Hot topic at the UN’s top table

There is no doubt that global warming is a critical threat to us all. Climate-change talks have reached the security council -- a sign that the big powers are beginning to see sense, argues Jonathan Freedland.

If British politics were a dinner party, then prime minister Tony Blair would be that guest who got up to say goodbye an hour ago, insisting he had to be off — only to hang around by the front door, his coat on and car keys jangling, chatting about this and that and never actually leaving. The result is a strange sense of limbo, where the old period has not quite ended and the new one has not yet begun. A sense of drift has hovered over the government since the attempt to push the prime minister from office in September 2006. Ministers insist they are as busy as ever, but they admit to an absence of leadership. It feels like nothing is happening.

So it’s heartening to hear of one area, at least, where the British government has taken a lead. On April 17, 2007, the security council of the United Nations discussed climate change for the very first time. Not some environmental subcommittee, not a platitudinous exchange of slogans in the general assembly, nor even the intergovernmental panel on climate change, but the security council. The same security council that usually grapples with border disputes, sanctions or weapons of mass destruction — that security council was debating carbon emissions and the danger they pose to the earth.

That may seem sensible and obvious: after all, if the council’s job is to fret about threats to global security, then the threats don’t come much bigger than the risk that we might be boiling the planet. But, incredibly, the body had never talked about global warming before — and they were not keen to start.

Of the permanent members, the United States, Russia and China had all objected, Moscow’s ambassador to the UN admitting he was “lukewarm because of where it is discussed”. Translation: the security council is meant for grown-up stuff involving bombs and bullets, not airy-fairy talk about trees and polar bears.

Unluckily for Washington, Beijing and Moscow, the presidency of the security council rotates, and this month it’s Britain’s turn. Foreign secretary Margaret Beckett insisted that this is what she wanted the council to discuss and on the 17th, they did.

She was right to insist. Right, too, not to bother with passing a resolution — where the argument would have rapidly descended into a long row about the semicolon in line five — but to have what UN-speak calls a “thematic debate”, one that seeks solely to force an issue into people’s minds. Despite the misgivings of the big three, it turned out to be quite an event: a record turnout for a debate of this kind, not confined to the 15 members of the council but with speeches from 52 countries. By the end, a strong majority agreed that climate change posed a clear threat to international security.

That was the entire point of the exercise, to reframe the way people think about this problem. There is good, pragmatic reasoning behind that. The glum reality is that governments tend to take security threats more seriously than any other kind. Just think of what Washington has spent on the “war on terror”. If George W Bush gets his latest budget through Congress, he will have spent $750 billion of American taxpayers’ money on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq in a little over five years. Environmentalists drool when they imagine what they could have done with a fraction of that money. Even a quarter of the total, say a meagre $200 billion, could have paid for enormous strides towards a low-carbon economy. For instance, it could have paid to transform the way we generate electricity, by capturing carbon and storing it in the ground, rather than releasing it into the atmosphere.

That, when it happens, will be a massive, international infrastructural project. But if governments approached it with the degree of urgency, will and wherewithal they apply to traditional national security threats — with the seriousness and money-no-object commitment that Bush and Blair showed to the “war on terror” — then suddenly it would look eminently possible.

So this makes political sense: cast global warming as an environmental or science issue, and it will be given a budget to match. Cast it as a problem for the big boys, on a par with nuclear proliferation or international terror, and then it should get a big-boy budget and attention.

Not that that requires any stretching of the facts. Professor Bill McGuire of University College London’s Hazard Research Centre says climate change compares to terrorism in the way a “huge festering sore compares to a pimple”. To call it a threat to our safety is not a public-relations trick; it is a statement of the truth.

In the most direct way, the overheating of the earth promises danger — including threats that the security council would immediately recognise. If land becomes uninhabitable through flooding as glaciers melt and sea levels rise, or through drought as things get hotter, the people now living on that land will move. Credible forecasts speak of 200 million people displaced by the middle of the century. Some of that movement will be within countries, but some will be across international borders — and we all know the strains that can produce. There will be clashes over limited resources as people compete over fertile land and drinkable water. Darfur, where conflict has been caused in part by a shift in rainfall and the resulting clash between nomadic herders and settled pastoralists, could be a glimpse of the shape of things to come.

It might be scarce crops or reduced fish stocks, it could be a humanitarian disaster caused by a hurricane or flooding, or it could be a fight over energy itself, over oil or gas. There is no shortage of threats our changing climate could pose, either sparking conflict directly or taking an existing area of tension and pushing it over the edge into outright war.

That’s not entirely in the future. Already the issue is acquiring the more familiar shape of an international relations problem. Note the description by Uganda’s president Yoweri Museveni of rising emissions as “an act of aggression” by the rich nations against the poor. We pollute for decades; they pay the price in lost landscapes and lost lives. (Uganda derives 80% of its energy from hydro-electric power: drought means there is now no water behind the dams — and a massive energy crisis in the country.)

As the consequences of global warming become more visible, and more felt, that sentiment will grow — along with the conflict, or even international terrorism, that it might bring.

The recent UN debate is a sign that this penny is beginning to drop. Maybe not in Russia, whose UN ambassador warned against overdramatisating the problem of global warming, nor in the White House, which offered the security council an empty statement, in keeping with the Bush administration’s shaming record of denial. Still, and in defiance of all that, two US senators, Republican Chuck Hagel and Democrat Dick Durbin, have put forward a bill that would demand all US agencies come together to produce a national intelligence estimate of the threat of climate change. Such exercises were once reserved for the Soviet nuclear arsenal or the state of the Middle East.

These changes matter. The big powers know how to put out fires when they want to. Now they just have to realise they are facing a blaze larger than any of us have ever seen — and one that could engulf us all.


Copyright Guardian News & Media Ltd 2007

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