Why the United Nations is wrong to depict everything from war to famine as a ‘climate change issue’.
You would think the United Nations Security Council, a principal executive organ of the UN, was powerful enough as it is. Led by its five permanent members, the US, the UK, France, China and Russia – a mix of the old and the new Great Powers – it is in its current remit to ‘investigate any dispute or any situation which might lead to international friction or give rise to a dispute’. And should it identify such a situation – and get sufficient backing from at least five of its 10 temporary member states – it is free to authorise a blue-helmeted military intervention. It’s fair to say that getting stuck into other people’s struggles, taking destinies out of other people’s hands with the barrel of a gun, has never been an issue for the UN Security Council.
But, last week, had several Western member states had their way, including Germany, the US and the UK, the security council would have been given yet greater scope for arbitrating, interfering and posturing on the world stage. In fact, had this coalition of the zealous got what it wanted – namely, a security council statement making climate change a peace and security issue – there had even been talk of decking out UN troops in nice green helmets to go along with the soft-tone, pastel-blue ones they currently sport when sorting out the affairs of the natives. In the words of US ambassador Susan Rice: ‘[The UN has an] essential responsibility to address the clear-cut peace and security implications of a changing climate.’
So, what does Rice mean by the ‘clear-cut peace and security implications of a changing climate’? Well, according to executive director of the UN Environment Programme Achim Steiner, climate change, as supposedly shown by the current famine in Somalia or the floods in Pakistan last year, is creating situations in which resources become scarce, people grow desperate, and situations turn violent. ‘Our capacity to handle these kinds of events is proving a challenge’, Steiner declared, ‘particularly if they occur simultaneously and start affecting, for instance, global food markets, regional food security issues, displacing people, creating refugees across borders. Clearly the international community – if the scenarios in climate change for the future come true – will face an exponential growth of these kinds of extreme events.’
UN chief Ban Ki-moon clearly agreed, telling the security council that, ‘Extreme weather events continue to grow more frequent and intense in rich and poor countries alike, not only devastating lives, but also infrastructure, institutions and budgets – an unholy brew which can create dangerous security vacuums. Climate change not only exacerbates threats to international peace and security; it is a threat to international peace and security.’ So, in effect, climate change is being conceived as both a cause and amplifier of conflict and instability across the world.
That the UN security council did not make climate change a peace and security issue, giving Western member states the chance literally to dress up military interventions in green garb, was down to Russia’s refusal to sanction the proposal. Russian envoy Alexander Parkin countered that making climate change an issue for the UN security council would ‘further increase politicisation of this issue and increase disagreements between countries’. In the face of this largely pragmatic opposition from one of its permanent members, the security council debate concluded with a considerably watered down statement: ‘[The council] expresses concern that possible adverse effects of climate change may, in the long run, aggravate certain existing threats to international peace and security.’
Still, despite this setback to Western eco-imperial ambitions, the drive to turn climate change into the cause and amplifier of conflicts and wars clearly remains strong if the US ambassador’s outraged response to the compromised security council statement was any indication: ‘This is more than disappointing. It’s pathetic. It’s shortsighted, and frankly it’s a dereliction of duty.’
We’ve been here before, of course. Back in 2007 the UK also proposed that climate change was an issue threatening world peace. As the then UK representative on the security council, Margaret Beckett, said at the time: ‘There are few greater potential threats to our economies, too, but also to peace and security itself.’ Given that a couple of months later, the US sub-prime mortgage crisis emerged as the first manifestation of an actual threat to ‘our economies’, the ramifications of which still hold much of the world in their grip, Beckett will not be winning any Futurology awards any time soon.
Nevertheless, as David Chandler noted on spiked at the time, none of the security council’s then members raised objections to the substance of Beckett’s argument. Their concerns were that it invested too much power in the security council at the expense of the more democratic general assembly.
Yet there should be objections to the substance of the persistent claim that climate change is creating a more volatile and insecure world. Not least because there is no substance. Yes, there are plenty of people willing to assert a link, whether causal or contributory, between climate change and conflict. And yes, there are plenty of shameless souls willing to exploit every disaster, every drought and every famine to substantiate this spurious assertion. So back in 2007, former US army general Gordon Sullivan, readily called climate change ‘a threat multiplier for instability in some of the most volatile regions in the world’. And this time round UK climate secretary Chris Huhne has been busy championing climate change as our existential enemy. ‘We cannot be 100 per cent sure that our enemies will attack our country, but we do not hesitate to prepare for the eventuality. The same principle applies to climate change, which a report published by the Ministry of Defence has identified as one of the four critical issues that will affect everyone on the planet over the next 30 years.’
But assertion is not the same as proof. Despite the consistently dire predictions of the climate-change warmongers, a conflict born of climate change-induced resource scarcity has yet to happen. Moreover – and this must be a disappointment to doom-laden environmentalists and employment-hungry national armies – the world has actually become more peaceful and less insecure in recent years. As cognitive scientist Stephen Pinker put it in 2009, ‘Since the end of the Cold War in the early 1990s, we have seen fewer civil wars, a 90 per cent reduction in the number of deaths by genocide, and even a reversal in the 1960s-era uptick in violent crime.’ Or take the 2009/10 Human Security Report, funded by several UN member states including the UK. This admittedly did reveal that the number of discrete conflicts since 2005 had actually started rising again, reversing a decades-long trend. However, this increase was attributed not to climate change but to the ‘war on terror’ and the various insurgencies it has generated. Besides, many of these conflicts were small and shortlived. In fact, in terms of actual ‘battle death numbers’, to use the terms of the report, the figure has been pretty constant over the past 10 years or so, and remains a mere fraction of the ‘battle death numbers’ of the 1950s. ‘Perhaps the most reassuring finding is that high-intensity wars, those that kill at least 1,000 people a year, have declined by 78 per cent since 1988’, the report concluded.
So, despite the supposed impact of climate change, despite several large-scale, media-saturated natural disasters, despite everything that the UN wants to assert, there is nothing to suggest that this has led to an increase in global conflict. Those keen to assert some sort of connection between climate change and conflict do of course have recourse to the future tense. They can talk of what is to come; they can read off potential wars from climate change models; they can rest their arguments and claims on sheer hypothesis.
But there is a more fundamental problem with such wilful postulation. The determination to make climate change the source of conflict, the eagerness to grasp a catastrophic famine as a natural fact of a warming world, reframes complex economic, social and, yes, political problems in the far simpler terms of climate change. Under green-spectacled Western eyes, it isn’t the massive economic and material underdevelopment of, say, Somalia that has left so many starving. No, it’s climate change. It won’t be a political struggle for survival and power that informs a civil war in the developing world. No, that’ll be climate change, too. Over and over again, this process of simplifying and re-representing human conflicts as naturally caused takes place. The grey area of another people’s fight, the complexities of the political and social issues at stake, is replaced by the polarised black-and-green approach of the Good War Against Climate Change.
While this might allow plenty of opportunities for the UN security council’s Western leaders to puff their chests out and demonstrate strident purpose to their domestic audiences, for the people of Somalia or Sudan or wherever the battleground for this militarised assault on climate change is deemed to be, the actual solutions to their famished plights – economic and social development – will be tragically out of sight. Such is the blindness of those who see climate change everywhere.
Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.