility to reductions in rainfall: No Amazon rainforest “myths” have been debunked. http://cybele.bu.edu/download/amazongate/Nepstad-etal-pr.pdf.

[xxii] World Bank. n.d. Fisheries and aquaculture in a changing climate. http://siteresources.worldbank.org/EXTARD/Resources/336681-1224775570533/MultiagencyPolicyBriefCOP15.pdf.

[xxiii] Giordano, M.A. and A.T. Wolf. 2003. Sharing waters: Post-Rio international water management. Natural Resources Forum 27: 163-171. www.transboundarywaters.orst.edu/publications/abst_docs/narf_051_Giordano.pdf

[xxiv] Food and Agriculture Organization. 2011. Climate change and food security: Setting the track for the HLPE. http://km.fao.org/fsn/discussions/climate_change.

[xxv] Wang, G., Ed. 2009. Melting glaciers on China’s Qinghai-Tibet plateau water source “worrisome”. Tibet.new.cn, February 4. http://news.xinhuanet.com/english/2009-02/04/content_10763469.htm.

[xxvi] United Nations Environment Programme and Environment & Security (UNEP and ENVSEC). Environment and security in the Amu Darya basin. www.envsec.org/publications/AmuDarya-EN-Web.pdf.

[xxvii] United Nations. 2011. Current peacekeeping operations: Facts and figures.

[xxviii] United Nations. n.d. Past peacekeeping operations: Facts and figures. http://www.un.org/en/peacekeeping/operations/past.shtml.

[xxix]United Nations. n.d. Peacekeeping fact sheet archive.  www.un.org/en/peacekeeping/resources/statistics/factsheet_archive.shtml.

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