By Michael Shank and US Congressman Gregory Meeks
Editor’s note: This commentary is by Dr. Michael Shank and Rep. Gregory Meeks, D-N.Y. Shank, of Brandon, is the communications director for the Carbon Neutral Cities Alliance and adjunct faculty at NYU’s Center for Global Affairs. Meeks is a senior member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and represents New York’s 5th District, which covers Queens and some of Nassau County.
This year, the United Nations Security Council debated, once again, climate change’s concrete impact on peace and security, noting that climate risks are a reality for millions of people around the world. For more than a decade, in fact, the U.N. Security Council has been debating the growing linkages between insecurity and climate change. Yet it has failed to enact a resolution that officially recognizes climate change as a threat to international peace and security, despite the fact that climate change is now recognized as the greatest threat to international security.
This must change. A concerted international strategy, on a par with the seriousness and scope of an U.N. Security Council resolution, is what’s needed to counter this climate crisis.
Former U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon was right in comparing the effects of climate change to the effects of war, given the potential level of human and environmental devastation potentially wrought by rising sea levels and increasingly catastrophic weather conditions. And current U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres is also right when he says that climate change is fueling wars across the world. It is.
Both U.N. leaders recognize the need for serious strategy and their comparisons to war were not casually made. The threat to international peace and security calls upon nothing less than the purview of the U.N. Security Council.
Under Article 39 of the U.N. Charter, the Security Council maintains the right to identify threats to international peace and security and to devise means to counter these threats. The potential impact of that on climate change is substantial: The Security Council’s toolbox includes the capacity to cap greenhouse gas emissions on every country and sanction those who fail to comply. Both a carbon tax, as well as a carbon-trading scheme, could incentivize countries to reduce emissions below even capped levels.
It is a moral imperative that the Security Council acts quickly. While island nations like Palau and the Maldives stand to face warlike scenarios sooner than the Security Council’s five permanent (P5) members – China, Russia, United States, Britain and France – are not immune. Moreover, the culpability of the P5’s populaces in contributing to climate change must be recognized. China and the U.S. rank as the world’s top greenhouse gas emitters.
Not surprisingly, this may well account for the Security Council’s reluctance to tackle climate change with carbon caps and concomitant sanctions. The P5 has a hard enough time wrestling with resolutions that put parameters on their own political prowess. To expect them to write a resolution that restricts their right to pollute may be unrealistic. But the alternatives to inaction on this issue are dire.
Disappearing Pacific islands, due to rising sea levels, are projected for within our lifetime. Catastrophic weather conditions accosting the coastal regions of China, the U.S., and the U.K., once mere prediction, are already taking place. Conflicts escalating over depleted natural resources, due to disrupted and rising temperatures, are already occurring. The planet may not wait patiently until the Security Council overcomes its propensity for political pandering.
Unless we act now, and with formidable preemptive force, more of this is what could face the international community. Transcending the Security Council’s usual scope of nation-state conflicts, climate change-related conflict will affect all of us, with particular devastation to developing countries not represented by the P5. Thus, it is incumbent upon the Security Council, which has a responsibility to protect weaker member states, to step up and save the world.
A global threat requires global commitment. And that commitment can be best coordinated in the Security Council. It’s time for a resolution recognizing climate change as a threat to international peace and security.