The Geopolitics of Climate Security

The Warming Challenge

© Asian Age, May 5, 2007

The Climate is Insecure

Brahma Chellaney

The new
spotlight on climate change has helped move the subject into
the international mainstream. There is now growing
recognition that climate security needs to be an important component of international security, yet the global debate on rising greenhouse-gas emissions has still to move beyond
platitudes to agreed counteraction.

         The latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report,
released on Friday, underscores the link
between energy and climate change but, other than emphasizing energy-efficiency measures and championing renewable energy, falls short of offering the world a politically workable mitigation
plan. Titled “Mitigation and Climate Change,” this summary report follows the
release of two other IPCC assessments earlier this year — one on “Physical
Science Basis” in February, and the
second on “Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability” last month.

         Climate change is a real and serious
problem, and its effects could stress vulnerable
nations and spur civil and political unrest.
Yet the creeping politicization of the subject will only make it
harder to build international
consensus and cooperation on a concrete plan of action. One way politicization is
happening is by seeking to “securitize” the risks of climate change. Take the insistence of some to add climate security to the
agenda of the United Nations Security Council.

         The Security Council, at the instance of Britain,
held its first-ever debate on the security dimensions of climate change on April
17, with a number of delegates raising
doubts whether the Council was the proper forum to discuss the issue. In 2005,
as president of both the Group of Eight and European Union, British Prime Minister Tony Blair elevated global warming to the top of their agendas, and then the following year moved Secretary Margaret Beckett from the
environment to foreign portfolio. While London
needs to be commended for its new foreign-policy focus on climate change, its
effort to put the subject on the Security Council agenda could do more harm
than good to the cause it now fervently espouses.

No doubt there
is an ominous link between global warming
and security, given the spectre of resource conflicts, failed states, large-scale
migrations and higher frequency and intensity
of extreme weather events, such as cyclones, flooding
and droughts. Some developments would demand intervention
by the armed forces. Yet climate change, despite its potential to engender
greater intrastate and interstate conflict, can be tackled only through a
consensual international approach.

“Securitizing” climate change in
the context of global geopolitics may be a way to turn the issue from one
limited to eco-warriors to a subject of major international
concern. It may also be a way to facilitate the heavy-lifting needed to give the problem the urgency and financial resources it deserves. But having succeeded in
highlighting climate change as a
core international challenge, the
emphasis now has to shift to building
consensus on counteraction.

If climate
change were to become part of the agenda of the Security Council — a hotbed of
big-power politics — it would actually undercut such consensus building. With five unelected, yet permanent, members dictating the terms of the debate, we would get international divisiveness when the need is for enduring consensus on a global response to climate

today’s world, no international
mission can succeed unless it enjoys international
coherence and consensus. In fact, this is the key lesson one can learn from the
way the global war on terror now stands derailed, even as the scourge of
transnational terrorism has spread deeper and wider in
the world.

It is not a
surprise that Britain’s
attempt during its last month’s Security
Council presidency to put climate change on the Council agenda received a
frosty response from the Group of 77 developing
countries, China
and Russia.
Even the United States
wasn’t enthused by the idea. The G-77 protested over the “ever-increasing
encroachment by the Security Council” on the role of other UN bodies, including
the General Assembly, the Commission on Sustainable
Development and the UN Environment Programme.

Another invidious way politicization is happening is through exaggeration and embellishment of the
technical evidence on global warming.
Take the reports of the IPCC, a joint
body of the World Meteorological Organization and UN Environment Programme.
Ever since the IPCC in 1990 began releasing
its assessments every five or six years, the panel has become gradually wiser,
with its projected ocean-level increases
due to global warming on a continuing downward

From projecting in
the 1990s a 67-centimetre rise in
sea levels by the year 2100, the IPCC has progressively whittled down that
projection by nearly half to 38.5 centimetres now. Should the world be worried
by the potential rise of the oceans by 38.5 centimetres within the next 100 years? You bet. We need to slow down
such a rise. But if a rise of 38.5 centimetres does occur, will it mean catastrophe?
Not really.

If the world
didn’t even notice a nearly 20-centimetre rise of sea levels in the past century, a slow 38.5-centimetre ascent of
the oceans cannot be worse than the tsunami that struck the Indian
Ocean region in late
2004. Yet the climate-change scaremongering
has picked up steam — “the Maldives
would be wiped out,” “the Netherlands
would be under water,” “millions would have to flee Shanghai.”

Politicizing technical data only distorts reality. It also
makes it harder to work out a realistic response to a serious challenge. This
is especially so as the world has swung from one extreme to the other over
global warming: from indifference, if not neglect, to such unease among
some that conjuring up worst-case
scenarios has become a rage. Even as dire predictions proliferate, the IPCC’s
own 2007 estimates of the likely temperature increases
and heat waves owing to climate
change have changed little from its previous calculations in 2001.

Yet another facet
of the current geopolitics is that the term, climate change, is being stretched to embrace environmental degradation
unrelated to the effects of the build-up of greenhouse gases and aerosol concentrations in the atmosphere. What has climate change to do
with reckless land use, overgrazing,
contamination of water resources, overuse
of groundwater, inefficient or
environmentally unsustainable
irrigation systems, waste mismanagement or the destruction of forests,
mangroves and other natural habitats? Some of these actions, of course, may
contribute to climate variation but they do not arise from global warming.

change is being turned into a convenient, blame-all phenomenon. As if to
exculpate governments for reckless development and feign helplessness, all
environmental degradation is being
expediently hitched to climate change.

is danger that like the once-fashionable concept of human security, climate
change could become too diffused in
its meaning and thereby deflect international focus from tackling
growing fossil-fuel combustion, the
main source of man-made greenhouse
gases. Just as Britain
is now pushing the climate-change issue,
put human security on the Security Council agenda during
its Council presidency in February
1999. But by the time that concept was fleshed out by the UNDP, Human Security
Commission and UN Secretary-General in
succession, human security had become so broad and inclusive
as to loose its focus.

There is need
for greater clarity not only on the human causation of climate change, but also
on what we mean by “green.” There are countries that environmentally protect
their national territories in a good
way, only to treat the atmosphere as a municipal dump. In fact, states that
boast of high environmental standards, sadly, tend also to be high per-capita
emitters of greenhouse gases. Environmental-protection standards have to include respect for the atmosphere.

          Jumping on the
green bandwagon may be becoming
politically chic, but often it entails little more than lip service to climate
security. Even the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM), set up under the 1997
Kyoto Protocol, has accomplished little more than providing
a greener reputation to some states and their greenhouse gases-spewing enterprises.

Under this mechanism, rich countries install
climate-friendly technology in poor
countries in return for securing carbon credits to exceed their own emission
targets. Such credits are traded in
an open cross-border secondary market where polluting
industries can buy them to offset
their emission levels or sell them when prices move up. The result has been the
emergence of a network transferring
to rich countries the emission rights of poor states in
a system of carbon colonialism.

Environmental grandstanding in the form of “cap and trade” only belittles the grim
challenge of climate change. What is needed is not a CDM-style re-jiggering of emission rights, but an across-the-board global
reduction in carbon-dioxide emissions.

If counteraction, however, is turned into
a burden-sharing drill among states,
we will fail because distributing
“burden” is a doomed exercise. Neither citizens in
rich states are going to lower their
living standards by cutting energy use, nor will poor nations sacrifice
economic growth, especially because their per-capita
C0² emissions
are still just one-fifth the level of the developed world.

Instead of expending
political capital to securitize climate change, we need to find ways to address the energy dilemma. Given that global
warming is a natural corollary to
how we produce or use energy, climate change is actually the wrong end of the
problem to look at. About 80 per cent of the world’s energy still comes from
fossil fuels.

What is needed is a new political dynamic that is not about burden-sharing but about opportunity centred on radically
different energy policies. This means not only a focus on renewable energy and
greater efficiency, but also a more-urgent programme of research and
development on alternative fuels and carbon-sequestration
technologies. Technology may offer salvation.

© Asian Age, 2007


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