Worldwatch researcher Michael Renner’s chapter in the 2005 edition of State of the World is probably the best summary of the intersection between environment and security out there. He also co-authored a great chapter on disaster management as a peacebuilding opportunity with my good friend Zoe Chafe in last year’s State of the World. I don’t know him, but Zoe gave a great window into their thinking process and I’ve gained a great deal of respect for his opinion on these matters.
So last week, when Renner wrote a cautionary note about the recent attention being paid to the security dimension of climate change, I read with interest.
I was excited when I learned that the Security Council took up climate change last month at the U.K.’s insistence.
Sens. Durbin and Hagel are calling for greater attention to the national security risks of climate change, and Senator Biden is holding a hearing on the subject this Wednesday. This is all good news.
Still, the crux of Renner’s response, as I read it, is critically important and must be heeded:
Many nations worry that the Security Council – a club dominated by five unelected (“permanent”) members – will set the terms of the debate.
A key question is how governments will address climate insecurity. Will prevention, in the form of radically different energy policies or other such responses, be key? Or might powerful governments one day be tempted to use the specter of environmental threats as an excuse for intervention – say, coercing others to mothball polluting industries or to stop cutting down forests in the name of climate stabilization?
Yet when the worst crises come, rich nations may respond not with offers of support, but by turning their backs on populations hit hard by climate change. Rather than helping the displaced, they may shut their borders in the face of an “onslaught” of migrants and refugees from countries collapsing due to environmental calamity.
We should read Renner’s comment in the spirit in which it is offered.
I don’t think Renner is suggesting that climate change not be addressed as a security problem, for it surely is one. And the new attention being paid to climate security is important and needed.
But, as Renner points out, there are pitfalls. Should this flurry of interest produce mostly unilateral climate security policies, the world’s poor – who are already suffering from the effects of climate change – will be hit even harder.