Climate Change: Prioritizing Human Security

in Program

By Rashi Joshi – Climate change is emerging as a new kind of security issue because of the way it affects collective human life and well-being in a fragile and increasingly interconnected world. A new study by the Union of Concerned Scientists on the future effects of global warming concludes that the Northeastern United States can anticipate “substantial – and often unwelcomed or dangerous changes during the rest of this century.” The study highlighted yearly droughts affecting drinking water for 9 million New Yorkers and hazardous smog in the region as just two of the impacts of global warming. To suggest that climate change deserves the serious attention of security policymakers simply because of the potential for future conflict over resources neglects the larger picture. The rapid degradation of our environment because of global warming itself constitutes a security threat-a threat to the quality of life of current and future generations.

Climate change, in particular a rise in global temperatures, threatens the basic survival and welfare needs of people around the world, including access to water, food production, health, and the use of land. Environmental degradation from various kinds of human economic activity has already increased the frequency and intensity of natural disasters worldwide. If global temperatures continue to rise at current levels, the threat to human security will increase correspondingly. Rising sea levels will lead to more coastal erosion, flooding during storms, and permanent inundation; and severe stress on natural ecosystems like forests and wetlands. Threats to human health from water-borne diseases like malaria will grow and spread over greater geographic regions, allergy sufferers will have to cope with worsening air quality, and agriculture will decrease sharply in some parts of the world due to increased temperature and water stress. Rising sea-levels will inundate low-lying regions such as Bangladesh and the Mississippi River Delta, and coastal megacities such as Tokyo, London, Cairo, and New York. Other stark implications of climate change include armed conflicts over scarce supplies of food, water, and land, as well as economic decline and political instability in regions where sectors like agriculture are intricately linked with the environment.

The fact that global temperatures are rising is unequivocal and the world’s top scientists agree that there is a positive correlation between human activity and global warming, especially since the spread of the industrial revolution to new regions. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which brings together climate experts from around the world to synthesize the most recent climate science findings for the world’s political leaders, reported this year that emissions of heat-trapping gases rose 70 percent between 1970 and 2004, with carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions accounting for three-quarters of total emissions from human activities in 2004. Developed countries accounted for 20 percent of the world’s population and 46 percent of global emissions. Developing countries generated only one-fourth the per capita emissions of developed countries. The United States remains the world’s top greenhouse gas emitter and accounts for about a quarter of the global total-just ahead of China, and considerably more than Russia and India. This ranking will change in coming years as the rapidly-developing Chinese and Indian economies generate greater demands for energy.

Overwhelming scientific evidence warns that if emissions of heat-trapping gasses such as CO2 continue at current rates, the global temperature of the Earth will increase by 5 Celsius degrees-a level that will radically alter the physical geography of the planet. To put the pace of this change in perspective, temperatures at the end of the last Ice Age were only 5-9 Celsius degrees cooler than today-when most of Northeast America was covered under 3,000 feet of ice. A change in physical geography will have powerful implications for human geography and security-where people live and how they live their lives.

The science clearly tells us what to do: start reducing emissions of heat-trapping gasses immediately and continue to do so from now on. Simply put, we need to transition our economies into cleaner and greener practices.

It makes sense to conceptualize climate change as a collective security problem if we acknowledge that countries don’t exist in their own climate bubbles. Pollution amasses in water, land, and air, traveling across political boundaries and contaminating biomass just as a viral disease moves systematically through the bloodstream to conquer the entire body. It is not too late to slow or stop global warming, but incremental steps on the part of individual countries alone will not suffice.

The EU has taken the lead in addressing some of the steps that must be taken by all industrialized countries: setting high environmental standards to counter the decline of biodiversity and the threat to health from pollution. These include policies to reduce energy use, changes in the ways we use natural resources and the reduction of waste.

The 1997 Kyoto Protocol was the first effort to collectively mitigate the impact of the past century’s harmful emissions. The Protocol was signed and ratified by 172 states under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change; it assigns mandatory emission limitations for the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions to the signatory nations.

The Bush Administration stirred global controversy in 2001 when it withdrew from the negotiations on the Kyoto Protocol, citing US economic imperatives.

Both the Administration and many in Congress have objected to complying with international climate change regulations. Days before leaders met for the June 2007 G8 summit in Heiligendamm, President Bush proposed an alternate climate change initiative and a series of new talks between the world’s top polluters with the minimal goal of agreeing to a series of non-binding measures. However, the Administration’s last-minute proposal was rejected by a united European front led by German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Perhaps the most important outcome at Heiligendamm was persuading the President that climate negotiations should proceed through the United Nations. G8 leaders issues lengthy and major declarations on the outcome of the discussions which included the targeting of international institutions and the establishment of an institutionalized dialogue with the five major non-G8 countries (Brazil, China, India, Mexico and South Africa) through a “Heiligendamm Process” to be housed at the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

With regards to US domestic policy, the Bush Administration and many in Congress have been have been opposed to the concept of mandatory reductions in greenhouse gases and other pollutants. The lack of strong political leadership and public complacency has prevented even relatively “easy” steps such as reducing energy consumption by raising mileage standards for cars and trucks and requiring state of the art technology on coal-fired power plants. Some measures that are popular in both the Administration and Congress, such as the subsidized production of alternative fuels, may increase energy supply security but exact a high environmental cost.

Any future change in US policy on global warming will depend less on the current positions of the parties and branches of government and more on developments not yet reflected in the political debate. Currently, the Republican President, the Democratic Congress, and increasingly the private sector, profess the same goals but disagree sharply on the severity of the threat and the means to address it.

The most important harbinger of a political shift has been the reevaluation by some leading US companies of the basic assumption that reducing greenhouse gases inevitably imposes a new cost on their bottom line and the economy as a whole. Government and private estimates of the annual costs of implementing the Kyoto regulations have ranged from tens to hundreds of billions, but the leaders of some major US high-tech companies such as General Electric and DuPont have begun to realize that countering global warming offers a chance to make, not lose, money.

In addition, American companies are increasingly embracing steps to reduce energy consumption, pollution, and waste as a way to improve their corporate image as well as their bottom line. The US Green Building Council’s LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) designation is quickly becoming a sought-after model for corporate environmentalism. Paying attention to environmental issues is no longer just about compliance with laws, but also about reducing costs through greater efficiency and through developing new products geared toward a fast emerging market for technology to reduce greenhouse gases.

From a different perspective, the insurance industry also shows signs of rethinking its approaches. A growing awareness of the effects of global warming, such as rising sea levels and more extreme weather, will have a major effect on profitability. The unpredictability of climate change and its effects undermine the ability of insurance companies to make accurate calculations of risk, which is crucial to their business and to the economy as a whole.

Members of Congress are also showing a complex understanding of the issues as well as vying for green “merit badges,” but passing effective legislation remains an uphill battle. In 2006, House Leader Nancy Pelosi co-sponsored the Safe Climate Act, introduced by Congressman Henry Waxman of California and more than 30 Democrats. The bill would set targets to reduce emissions using a national cap on global-warming pollution, a national renewable energy standard of at least 20 percent by 2020, and an increase in the national fuel-economy standards to at least 40 miles per gallon.

This June, Sen. Barbara Boxer, California Democrat and chairwoman of the Senate Environment Committee, expressed support for a bipartisan economy-wide global warming bill introduced by Senators Jeff Bingaman (D-NM) and Arlen Specter (R-PA). This complex measure relies on a combination of emissions limits and a cap-and-trade CO2 trade scheme, that places a limit on the price industry would have to pay for such permits, thereby securing labor and corporate support. The prospects for the Senate bill may have improved further last month after Sen. John Warner, a Virginia Republican, agreed to work with the Democrats to “craft a comprehensive climate bill.” Warner and Senator Joe Lieberman, a former Democrat who ran as an Independent have been drafting a bipartisan bill that includes a “cap-and-trade” approach which would set industry-specific reduction targets and provide maximum flexibility to the marketplace.

The disparate approaches of the current administration, Congress, and businesses toward management of climate change issues raise some important questions: if the US won’t make credible commitments to emissions monitoring and prioritizing environmental security now, will future administrations be left to cope with an insurmountable ‘climate debt’? Will a sufficient number of US businesses commit to voluntary emissions monitoring if they are not subject to regulations? What precedent will vague US policies toward sustainable development set for rapidly developing countries like China, India, and in particular, politically unstable resource-rich states?

It is vitally important that environmental issues and especially global warming become part of the political debates leading to the 2008 elections. Thanks to European prodding, some apparent new momentum in Congress, and changing business and consumer attitudes, this could happen. Any successful environmental policy will have to explicitly acknowledge the findings of the world’s foremost climate experts and scientists, and by one means or another, place caps on greenhouse emissions.

Much more work is required to tackle some of the uncertainties surrounding mechanisms to curb global warming, but it is very clear that the environmental, economic, and human security implications of inaction are severe. There is still time to avoid the worst impacts of climate change if strong collective action, led by the US, starts now. A narrowing of the gap between the perspectives of business, agriculture and the environmental community will be critical to changing the political climate. Because global warming will impact international, national, and global human security, our best hope for avoiding an unmanageable environment in the future is an effective unified response today.

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