Facing the Security Challenge of Climate Change

Most people would agree climate change is one of the biggest threats to our world. But opinions differ on the nature of this threat, how it will affect our lives and what we must do to face it.

Politicians, diplomats and security experts across the board -- not only in the Western world -- share the assessment that climate change might have a serious impact on international peace and security. It is not difficult to see why: rising sea levels threaten the very existence of small island states in the Pacific and the loss of coastal shores to the sea leading to population resettlements. The increased scarcity of potable water -- as a consequence of wells becoming brackish due to salty sea water -- adds to rivalry and tension. Overwhelming evidence shows this has already begun to happen: it is not the subject of a scientific discussion in an ivory tower.

Let there be no doubt: we are not talking about a small number of people on a remote island having to give up their stretch of the beach. We are talking about sea level rises that might seriously impact the lives of millions of people who live close to the coast -- and only a little higher than sea level. Densely populated mega-deltas of the Ganges, Nile, Mekong or Mississippi or big coastal cities such as Karachi, New York, Singapore or Tokyo come to mind -- and remember that Fukushima isn't the only (nuclear) power plant built next to the sea.

The implications of climate change will not only be economic or demographic. It will affect "hard security" as well: people will clash over basic resources, they will be forced to resettle or even to migrate across borders.

Poverty and statelessness will add to already destabilized societies. But the threat to peace and security will not be limited to existing poor and needy populations: receding coastlines could well incite disputes among developed nations over maritime territories and economic zones -- think of contested islands in East Asia or the race for the shelf at the North Pole and you can easily imagine how tensions could mount.

The threats are self-evident. But what should we do?

I think it is important to remind ourselves of two basic facts :

First, this threat is of a very different nature than any threat we have had to deal with before: it is global in reach -- and makes no distinction between North and South or East and West. There will be some countries more capable of dealing with the consequences of climate change than others. But none will go unscathed. None will be able to address these challenges on its own. It is therefore mandatory -- and in the interest of all states -- to strive for an internationally coordinated approach.

Second, the one international body that has the legitimacy and responsibility to maintain international peace and security is the United Nations Security Council. It must therefore be at the heart of any multilateral approach to tackle global threats to peace and security.

One has to concede, however, that there are varying expectations on how the Security Council should fulfill this task: some governments would like to see the Security Council only act when two countries are at the brink of war. These countries usually hold the view that only military action that crosses borders justifies Council action and that everything else amounts to outside interference. On the other hand there are governments that -- in allusion to the "blue-helmet" UN peacekeepers -- are already calling for "green-helmets to close down coal-mines." These governments expect the Security Council to act decisively on the perceived root-causes of global warming. They see no viable alternative to address their justified -- and very existential -- fear of vanishing into the sea.

As far-fetched as the idea of "green-helmets" might sound, consider the tasks that the United Nations peacekeepers already perform today -- e.g. emergency aid, development and recovery, state -- and peacebuilding. Repainting blue helmets into green might be a strong signal -- but would dealing with the consequences of climate change -- say in precarious regions -- be really very different from the tasks the blue helmets already perform today?

Trying to answer this question would mean crossing the bridge before coming to it: it is too early to seriously think about Council action on climate change. This is clearly not on the agenda. The Council should, however, fulfill its duty and ready itself: It should not only act after the first tragedies hit the headlines. A good first step would be to acknowledge the realities of climate change and its inherent implications to international peace and security. This should not be seen as an infringement on the competence of other international bodies dealing with the general policies regarding climate change and global warming. On the contrary, it would emphasize that the Council is ready to assume its responsibilities to try to prevent the worst from happening -- acting with the precaution and prudence we expect in regard to international security.