The UN’s Climate Action Summit is an effort to raise the global level of ambition to address the deepening climate crisis by encouraging governments to go further in reducing carbon emissions and in providing finance to meet the challenges. It is altogether welcome. But it is striking that the preparation for the summit and the key messages going into and coming out of it have maintained a steadfast silence about the issue of security.
UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, has called climate change a threat to human rights of unprecedented scope. She is not wrong because with climate change, it is all change.
The ground underneath our feet is shifting. Lacking crystal balls, we cannot be sure exactly what form the changes will take. But evidence and common sense combine to tell us that food, urban construction, agriculture, the economy, you name it, everything is being and increasingly will be affected. As individuals, communities, societies, as countries, we have taken nature for granted for way too long, wasting it. The consequences of that are now unfolding and among the results are the challenge to human rights that the UN High Commissioner sees.
By the same logic, climate change is a security challenge of unprecedented scope.
Arguments about whether it has directly caused armed conflicts or will are beside the point. The connections are indirect, the knock-on effects of climate change, the consequences of consequences, undermining social togetherness and political stability, putting pressure on natural resources and provoking or exacerbating competition and conflict over them. The evidence is clear that climate change has already had a significant and negative impact on security and the prospects for peace in the Middle East, the Horn of Africa and the Sahel, in Central, South and Southeast Asia, in the “dry corridor” in Central America.
I explore the issues in this latest short film in SIPRI’s Peace Points series.
Security was the silent issue going into the UN summit because there are those in the UN system and those among the member states who do not like the connection to be made too obvious or even referenced. The strategic calculation was made that it is important not to alienate them altogether from action to combat climate change.
That sounds fair enough and in some parts of the world, recognition of climate reality is so fragile that some degree of wariness in how the case is made seems strategically appealing. But actually in several agencies and in the UN HQ in New York itself, action is starting to address the links between climate change and insecurity. That work needs support, not side-lining, because those links pose major risks to human security and well-being.
Further, they are one of the big reasons why climate action is urgent.
I share the hope that the UN Climate Action Summit has generated. I admire the way it is raising awareness of the climate crisis. I hope it succeeds in its goals.
But it is getting quite strange that advocates of climate action want to leave key arguments for action to one side – a bit like anti-smoking advice tactfully leaving out the part about cancer, heart disease and emphysema.
Instead of a polite silence, the case for recognizing climate-related security risks and addressing them needs to be made stronger and more than compelling than ever.