Saturday, January 24, 2009

The Threat of Climate Change

By: Former Foreign Secretary, Margaret Beckett

For a long time, the world has seen climate change as an environmental problem: a 'green' issue. That is understandable: the potential effects on our biodiversity from climate change range, under differing scenarios, from serious to catastrophic.

But the, perhaps rather sad, truth is that the international community will not move with the necessary urgency or ambition if climate change is seen as primarily something that effects insects, animals and plants: although they may in turn hold the key to our own survival. We have to show that this is a problem for humans too; that it will affect our basic security.That is precisely what the science is telling us. The recent report of the Second Working Group of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change paints a stark picture. It predicts, for example, that by 2020 crop yields in some African countries, could have halved. A separate study the UK did with the Chinese government estimated that climate change could reduce China’s grain production by 30 to 40 per cent.

Physical impacts of this scale and severity in some cases can give us very specific reason to be worried. Countries throughout Asia (not least here in Burma/Cambodia), and indeed globally, should be concerned at the possibility of rising food prices and growing instability in China. Rising sea-levels could displace millions in Bangladesh alone and add a dangerous new dynamic to an already tense region. The Middle East – where five per cent of the world's population share one per cent of the world's water – will have even less of that water to go round.

Worrying though any of the scenarios would be, they are only a glimpse of a much wider picture. The implications of climate change for our security are more fundamental and comprehensive than any single conflict.

For a start, there is that potential devastating effect on the global economy. If there is one resounding thing we have learnt in the past 150 years it is that there is a deadly and complex link between the global economy, economic nationalism and increased global tensions.
The former Chief Economist at the World Bank, Nick Stern, estimated that the dangers of unabated climate change – based on the science available in 2001 and on a narrow range of effects – would be at least five per cent of global GDP. Taking on board more recent scientific evidence and the economic effects on human life and the environment, he estimates that the global economy could take a hit equivalent to 20 per cent of GDP or more.

The implications of that for developed and developing countries alike are, of course, huge. And that same report shows that the costs of avoiding the worst impacts of climate change can be limited to around one per cent of GDP each year. In other words, it won't cost the earth to tackle climate change, but it will – literally and figuratively – if we do not.

Add to that mixture the sense in certain parts of the world that climate change is a developed world problem for which the developing world will pay the price and you can see how easily it could serve to exacerbate an existing sense of grievance. President Museveni of Uganda was the first African leader to describe climate change as an act of aggression by the rich against the poor: he won’t be the last.

But there's more to it even than that. There are some fairly basic needs that underpin our collective security – as much within communities and societies as between states. Take them away, fail to prepare adequately and you raise the chances of conflict and instability. If people don't have enough food to eat it can lead to instability. If – perhaps even more so – they can't get the water they need for themselves and their families: again, the risk of heightened tension. Make it more difficult for them to secure the energy they need to power their homes and their businesses – in any or all of these instances they might decide to go out and take what they need for themselves.

And here's the problem. All of those pressures are already evident, and evidently growing. Rapid population growth means we are living on a planet bursting at the seams. We use double the amount of water we did in 1960. The International Energy Agency predicts a rise of more than 50 per cent in primary energy demand over the next 25 years. There are millions of people going hungry; millions are moving off agricultural land into overcrowded cities.

Everything in the history and pre-history of the human race demonstrates how physical change drives change in societies and communities. The abandoned cities
and even civilisations which litter our planet are evidence of that. Think of the world today then, as a dangerously simmering pot. An unstable climate risks that pot boiling over. And we ignore that risk – literally – at our peril.

That is the reason why last Tuesday the UK tabled a debate on climate change at the UN Security Council. The debate marked the recognition by the vast majority of the international community of climate change as a core security issue: and one that we must do much more, together, to address. If we succeed in that shared endeavour, we will all enjoy a better prospect of security. Climate change is a threat that can bring us together if we are wise enough to stop it from driving us apart.

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