20 july 2011

Address by UN Under-Secretary-General and UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner at UN Security Council Debate on the impact of climate change on maintaining international peace and security, 20 July 2011.

UNEP News Centre

Mr. President,

Mr. Secretary-General,

Distinguished Members of the Security Council,

Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,

Thank you for inviting me to address this debate of the Security Council on security and climate change, the second such debate you have held in the past four years.

My presentation today will focus on how our current understanding of the Earth's changing climate has profound implications for global stability and security. In revising and presenting the available evidence I wish to highlight three perspectives which are particularly relevant to this debate:

1. Science of climate change: What are the implications of what we know and do not know for interpreting future scenarios? How significant are "tipping points" and feedback mechanisms in interpreting the impact of climate change on our economies, societies and the Earth's life support systems?

2. Climate change as a threat multiplier: The scale and pace of climate change acts as a multiplier which could result in simultaneous and unprecedented impacts on where we can settle, grow food, maintain our built-up infrastructure, or rely on functioning ecosystems. Managing the potential disruption, displacement and adaptation to phenomena such as sea-level rise or extreme weather events, represents a profound challenge to sustainable development at the local, national and international level - both in economic and geopolitical terms.

3. Managing the risks of climate change: Uncertainty will continue to define our response to climate change. By its very nature, both in terms of its causes and its effects, climate change requires a global response. Accelerating the transition towards a low carbon future is but one dimension of reducing future risks. However, we must also develop a risk management strategy which anticipates and addresses the capacity of the international community to cope with significant disruptions to our societies which, left unaddressed, carry within them the seeds of tensions, chaos and conflict.

Underpinning the question of whether there is a link between climate change and security is the science.

Let us all acknowledge from the outset that the world does not have perfect knowledge on current or future climate change.

Determining the contribution of rising greenhouse gases in respect to an event such as the severe drought currently affecting the Horn of Africa is a challenge.

There may be a climate change signature, but there is also natural variation and wider environmental change underway, such as deforestation, land degradation and over exploitation of other natural resources such as freshwaters.

But human beings have never planned strategies or responses based on 100 per cent certainty, rather we make decisions based on risk assessments-intuitively when as an individual we cross a road, or deliberately when Governments or companies make decisions from economic planning and infrastructure to emerging security concerns.

Risk Assessments

The principal risk assessments in respect to climate change are the reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), hosted by UNEP and the World Meteorological Organization.

Its work is in turn based on the research of thousands upon thousands of scientists from government and university-linked institutes from across the globe.

The fourth assessment report of the IPCC in 2007 concluded that it was "unequivocal" that the Earth is warming and that human activities play a role in this change.

Among its many findings then was that 11 of the last 12 years rank among the 12 hottest years on record.

Over the last 50 years, "cold days, cold nights, and frost have become less frequent, while hot days, hot nights, and heat waves have become more frequent."

The linear warming trend over the last 50 years of, on average 0.13°C per decade, is nearly twice that for the last 100 years. The total temperature increase from the period 1850 to 1899 to the period 2001 to 2005 has been 0.76°C.

Among the IPCC's other findings in 2007 was that storms and cyclones have become more intense over the past 30 years and that droughts, especially in the tropics and sub-tropics, have become more frequent with implications for food security.

Thermal expansion of the oceans is contributing to sea-level rise of on average 1.8 mm a year since the 1960s. Since 1978 satellites show that the extent of summer Arctic sea ice has fallen by 20 per cent.

Irrespective of the specific causes and drivers, there is clear evidence that our climate is changing and that the pace and scale of
that change is accelerating in many areas.

Newly Emerging Science

The IPCC's fifth assessment will be released in 2013/2014, but already many teams of scientists claim the forecasts and scenarios of future climate change in the fourth IPCC assessment are being overtaken.

For example, recent conclusions from the Snow, Water, Ice and Permafrost in the Arctic report of the Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme (AMAP), published in May, point to likely global sea-level rise of close to a meter or more by the end of the century as a result of, for example, faster melting of the Greenland ice sheets.

This compares with the 0.18 and 0.59 meters forecast by the IPCC four years ago.

A one-meter rise in sea level could, for example, flood 17 per cent of Bangladesh's land area; threaten large parts of coastal cities such as Lagos, Cape Town and elsewhere and overwhelm, along with storm surges, small island developing States from the Maldives to Tuvalu.

The Copenhagen Diagnosis of 2009, designed as an update on the IPCC's fourth assessment, identified the potential for a temperature rise by 2100 of as much as seven degrees C if there is no action to cut emissions.

In a series of papers published last year by the Royal Society of the United Kingdom, some researchers suggest a worst case scenario of a 4 degree C temperature rise by around 2060, with perhaps even higher rises in regions like southern Europe and North Africa.

What the newly emerging science is in many ways pointing to is also tipping points, sudden and perhaps irreversible changes accompanied by feedback mechanisms?an Arctic free of summer ice by 2030, for example, could reduce the amount of sunlight reflected back into space leading to more heat absorbed by the Earth.

Another, related feedback mechanism is the thawing of the permafrost in the Arctic which in turn might trigger releases of ancient, stored carbon from the tundra.

One study led by scientists at the universities of Florida, California and Alaska has suggested that unchecked climate change might cause close to 100 billion tonnes of "old carbon" to be released from melting permafrost this century. This would have a warming affect equivalent to 270 years of carbon dioxide emissions at current levels.

In respect to food security, temperature rises alone may be more severe in impact than previously thought. A paper this year in Nature Climate Change has tapped previously un-utilized data from more than 20,000 maize trials in Africa.

It has concluded that roughly 65 per cent of present maize-growing areas in Africa would experience yield losses for a one degree C warming even under optimal rain-fed management.

Mr. President,

What the ever evolving scenarios and scientific findings suggest are continuing, accelerating and even "tipping point" trends linked to environmental change, including climate change.

These, suggest experts, have fundamental implications for weather, settlements, infrastructure, food insecurity and lives, livelihoods and development.

This is happening in a world of close to seven billion people, rising to over nine billion by 2050 and on a planet where resource constraints are rapidly emerging.

There can be many ways to deal with climate change: one definitively would be the adoption of mitigation measures to address one of the causes of the change, which is the increase of greenhouse gas emissions; another would be to deal with the change via adaptation measures.

In a world where population is rapidly rising, the sustainable use of resources becomes an imperative.

Indeed according to UNEP's International Resource Panel, consumption of several key natural resources could triple by 2050 to 140 billion tonnes unless that consumption is decoupled from economic growth.

This gives rise to security concerns in its own right as witnessed by the public protests in countries such as Argentina, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Egypt, Haiti, India, Indonesia, Mauritania and Peru in 2008 when a range of factors coalesced including price spikes in food allied to shortages in some places.

Many experts argue that climate change will aggravate or amplify existing security concerns and give rise to new ones, especially but not exclusively in already fragile and vulnerable nations.

Nationally and regionally climate change has the potential to sharply intensify human displacement bringing communities into increasing competition for finite natural resources with world-wide repercussions for the stability of the global economy.

Mr. President,

When one looks at the links between climate change and security, perhaps one might focus on three areas:

Natural Disasters

Sea-level rise, accompanied by storm surges and other extreme weather events, represents a key threat to the security let alone the future viability of small island States and low-lying coastal zones.

A World Bank study has estimated that a one-meter sea-level rise would affect 84 developing countries alone.

In 1998, Hurricane Mitch impacted Honduras with 290km/hour winds and three meter waves. Nearly one meter of rain fell on the region. An estimated 70-80 per cent of Honduras's transportation infrastructure was destroyed and existing maps of the country were rendered obsolete. President Carlos Roberto Flores said at the time that the hurricane had destroyed 50 years of progress in the country and caused US$3.8 billion of damage.

Last month the Norwegian Refugee Council and the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC) estimated that "sudden natural disasters" displaced 42 million people in 2010.

In 2010, over 90 per cent of disaster displacement within countries was caused by climate-related hazards, primarily floods and storms. Climate scenarios expect such weather events to increase and or intensify as a result of accelerating climate change.

The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) and the IDMC have suggested that at least 36 million people were displaced in 2008 due to "sudden-onset natural disasters" of which over 20 million were displaced due to sudden on-set of weather-related disasters.

"Research from other sources suggests that many millions of people are also displaced annually as a result of climate-related, slow-onset disasters such as drought," their report says.

Recent studies have found that up to 12 per cent of the world GDP is already at risk from existing climate patterns. For example, the value of GDP exposed to tropical cyclones alone more than tripled from US$525.7 billion in the 1970s to US$1.6 trillion in the first decade of the 2000s.

[continued in part II]

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