A threat to national security?It is time to recognize the threats posed by a rapidly changing climate for what they are. The correlation between cause and effect - what we as human beings do and how it is changing the climate system and the resultant impacts - is a difficult one to make for most non-specialists. But vigorous scientific researches in the National Academies of Sciences around the world, scholarly institutions of all kinds have been working for quite some time to make the much-needed connection. Active engagement by the United Nations system helped member countries adopt international legal instruments, which in turn resulted in establishment of enabling measures to implement such instruments. And yet the world community is far from adequately addressing the climate threat. It is because climate change can no more be treated just as another environmental issue, or as a developmental issue, or as one caused by the rich industrialized countries only. It is all of them and much more.
When negotiations began in early 1991 to adopt a UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, notwithstanding some impressive arguments by developing countries, the Committee tasked with the negotiations managed to keep it (by and large) to the scientific understanding of the causes, consequences and necessary remedial measures about the rapidly changing climate. The developments since then however demonstrated that climate change touches every fabric of human enterprise as perhaps no other single issue does.
In the short span of some twenty years, climate change threats and issues have expanded from being confined to the environmental field to the fields of economics, social stability, human rights, humanitarian aid and national security.
Anyone who doubts this does not need to search far for evidence. In 2012 the UN Office of the Coordinator for Humanitarian Affairs highlighted how the effects of climate change put pressure on many fronts of the society. Environmentally, in addition to the changes to the global climate, around 70 percent of natural disasters were now judged to be climate related - up from around 50 percent from two decades ago. In terms of social stability and humanitarian needs, these disasters are taking a heavier human toll. In the past decade, 2.4 billion people were affected by climate related disasters, compared to 1.7 billion in the decade previous to that. They also come with a higher price tag: the cost of responding to disasters has risen tenfold between 1992 and 2008.
All these observed trends are expected to become projected trends. The Nobel Prize winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in their 2012 report on Managing the Risks of Extreme Events reports that destructive power of extreme weather events is intensifying, and our vulnerability is increasing as the number of exposed people and infrastructure increase due to population growth and expansion of urban centers.
The threats in areas less widely discussed are also becoming more apparent in their connection to adverse impacts of climate change. National security is a good example. Increasing instances of climate events such as clusters of extreme events, and the dynamic changes in the climate are exerting extra pressure on social and political stresses. Last year, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences in Washington, reported that uneven distribution of damage and rehabilitation efforts among different socioeconomic class added onto social stress in aftermath of the 2005 hurricane Katrina.
A recently released study by the UN National Intelligence Council, titled “Alternative Worlds 2030” says: “The present emissions pathway is leading to a doubling of greenhouse gases by mid-century. Based on a better understanding of climate sensitivity and emissions, this concentration will lead to approximately 2 degrees Celsius warming by mid-century. Add to this increase in storm surges, wild fires and other so-called “natural disasters,” the area and the number of “climate refugees” needing humanitarian assistance will rapidly become a national security issue.
To deal with such issues the United Nations Security Council took up the agenda of climate change and national security in 2007 at the initiative of United Kingdom and again in 2011 when Germany raised this issue. While it is important that the issue be taken up globally, it is crucial that Asia Pacific countries pay particular attention to the matter. This region of the world shared over 80 percent of the global human casualties by natural disasters since 2000. Climate impacts are also negating the development gains made by the Asia Pacific countries.
To address some of these issues with special focus on climate security in the Asia Pacific region, the Republic of Korea is hosting a timely and much needed conference. As this region is an epicenter of climate vulnerability and greenhouse gas emissions, the significance of initiating this regional discussion in Seoul is extended beyond the region. As UN Secretary General Mr. Ban had said, “climate change not only exacerbates threats to peace and security, it is a threat to international peace and security.” To tackle this security threat, an “International Conference on Climate Security in the Asia-Pacific Region” will be held in Seoul on March 21 and 22. Experts from a wide array of different fields will be present and will address the nexus between water, food, energy and land security, and identify policy responses and areas of international cooperation.
It is time that the conferences such as these outline action agenda items that inject a greater sense of urgency in tackling climate threats at national, regional and global levels. It is also time that we are committed to tackling the fundamental causes - as we work toward poverty eradication, put in place policies and measures that help national development plans by moving to a low-carbon, greener development pathway.
*The author is director of the Unescap East and North-East Asia Office.
by Kilaparti Ramakrishna