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U.N. warns climate change impacts security, U.S. ignores link

More than 80 U.N. member states spoke at the day-long council meeting and virtually everyone except the United States agreed that climate change was happening.
Image: Jonathan Cohen
Acting Permanent Representative of the United States Jonathan Cohen addresses the United Nations Security Council.Richard Drew / AP

UNITED NATIONS — The U.N. system's chief scientist on weather and climate warned Friday that climate change has "a multitude of security impacts" and is increasingly regarded as a national security threat — with global warming records broken in 20 of the last 22 years.

The Maldives' foreign minister, Abdulla Shahid, told a U.N. Security Council meeting on "the impacts of climate-related disasters on international peace and security" that there is no bigger security threat than climate change, which endangers the Indian Ocean island nation's very existence.

But the acting U.S. ambassador, Jonathan Cohen, never even mentioned the words "climate change" or "security" in his council speech. And Russia's U.N. Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia objected strongly to discussing climate change in the Security Council, saying it is not a threat to international peace and security and should only be discussed in specific cases where it is a risk factor.

More than 80 of the 193 U.N. member states spoke at the day-long council meeting and virtually everyone except the United States agreed that climate change was happening.

Russia's Nebenzia said it should be discussed elsewhere in the U.N. system by experts, but the U.S.' Cohen spoke only of "natural disasters" like hurricanes and floods that "frequently lead to breakdowns in social order and spikes in crime, violence and instability."

Professor Pavel Kabat, chief scientist of the World Meteorological Organization, began his speech saying this week's World Economic Forum in Davos ranked extreme weather, natural disasters, climate change and water crises as the top four existential threats in its new Global Risks Report 2019.

Kabat said the global average greenhouse gas concentrations of carbon dioxide — which causes global warming — continued rising to record levels in 2018-2019.

"The last time the Earth experienced a comparable concentration of carbon dioxide was 3-5 million years ago, when the temperature was 2-3 degrees Celsius warmer and sea level was 10-20 meters higher than now," Kabat said.

In December, countries agreed on a set of rules to ensure that the target set in the 2015 Paris climate agreement, of keeping global warming below 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit is met. At the talks in Poland, many countries wanted to formally back a more ambitious temperature goal of 2.7 F which scientists say is safer, but opposition from countries including the United States delayed any change.

Kabat, the first representative of the World Meteorological Organization ever to address the Security Council, said the global average temperature is already nearly 1.8 F above the pre-industrial era and posing threats.

Image: 49th Annual Meeting of the World Economic Forum, WEF, in Davos
Students participate in the 'School Strike for Climate' on the last day of the 49th Annual Meeting of the World Economic Forum, WEF, in Davos, Switzerland.LAURENT GILLIERON / EPA

Rosemary DiCarlo, U.N. undersecretary-general for political and peacebuilding affairs, told the council that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's report in October predicting more heat waves, heavier rain events, higher sea levels and severe damage to agriculture represents "a security risk for the entire world."

But she said "their consequences are felt most strongly in regions that are already vulnerable, where climate change and extreme weather compound existing grievances and threats."

As examples, she pointed to the impact of hurricanes on small islands in the Caribbean and tensions between herders and farmers in Africa's Sahel region fueled by climate change and competition for land, forage and water.

The Maldives' Shahid recalled speaking at the Security Council at its first-ever debate on the impact of climate change on peace and security on April 17, 2007.

"I reminded the council on that day that climate change is not only an everyday fact of life for the Maldivians, but an existential threat," he said.

Twelve years later, Shahid said, "I am still repeating the same message" and "prospects for our future are far worse than we ever imagined."

"While we are still busy trying to decide which form of the United Nations must address which aspect of climate change, our lakes are drying up, depriving fresh water to tens of millions of people. Unseasonal droughts are leaving millions of people homeless. Hunger and displacement are leading to conflicts, and entire nations are sinking under water," Shahid said.

"What is a bigger security threat to us than this?" he asked.