Climate change "endangers global security"

Women and children are caught in a sandstorm in Wajir in north-eastern Kenya Keystone

Climate change poses a major threat to future global peace and security, warns Swiss conflict specialist Kurt Spillmann.

This content was published on July 24, 2011 - 18:53

His comments followed a heated debate in the United Nations Security Council earlier this week on whether the environment was a security matter meriting the attention of the 15-nation body.

“Climate change is not an immediate motivation for conflict between states,” Spillmann, former head of the Center for Security Studies in Zurich, told

“But it is creating stress on large parts of Africa, Southeast Asia and in the Americas, and leads to tensions between groups and regions and results in large streams of environmental refugees.”

“And that in turn creates insecurity between populations. We have little experience of these kind of threats to security.”

In the debate on Wednesday called by Germany, this month’s council president, western speakers said ever drier conditions caused by climate change had contributed to conflicts in Sudan’s Darfur region and in Somalia, where the UN recently declared famine in two southern regions after a terrible ongoing drought.

Achim Steiner, head of the UN Environment Programme, told the council that global warming was speeding up with unforeseeable consequences.

"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," he noted.

Steiner said some parts of the world would see 3-4 degree Celsius temperature rises by 2100 while negotiators are discussing a two per cent target. He also noted that sea levels could rise by one metre this century and that natural disasters could “increase exponentially”.

“The world is confronted with a global warming scenario that is already well beyond where we believe we might be able to manage these changes and trends - if we will be able to conclude our negotiations,” he noted.


However, not all states agree on discussing climate change within the security council.

Russia initially opposed the adoption of a statement on the issue saying the move was “unnecessary”. Envoy Alexander Pankin doubted whether it would bring any added value, adding that it would “merely lead to increased politicisation of the issue and increased disagreements”.

Temporary council members Brazil and India also raised doubts whether climate change should be put on the council’s agenda and developing countries said it was an attempt by the large nations to muscle in on the territory of the UN General Assembly and UN agencies specialising in climate change.

But Nauru, one of several small Pacific island states endangered by rising sea levels, urged the council to appoint a UN special envoy for climate and security.

US ambassador Susan Rice hit out at “pathetic” and “short-sighted” failed attempts to reach consensus.

“The council has an essential responsibility to address the clear-cut peace and security implications of a changing climate,” she said.

“Good day”

In the end countries agreed to a revised text that spoke of only “possible security implications” of climate change.

However, German ambassador Peter Wittig said this was still a “good day” for climate security.

“We had quite extensive discussions. We wanted to get everyone on board and we did,” said the ambassador.

Spillmann agreed that this was an advance on the last council debate on the issue in 2007.

“UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon will have to report on these issues on a regular basis. Therefore people will become more aware of the importance of the link between security and climate change,” said the Swiss.

“We need growing awareness otherwise people will remain stuck in short-term gains and advantages and lose sight of the long-term necessities.”


As a signatory to the Kyoto Protocol, Switzerland in 1997 committed itself to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. In an initial phase CO2 emissions were to be reduced 10% over 1990 levels by 2010.
The government foresees raising the target to at least a 20% cut in emissions by 2020, partly through a CO2 tax, an emissions trading system and compensation measures outside Switzerland.
Parliament approved the 20% target, but wants cuts to be achieved through measures within Switzerland only. Discussions are continuing on extending the CO2 tax from heating oil, gas and coal to also include petrol.
Environmental groups collected enough signatures for a nationwide vote on separate proposals for a 30% cut in emissions as well as for a ban on SUVs.
The EU, which does not include Switzerland, has also set a 20% emission cut. The 27-nation bloc has set targets for individual member countries and approved a number of measures.

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