Greenpeace: Climate change increasingly threatens security

Upcoming UN report says climate change puts lives at risk and can fuel conflicts.

Upcoming UN reports says climate change will increasingly shape national security policies, write Maman and Kosonen [AFP/Getty Images]

Anyone who thought climate change was something happening far away, to someone else, should think again. According to the world’s leading scientists, climate change is an increasing threat to human safety around the world.

In a new report to be published in the end of March by the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is expected to conclude that climate change puts lives, cultures and well-being at risk and can fuel forced migration, violence and conflicts. Their detailed report suggests that climate change will increasingly shape national security policies.

Already last month, US Secretary of State John Kerry named climate change as a security threat, calling it “perhaps the world’s most fearsome weapon of mass destruction“.

If that sounds familiar, that’s because that phrase was already made famous by former IPCC Co-Chair Sir John Houghton a decade ago. In the context of former US President George Bush and former UK Prime Ministry Tony Blair leading an illegal war against Iraq on the pretense of Iraq having weapons of mass destruction, he pointed out that anyone truly worried about weapons of mass destruction and terrorism, should fight climate change.

Since then, climate change as a security threat has been discussed a few times in the UN Security Council, but these discussions produced little. In the 2011 session, the President of Nauru hit the nail on the head, making the link between human security and climate change explicit:

“[Climate change] It is a threat as great as nuclear proliferation or terrorism, and it carries the potential to destabilise governments and ignite conflict. Neither nuclear proliferation nor terrorism has ever led to the disappearance of an entire nation, though that is what we are confronted with today…”

It’s shameful the Security Council didn’t act on those words. But it is a good thing Secretary Kerry now understands the gravity of the threat. However, he needs to change more than his talking points. The government that Kerry represents is nowhere near disarming this climate change weapon as long as the US spends billions on wars abroad, and billions at home as well to subsidise fossil fuel supply. The US energy policy applies a token effort toward climate solutions compared with what it does to maintain fossil fuel addiction.

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Rather than a faceless climate change it is the coal plants, oil rigs and the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, which would transfer crude oil from Canada to the US –which are the true weapons of mass destruction.

Allowing coal, oil and gas to be extracted and burned is not just locking us into more climate destruction – it is killing people already. Air pollution alone could have caused around 257,000 premature deaths in China, for example.

With those kind of figures maybe it is no wonder that Chinese Premier Li Keqiang recently declared a war on pollution. However, China still needs to walk the talk, which, as a start, means ensuring that provinces like Inner Mongolia and Shanxi announce effective coal “caps” (limits) and ensure air pollution prevention plans are fully enforced.

How bad climate change will become, is up to the choices we make now and in the near future. If we phase out fossil fuels and accelerate a transition to a world powered by safe and clean renewable energy, catastrophic climate change can still be prevented. The IPCC will remind us that our own security is at stake, but they are not telling us to throw up our hands and give up.

Climate change knows no borders. What happens in the Arctic, for example,  has impacts everywhere, as Hurricane Sandy showed. It can’t be fought with tanks and bombs. It’s time for the US and China in particular – the world’s two biggest polluters – to turn their talk of climate and war into peaceful action by stopping energy waste and shifting now, and fast, to an economy run on renewables – the true energy of peace.

Governments must join the coalition of the willing in the world war against climate change. By defining it as a war we recognise that this is a life and death struggle and the resources needed to fight it match those that governments are more traditionally willing to invest in violent conflict.

It requires a scale of engagement and vision that will see massive amounts of money diverted from fossil fuel subsidies and military expenditure (which totalled $3.5trn in 2012) into securing ecological peace. The dividend will be security and safety for all.

Jen Maman is a peace adviser at Greenpeace International. 

Kaisa Kosonen is a policy adviser at Greenpeace International.