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CLIMATE CHANGE: Will Societies Bend, or Snap in the Storm?

Thalif Deen

UNITED NATIONS, Apr 9 2008 (IPS) - A new risk-analysis of the negative consequences of climate change warns of potential “devastation and violence (worldwide) jeopardising national and international security to a new degree.”

The threats to international security and stability, says the study, could be triggered by a possible increase in the number of weak and fragile states, directly resulting from global warming.

The report, titled “Climate Change as a Security Risk” and released by the German Advisory Council on Global Change (WBGU), identifies several areas with “potential for political crisis and migratory pressure”.

These include North Africa; the Sahel zone; Southern Africa; Central Asia; China; Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico; India, Pakistan and Bangladesh; and the Andean region and Amazonia.

The study found six primary threats to international stability and security: an increase in the number of weak and fragile states; risks for global economic development; growing international distributional conflicts; risk to human rights and the industrialised countries’ legitimacy as global governance actors; intensification of migration and; failure of disaster management systems.

“The greater the scale of climate change, the greater the probability that in the coming decades, climate-induced conflict constellations will impact not only on individual countries or subregions but also on the global governance system as a whole,” said the study, released last week at a seminar co-sponsored by WBGU and the New York Office of the Friedrich Ebert Foundation of Germany.

Speaking on World Health Day, Dr. Margaret Chan, director-general of the World Health Organisation (WHO), said Monday “the warming of the planet will be gradual, but the effects of extreme weather events – more storms, floods, droughts and heat waves – will be abrupt and acutely felt.”

But both trends, she cautioned, can affect some of the most fundamental determinants of health, including air, water, food, shelter and freedom from disease.

She said global warming provides a glimpse of the challenges facing public health which will have to be confronted on a large scale: the European heat wave of 2003; the Rift Valley Fever in Africa; Hurricane Katrina in 2005; malaria in the East African highlands; and epidemics of cholera in Bangladesh.

Ann Veneman, executive director of the U.N. children’s agency UNICEF, warned Monday that many of the global killers of children – including malaria and diarrhoea – “are sensitive to changes in temperature and rainfall, and could become more common if weather patterns change.”

She said climate change experts have predicted that warming and shifting rains could impact crop production, which in turn, could reduce food availability.

The WBGU study says that ecological consequences of global warming include drought, water scarcity and soil degradation – all of which could intensify land-use conflicts and trigger further environmentally-induced migration.

Predicting new “conflict constellations”, the study warns of sea-level rise, storms and flood disasters that could threaten cities and industrial regions along the coasts of China, India and even the United States.

The melting of the glaciers would jeopardise water supplies in the Andean and Himalayan regions, and unabated climate change could also cause large-scale changes in Earth’s systems, such as the dieback of the Amazon rainforest or the loss of the Asian monsoon season, “which could have incalculable consequences for the societies concerned”.

Still, the study says that “climate-induced inter-state wars are unlikely to occur”.

However, climate change could well trigger national and international distributional conflicts and intensify problems that are already hard to manage, such as state failure, the erosion of social order, and rising violence.

Meanwhile, a paper prepared by the Brussels-based Council of the European Union (CEU) says the risks posed by climate change are real and its impacts are already taking place.

The paper, released in early March, said the United Nations has estimated that all but one of its emergency appeals for humanitarian aid in 2007 were climate-related.

“The impact of climate change on international security is not a problem of the future but already of today and one which will stay with us,” the CEU said.

The Council also refers to the U.N. Security Council holding its first debate on climate change in 2007 and its implications for international security.

At that meeting, the Group of 77, a 130-member coalition of developing nations, took the position that climate change was outside the purview of the Security Council and should be legitimately discussed only by the 192-member General Assembly and related U.N. environmental bodies.

Addressing the Security Council meeting, Ambassador Nirupam Sen of India virtually blamed the world’s rich countries for precipitating a possible conflict over climate change.

“Insofar as international peace and security are concerned,” he pointed out, “developed countries reducing their greenhouse gas emissions and energy consumption will considerably reduce such threats (to international peace and security) through a reduction in the need for privileged access to energy markets.”

Conceptually and logically, he said, even if one assumes that catastrophic scenarios are certain – which is not the case – the only way to discuss what can be done about the physical effects of climate change is not through the Security Council but in the context of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change.

Meanwhile, the WBGU study makes several recommendations, including pursuing an international climate policy; developing mitigation strategies through partnerships; supporting adaptation strategies for developing nations; stabilising fragile and weak states; managing migration through cooperation; and expanding global information and early warning systems.

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