This is the fifteenth of a continuing series of essays and interviews from Earth Institute scientists on the prospects for a global climate-change treaty. Check with us daily for news and perspectives, and to make comments, as events unfold throughout the Copenhagen meetings.
In the movie 2012, the world’s governments must respond to the ultimate global change: overheating of the earth’s core, with attendant giant mega- earthquakes, volcanoes and tsunamis. The effective international cooperation it inspires is proportional to the impacts. As prospects appear to shrink in Copenhagen, this flight of political fancy is starting to look even more outlandish than the movie’s irreverent approach to geophysics. In the real world, governments are responding to increasingly dire projections with promises to keep on talking.
Anything can happen between now and Dec. 18, so it is too early to write an epitaph for Copenhagen. But we have had plenty of time to judge the suitability of the diplomatic processes surrounding the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change and the Kyoto Protocol. The core political challenges that were with us 20 years ago – how to get rich countries to reduce emissions and how to get developing countries to commit to capping growth in emissions – remain elusive. And as we enter the third decade of the modern climate-change debate, the policy agenda is seized by a new issue: national security. For the question surrounding this, the existing diplomatic process is singularly ill suited.
Many now fear that climate change may trigger waves of “climate refugees” fleeing newly inhospitable areas and sparking wars in their wake; or that climate change may shift patterns of moisture and set off water wars; or that it may tip already fragile states over the edge into complete collapse. Other scenarios include possible territorial conflict over new navigation pathways in the Arctic, and changing disease patterns that may put troops in harm’s way. One problem that has been on the agenda for a long time – the threatened disappearance of small island states – is becoming a reality, with displacements and resettlement plans already in motion.
Not only do these concerns show no signs of going away; most countries with advanced military establishments have launched major programs organized around them. The United States’ 2009 Annual Threat Assessment devoted almost a quarter of its pages to climate and water issues. The U.N. Security Council has held hearings on the subject. Yet coordinated international action is curiously absent.
Here is what we ought to be doing if we are going to take climate-related security seriously:
- Monitor climate impacts on societies systematically. There is no international mechanism to do this. That is inconsistent with what we see on the horizon.
- Coordinate assessment and response with respect to climate-conflict hotspots. We do this for global health crises, monetary crises and conventional military crises. We need to do the same for climate-security threats.
- Begin open international discussions about the most difficult policy implications. Effective responses will require rational, sober attention to topics that are potentially incendiary: migration, military intervention, and the rights of displaced and stateless populations. These won’t be easy to deal with. We need to start now.
Our appreciation of climate change has advanced considerably since the U.N. Framework was signed in 1992. Since then, well-founded alarms have been sounded around the world. Yet, policy deliberations remain stuck where they were in 1992. If the U.N. Framework cannot deliver the needed response, we must look to alternative mechanisms that have greater chance of success.
Political scientist Marc A. Levy is deputy director of the Center for International Earth Science Information Network.