Disarmament Insight


Thursday, 3 May 2007

Can global warming be a trigger for conflict?

On 17 April, for the first time ever, the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) debated the relationship between “Energy, Security and Climate”, based on a concept paper put forward by the United Kingdom.

In introducing these themes into the Security Council, the UK reportedly faced opposition from China, Russia, the United States and some developing countries via the Group of 77. These states apparently objected on grounds that global warming isn’t a matter of international peace and security. Some accused the Security Council of “ever-increasing encroachment” on the role and responsibility of other UN organs.

Such concerns have been heard before in other contexts whenever the UNSC has shifted its gaze (think terrorism or initial controversy about UNSC resolution 1540 on weapons of mass destruction). It still leaves the big question: is global warming likely to increase the probability of war?

Yes, is what a growing chorus of experts thinks. For instance, the vice-chairman of the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Prof. Munasinghe, said with regard to the situation in Sri Lanka:

“A major part of Jaffna and other northern areas will be submerged when the sea-level rises. So people are fighting and dying over areas that may soon not be there.”

For its part, the UK’s concept paper outlined several ways in which it believes climate change will impact on the likelihood of conflict, listing border disputes, migration, energy supplies, other resource shortages (notably, freshwater, cultivable land, crop yields and fish stocks), societal stress and humanitarian crises:

“The immediate drivers of conflict are likely to remain national and regional power struggles; ideology; ethnic, religious and national tensions; and severe economic, social or political inequality. The cumulative impacts of climate change could exacerbate these drivers of conflict, and particularly increase the risk to those states already susceptible to conflict, for example where weak governance and political processes cannot mediate successfully between competing interests.”

And, the paper also noted, “parts of the developing world are both particularly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, and least equipped to cope with them.”

Media reporting on the debate indicates that controversy over discussing these issues in the UN’s premier security forum meant that, not for the first time, UNSC deliberations have generated more heat than light (no pun intended). Some studies, meanwhile, indicate that rich nations in the temperate north may escape or even benefit from the effects of warming, which is widely blamed on their use of fossil fuel. Not only would this be a very cruel irony. It also heightens suspicions that industrialized countries, whose interests are well represented in the UNSC, will use the body to try to impose self-serving measures on other poorer nations, in the process impeding their development.

Matters seem a very long way from that. Meanwhile, the discussion is at least a start in attempting dialogue about the links between climate, energy and security. And the UK’s concept paper underlines the need for new approaches to achieving and maintaining security that better respond to global interconnection in more productive ways.

Viewed from outside, fractious and ideological politics in the Security Council just highlight the limits of security perceptions based on Cold War certainties, and must seem a million miles away from the looming problems of human insecurity faced by ordinary Sri Lankans, Bangladeshis, Pacific Islanders and others because of the consequences of climate change on their lives. Maybe it’s time to ask how their perspectives can be brought into the process in order to keep it real, rather than rhetorical.

Aurélia Merçay & John Borrie


The UK’s concept paper and other documents from the UNSC discussion can be found here.

"Global warming could spur 21st century conflicts," Reuters, 16 April 2007, available at http://www.alertnet.org/thenews/newsdesk/L16221115.htm

“UN looks at link between global warming and unrest,” The Associated Press, 18 April 2007, available at http://www.iht.com/articles/2007/04/18/news/climate.php

“Climate change worse than civil war – UN expert,” Inter Press Service News Agency, 24 April 2007, available at http://ipsnews.net/news.asp?idnews=37463

Photo retrieved from Flickr