United Nations:Security Council to take up climate change

by Thalif Deen

NEW YORK (IPS) - The UN Security Council, whose primary mandate is to prevent wars and preserve world peace, will once again break tradition next week when it debates the newest threat to international security: climate change.

The 15-member Council, which usually confines itself to "hard core" international politics, has on previous occasions discussed "soft issues" such as gender rights, HIV/AIDS and peacekeeping.

But all three issues were debated on the ground they relate either to conflict situations or international peace and security.

Catherine Pearce, the climate campaigner for Friends of the Earth International (FOEI), said her organisation supports the initiative taken by the British government to discuss climate change in the upcoming Security Council meeting on Apr. 17.

"We certainly regard climate change as a significant threat that reaches far beyond just the environment," Pearce told IPS, pointing out that it is also "a humanitarian, economic and security threat."

But what is more important is that such high-level discussions are supported and followed up by action, she said.

"It is the industrialised countries that should be doing far more to reduce their emissions -- particularly the United States -- and much stronger action is required."

Pearce said that greater assistance and new funds are also needed for some of the poorest countries already coping with the impacts of global warming.

At a press conference last week, British Envoy Emyr Jones Parry, who is president of the Security Council for the month of April, told reporters the very fact of holding a meeting on climate change and highlighting it was important.

But claims that Britain is the leader in climate change issues are misplaced, he added. Certainly, Britain wanted to play a leading role, but everybody had to do that, as the issue was too big to be left to any one country or organisation.

He said his assumption was that, sometime next year, there would be a global summit devoted to climate change.

The Security Council meeting is to be chaired by British Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett, but there are no plans either to issue a presidential statement or adopt a resolution on climate change.

Philip E. Clapp, president of the National Environmental Trust, told IPS the landmark report released last Friday by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) would generate discussion on the enormous new levels of international political stability and regional conflicts -- "and it is entirely appropriate for the Security Council to begin facing the risks."

In Africa alone, he said, millions of people are likely to face starvation as a result of declining crop yields.

"We have already seen the instability potential of hunger: the conflicts in Ethiopia and Somalia were both touched off by mass migrations of drought-stricken people," Clapp said.

In the Middle East, he pointed out, competition for already scarce water resources is likely to worsen, again raising the potential for conflict.

Many nations face potentially huge losses to their economies and employment.

"Increased flooding and variability of monsoon rains, for example, threatens Pakistan's cotton crop and its largest urban employer, the textile industry," he said.

And Egypt's Nile delta is one of the three areas of the world most threatened by sea level rise, which is projected to affect more than four million people and perhaps destroy much of the delta's agricultural production.

Clapp also said that Indonesia could lose up to 30 percent of its rice production -- the staple food -- to sea level rise.

Stressing the need for Security Council intervention, he said: "Millions of environmental refugees are likely to be created by global warming, particularly in the world's poorest nations, and the potential for widespread political instability across Africa, Central and Southeast Asia in particular is huge."

Asked about the impact of climate change on international peace and security, Jones Parry told reporters that people living in the Maldives, confronted with the possibility of a three-metre sea level rise that would make their state extinct, would certainly see it as a threat to their security.

The Maldives, one of the world's least developed countries (LDCs), has already appealed for international assistance to prevent a possible environmental calamity.

Jones Parry said climate change affected the supply of water and the potential of shifting patterns in famine and surplus. Those traditional triggers for conflict would be exacerbated by a change in climate, he added.

"The redistribution of people currently living in low-lying areas must be managed, which could also cause potential instability. It was a complex issue and literally one of the big challenges for the world in the coming century," the British envoy stressed.

Anwarul Karim Chowdhury, UN Under-Secretary-General and High Representative for the Least Developed Countries, Landlocked Developing Countries and Small Island Developing States, said that in view of their extreme vulnerability, the LDCs and small islands are in the front-line of the negative impact of climate change.

"For these vulnerable countries, the challenge of global warming is not merely something for future generations to worry about; it is the everyday reality they have to contend with," Chowdhury told IPS.

He also said that it is important to bear in mind that the LDCs will absorb a quarter of the world's increase in population between now and 2015, although they only account for 12 percent of the world population today.

Without development keeping pace, he argued, the challenges of poverty and the environment, particularly as manifested through climate change, are likely to get worse for a vast segment of humanity, with serious implications for the world as a whole.

Potable water shortages, submerging of heavily populated areas, an increasing number of environmental refugees, warm-weather diseases -- all these would surely contribute to the threat to national, regional and global peace and security, Chowdhury warned.

In a statement released last week, FOEI called for steep emissions cuts by all rich countries and more funding for climate change adaptation in developing countries.

In Friday's report, leading scientific experts warned that the world's poor -- who have done the least to pollute the atmosphere -- will suffer most as the planet heats up.

"Despite the negligible historical emissions of greenhouse gases by the least developed countries, their people will bear the brunt of climate change, as they are the most vulnerable to the impacts and least able to adapt," it said.

"This report confirms that the scientific findings are stronger than ever," Pearce emphasised. "World leaders have overwhelming evidence that urgent action must be taken to cut emissions of greenhouse gases." (END)