Beyond Tradition: Securitization of Climate Change

Avilash Roul

All over the world, environmentalists and green activists are jubilant. Even, renowned international environmental organization Greenpeace is thrilled for its nomenclature when the climate change has officially ‘securitized’ at the United Nation. But, traditional war theorists or security experts have kept an eerie silence over the historic development of re-emergence of concept of ‘environmental security’. Beyond its tradition, on April 17 the UN Security Council (UNSC) debated the impacts of climate change and its linkages to international security for the first time in history. The debate initiated by the United Kingdom in a bid to convince some reluctant members of the UNSC that climate change is a threat to global security and peace in the context of geo-politics.

Early last month, the acting President of UNSC hinted in a press meeting that the UNSC would consider a discussion of those parts of climate change which are relevant to the work of the Security Council. British Foreign Secretary and President of UNSC Margaret Beckett argued that the climate change is an issue that ‘threatens the peace and security of the whole planet and the Security Council has to be the right place to debate it. But veto holders such as Russia and China negated to the UNSC agenda on climate change. The Security Council met for an open debate exploring the security implications of climate change, including their impact on potential drivers of conflict, such as access to energy, water, food and other scarce resources; population movements; and border disputes as outlined in a letter from the Permanent Representative of the United Kingdom to the President of the Council.

Traditionally, the Security Council deals with war and peace. For the last decade or so, the UNSC has broadened the concepts of threat to peace and security. Since 1999 the Security Council has addressed human security threats and how poverty can engender conflict and terrorism. In 2000, it began considering the risks posed by HIV/AIDS. Arguably, it is well in line with Security Council resolution 1625 (2005) to comprehensively address the root causes of armed conflict and political and social crises.

Though Russian Federation and China have some kind of opposition to discuss this environmental issue, surprisingly, the US has obliged to the Security Council agenda of discussion. The US, which withdrew from Kyoto Protocol in 2001 and challenged and warned the UNSC to take action against Baghdad in 2002, has first time agreed on the dangers of climate change. The obvious disgruntlements like if the Security Council is ‘appropriate’ or lack ‘professional expertise’ or ‘under-representative’ or increasing encroachment on the General Assembly or other UN agencies like ECOSOC or UNEP as raised by the developing countries like China, Pakistan on behalf of G-77 and India seems natural. However, the Small Island States including Maldives were contented to the UNSC debate.

The timely UNSC debate was pushed by the independent Oxford Research Group’s report ‘Global Responses to Global Threats’, which says the effects of climate change - displacement of peoples, food shortages, social unrest and so on - have long-term security implications far greater than those of terrorism. The same view is also endorsed by the Pentagon's office. This follows the launch of the report of the Working Group II of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) that highlighted the severe impacts climate change will have during this century on humankind, especially on the poor.

Climate change threatens livelihoods and well-being of large chunk of population in many parts of the world especially Africa and South Asia. The impacts of climate change are fueling social discontent and alienation among the already marginalized poor. Therefore, the prevailing situations are vulnerable to coups, insurgencies and instability. Even, some climate change mitigation and adaptation investments such as large dams may also displace people, further fueling polarization in societies.

South Asia is more vulnerable region for peace and security due to adverse impacts of climate change as 40 percent of the population lives bellow poverty line. The South Asian countries are now engaged in a ‘natural- resource harness- race’ including large hydro-projects, which may trigger some fissures among the countries as well as between the provinces within the country.

After the debate in Security Council, what action the debate will inspire remains to be seen. Despite any resolution on climate change in the Security Council, It is unlikely to send military troop against the countries which are responsible for climate change by emitting greenhouse gases or to negotiate or mediate among the states or impose economic sanctions. But, a serious agenda on reducing emissions seems clear in the coming climate meeting in Indonesia later this year.

The new climate regime must go beyond the UN sponsored 1992 Framework Convention on climate Change (UNFCCC), which will include India, China, Brazil, South Africa and Mexico-these countries till now are out of emission reduction commitments under the Kyoto Protocol. It is believed that the UNSC debate is sending a clear message to India, China and the US, who are planning increased reliance on the coal. Even, the UNSC may establish verification and monitoring committee for emission reductions compliances, or a sanction commission for not abiding emission commitment or a compensation commission for the impacts of climate change for the low lying countries.

However, immediate discussion on securitization of climate change may not bring any result but the debate has certainly transformed the ‘soft-fringe’ issue into a ‘mainstream’ issue of utmost importance. Now, the world leaders have to condense their policy formulation to meet the required arrangement for addressing climate change.

Author Note
Avilash Roul is a New Delhi based environment and development analyst.