July 19, 2011

Thoughts on the UNSC Climate & Security Debate and Next Steps

the UN
Security Council is going to debate climate change
. Between the debt crisis
and lack of much movement on addressing climate change at home leading many
abroad to wonder about U.S. leadership in the world, the U.S. position
in the UNSC today takes on a new level of importance.

This was a major theme in my travels this year in Vietnam. It was crystal clear in my
discussions that the lack of U.S. global leadership to date on climate change gives foreign audiences little confidence in us. Worse, this bleeds directly
into the security realm and the partnership with Vietnam that the United States
is trying to strengthen. In one meeting, my foreign counterparts directly tied
a lack of faith that the United States would help them in the event of a crisis
in the South China Sea to the lack of U.S. effort to address climate change, especially
considering that the effects of climate change are aunsccontributing to their
feelings of vulnerability almost as much as China’s assertiveness is. 

other words, climate change and security are closely linked not just by traceable causal relationships (e.g., drought→migration→instability), but also linked directly in the minds of our international partners and allies on whom we rely in promoting U.S.
interests. We can trace causal pathways between climate change and stability
and security until the end of time, but the perception
of U.S. power may yet prove the most potent factor. What the United States does
in the UNSC debate will therefore really matter to international audiences.  

then, what exactly do we do to portray a strong position and begin exerting
leadership in the UNSC debate?

debate just being directly focused on the security implications of climate
change is a great start, but here’s the rub in terms of what we do with it. We
have a good general sense of the
types of security risks the world should be concerned about; for example, we
know that we’ll see increasing sea levels. But outside of the Arctic and a few solid
assessments in academia and the think tank world, the current body of analysis
on specific security threats that
climate change will cause or exacerbate is still severely lacking. When U.S.
dollars (or any other donor country’s funds) are on the line, we really need to
drill deeper: where, when, and how are effects like sea level rise most likely to
drive economic, political or social changes that put U.S. security interests at

this, more committed data collection and analysis could be helpful. An op-ed in
the New York Times yesterday
suggested that “a
special representative on climate and security should be appointed
.” This
seems solid: while there are international bodies dedicated to coming to a
consensus on the science and environmental effects of climate change, we are
often left to interpret what it means for security on our own. As one climate
change and security expert recently wrote, having an official with
responsibility for good security analysis would mean that “the United States
can be more confident that we are focusing our efforts to help in the right
places with the right policies.” 

Times article yesterday took on the
sovereignty question of what
happens when island nations are no longer habitable
. It recommended that “Simply
continuing to recognize deterritorialized states as full states” would be the
easiest solution. I hear little to nothing about this in security circles, but
this re-consideration of what “sovereignty” means strikes me as a monumental
shift in the global security environment. The concept of “deterritorialized
states” is not just a legal question, and should be considered seriously among
security thinkers.

security great thinker Geoff Dabelko at the Wilson Center also produced a video
yesterday suggesting that we
need “specific ideas” on what the UN and member states can do
– not just
language identifying the problem. Others have suggested a presidential
statement on what the United States has done in considering the climate
change-security nexus over the past few years, a list that would include many
big successes. This may be a good idea for giving us all a little perspective
in addition to the international signal it would send. While we have a ways to
go in identifying climate-related security threats with the specificity we’d
like, this field has come a long, long way. My colleagues in and out of
government have brought this subject from the fringe into the mainstream in the
past few years, even if it doesn’t get a lot of press.

are just a few of the issues and ideas floating around with regard to today’s
UNSC debate. We'll see how the proceedings go. Already we can mark as a success Germany’s elevating the security
risks of climate change on the international agenda. It is definitely getting
people thinking and talking.