Climate change is widely considered a threat multiplier that can impact many dimensions of a society. According to the World Economic Forum’s 2019 Global Risks Report, it is among the top three risks to political, economic, and social stability in the decade ahead. Climate-related stressors can undo development gains and affect the capacity of institutions and individuals to manage conflict peacefully. It is for these reasons that the High-Level Political Forum (HLPF) in July—which includes a review of progress on Sustainable Development (SDG) Goal 13 on climate action—and the Climate Action Summit in September, are important opportunities to seriously assess the work being done to address climate risks, and to underscore the connection of SDG 13 with all the goals of the 2030 Agenda on Sustainable Development.
Deeper appreciation of the relationship between climate risks and peace, security, and development makes clear the need for a frank assessment of progress on SDG 13. The report of the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) on human security demonstrated the potential causal links between climate-related risks and violent conflict and fragility. Another recent report by the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) examined climate change as a cross-cutting issue and highlights its complex effects in fragile states and human society.
These cross-cutting effects mean that climate change, though included in SDG 13, is also an important factor in the achievement of all SDGs. Changes in climate conditions and climate-related disasters could provoke social upheaval and even trigger political tensions, which would impact member state efforts to achieve SDG 9 on industry and infrastructure, 10 on reducing inequalities, 16 on peace, justice, and strong institutions, and even 5 on gender equality. A report from the Overseas Development Institute (ODI) provides some evidence to support the connection between climate-related disasters and fragility and conflict, including increased sexual and gender-based violence following natural disasters and greater exposure of vulnerable groups to human trafficking. The report also offers evidence for how the conditions of conflict could amplify the consequences of climate-related disasters.
In fact, risks associated with climate change—including weather extremes—and environmental degradation can multiply the impact of violence by exacerbating food insecurity, water scarcity, and economic shocks, which are encompassed by SDG 1 on poverty and 6 on clean water and sanitation. An independent report commissioned by the Group of 7 countries identifies compound climate-fragility risks that can cause major stress and pressures on natural resources and competitions over food and water use grow as well. Consequently, livelihood insecurity can result for civilian populations who depend on those resources. In some regions, affected communities face greater threats from droughts and floods as the result of changes in climate conditions.
In economic terms, climate change is directly related to household consumption through its effects on agricultural productivity, food prices and access, and financial, natural, and human capital assets. These considerations are directly related to SDG 8 on decent work and economic growth. Moreover, the IPCC has highlighted how all aspects of food security will be negatively affected by climate change, which can impede progress on SDG 2 on achieving zero hunger. Climate change can also impede access to healthcare, which can increase malnutrition in infants and children, according to the World Bank.
These tensions have the potential to create massive population displacement and climate migration. Based on an analysis from the World Bank, by 2050 more than 143 million people in just three regions (sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, and Latin America) could become climate migrants and be forced to seek more viable and less vulnerable places to live. Environmental refugees displaced by climate change effects can also suffer from health risks and deteriorating their lives and livelihoods.
Beyond the connections of climate change to specific SDGs, it is also possible to view climate-related risk from the perspective of human prosperity and dignity. Climate change can negatively impact efforts to uphold the basic human rights to life, food, health, and an adequate standard of living. As another article in this series noted, human rights are relevant to the entire 2030 Agenda. The connection between climate change and human rights has been acknowledged by the UN to some degree, as the State Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change formally agreed that all countries “should, in all climate change-related actions, fully respect human rights.” The UN Special Envoy for Climate Change, Mary Robinson, UN Special Envoy for Climate Change, argues that “climate justice” is connected to many of the principles enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR).
The July HLPF session can also help advance progress made up to now in existing climate agreements and frameworks. Negotiations that began as far back as the Earth Summit in 1992, then continued under the aegis of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in 1994, culminated in 2015, a seminal year for global policy on sustainable development. In that year, two critical global agreements were made along with the 2030 Agenda: the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction 2015–2030 and the Paris Agreement for Climate Change. The Sendai Framework recognizes the need for better integration of disaster risk reduction (DRR), development and adaptation. The Paris Agreement also seeks to strengthen the capacity of countries to address the impacts of climate crisis through mechanisms such as financing and climate funds, technical assistance and technology transfer. Finally, the 2018 UN climate conference (COP24), adopted the Katowice Climate Package, to transform the Paris Agreement from words into action.
Despite these more than two decades of negotiations, commitments, and climate policy achievements, collective responses to reducing climate-related risks remain inadequate. Moreover, the complexity of climate change and the dynamic nature of societies and ecological systems makes the implementation of these agreements challenging. In addition, a lack of binding obligations and strong enforcement mechanisms increases the chance for non-compliance with the commitments.
The universality of the 2030 Agenda, and the assessment of progress on climate action that will take place in July and September, mean that these next few months are an opportunity to improve accountability for reducing the effects of climate change. Moreover, the Climate Action Summit, if taken advantage of, can help advance multilevel, cross-sectoral collective actions and approaches. It may also improve cooperation between global North and South countries, and all actors and community groups by orienting all towards strengthening climate action. There are concerns, however, that the Summit will be overshadowed by other high level meetings taking place during the opening of the 74th session of the UN General Assembly.
Outside of these fora, it is also necessary to implement more coherent and strengthened actions towards achieving the goals of the 2030 Agenda, the Paris Agreement, and the Sendai Framework. This would help shape a joint global climate policy, while taking into account the capacities of individual countries. The special report of the IPCC on Global Warming of 1.5°C emphasizes the need to strengthen integrated approaches between the SDGs, and mitigation and adaptation measures to minimize trade-offs and maximize equity and fairness.
Transforming our societies and systems towards sustainable and climate-resilient development will require robust and coherent implementation approaches. The HLPF and Climate Action Summit are important venues for advancing this endeavor. Having such approaches will make it possible to predict climate-related risks, strengthen disaster risk management, and support peace and stability.
Nafiseh Jafarzadeh is an environmental policy analyst based in Washington, DC.