New UN S-G Must Realize That Climate Change Threatens Our World

A man rides along a flooded street during a heavy rainfall in Shilipu, Chaoyang Road, Beijing, China July 20, 2016. REUTERS/J
A man rides along a flooded street during a heavy rainfall in Shilipu, Chaoyang Road, Beijing, China July 20, 2016. REUTERS/Jason Lee

The task facing the next United Nations Secretary-General will not be an easy one. The world seems to be teetering on the edge of multiple, interconnected crises including conflict in Syria, tensions around Ukraine, and disputes over water and land resource issues. All of this at a time when we are seeing the biggest movement of people since World War II.

In the public debates the candidates for the next UN Secretary-General have participated in, they've shown that they can list what will be in their in-tray, but few have acknowledged the common thread running through many of these crises and challenges: the impact of a changing climate. Any analysis that fails to acknowledge this as one of the key drivers to current and future global instability is a flawed one.

The evidence of this impact is becoming increasingly apparent. Whilst very few are saying that climate change is a direct cause of conflict, it is certainly increasing the likelihood. Last month research published by the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research found climate disasters increase the chance of armed conflict, particularly in ethnically-divided nations. Climate change is already contributing to social upheaval and even violent conflict by making bad situations worse. In 2015, the National Academy of Sciences linked a prolonged drought in Syria in 2011 to climate change, and suggested the drought may have contributed to the start of the conflict and subsequent migrant crisis: The 2006-2011 drought was particularly severe and led to widespread crop failures, which in turn forced people to move within Syria into cities in search of work, increasing the tension and chance of conflict in urban areas. As always, there will be alternative views and whilst other analysis suggests the link may not be so straightforward, the new additions have certainly added momentum to the debate.

Unlike her fellow candidates, Christiana Figueres -- a Costa Rican diplomat and former head of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change -- not only recognises that climate change is increasingly one of the biggest threats that we face, she also understands that the security implications need to be addressed along with all the other threats to global stability and prosperity, rather than in isolation. She knows that without such an approach climate change promises to make many of our most complex crises -- from migration to conflict, food shortages to terrorism -- much harder to solve. A Secretary-General prepared to integrate a response to the risk posed by climate change across the UN will have the best chance at delivering peace during these turbulent times. International security today is dependent on understanding the effects of climate change on people's prosperity within states and relations between states. Figueres has demonstrated that she is a shrewd diplomat and coalition builder at the top of her game. She picked up a broken UN climate talks after the failure of the Copenhagen Summit in 2009, and proved she could help states work together to achieve the Paris Agreement, the first of its kind to commit all countries to reduce their carbon emissions and transition to economies based on renewable energy. States that once saw little to agree on have, through her skill and dedication, found common ground and agreed a deal which was previously seen as impossible.

What's more, as was often repeated at the World Humanitarian Summit in May, the scale and frequency of the crises that are hitting home have stretched the UN and the humanitarian apparatus to the breaking point. The UN needs reform. It needs to treat these crises holistically and not remain beholden to a siloed approach that gives rise to internal demarcation disputes. The UN has shown it can deliver multilateral deals -- not just on climate but also the Sustainable Development Agenda, and the Sendai Risk Reduction Framework. The 21st century is proving extremely challenging, with many threats to our global prosperity and well-being. Under the new Secretary-General, the UN will have to adapt to meet these challenges and the candidate the members of the Security Council choose to recommend to the General Assembly must be capable of delivering; Christiana Figueres is that candidate.