The nations of the world are gathering in New York to discuss one of the most pressing peace and security challenges of the 21st century: climate change. On September 23, the United Nations is convening the Climate Action Summit, and while the UN was founded on maintaining international peace and stability, climate change is a risk that the founders could not have foreseen. Given both the unprecedented nature of the climate risk, and our predictive capabilities when it comes to the global climate, much more systemic changes must be made to prevent and prepare for it.
The UN came into being during the stable climatic period geologists called the Holocene—a period which includes the advent of agriculture, the rise and fall of empires and monarchies, the birth of the nation-state, and the invention of rocket ships and computers. That epoch has ended, making way for a new epoch: the Anthropocene. The Anthropocene is characterized by human-induced changes to the climate that are unprecedented in our history of record.
These changes include the melting of glaciers and polar ice caps, extreme rainfall variability, sea level rise, and ocean acidification—all changes that can disrupt the foundations of the social, political, economic, and security institutions that undergird our civilization. Simply put, these changes affect the basic resources that support human livelihoods, nations, and the global order those nations participate in. That’s the bad news.
But there’s good news. As distinct from past ages of social and political turmoil, today we have an extraordinary ability to harness scientific and technological tools to better predict and prepare for future risks like climate change. Compared to many other drivers of global insecurity, climate change can be modeled with a relatively high degree of certainty. Consider, for instance, that the first accurate climate change model is from 1967—half a century ago—and, for the most part, the climate is changing as the model predicted. Conversely, a political scientist from 1967 would have had a much more difficult time predicting the current contours of our geopolitical landscape.
While uncertainties in predicting local and regional climatic changes remain, existing projections from climate models paint a fairly clear picture of what the future holds. This combination of unprecedented risk and foresight is the foundation for a Responsibility to Prepare, a governance concept we debuted before the UN Security Council in late 2017.
However, these predictive capacities do not, alone, enhance preparedness. A growing body of research demonstrates that climate change is already impacting international security—increasing the likelihood of state fragility and conflict in the Middle East and Africa; exacerbating water insecurity in Central Asia; threatening low-lying populations in the Asia-Pacific and Caribbean; and opening up new risks of confrontation between great powers and their neighbors in the Arctic and South China Sea.
Intelligence projections and scenario exercises show a century wherein these threats to security increase significantly as the planet warms. In this context, foresight is meaningless without the capacity to act intelligently and robustly to minimize the risks in advance. And while a robust international architecture for driving emissions reductions and climate-smart development exists in the form of the Paris Accord and other fora, its equivalent in the security realm has yet to be built.
Hence, there is a need for the development and adoption of a “Responsibility to Prepare Agenda” with one over-arching goal: climate-proofing the international security architecture, including at the UN level. As climate change multiplies a range of other international security risks, an international agenda that addresses it can also help inform governance reforms for managing those other risks. These reforms should include the following principles:
- Routinization: Routinizing climate security could range from including climate considerations in security and intelligence decision processes within security institutions to consistently holding forums on the subject. At the UN Security Council, for example, a commitment to regular Arria Formula dialogues or other informal modes of conversation, annual resolutions for addressing critical climate and security hotspots, and the incorporation of climate risks into the regular reports to the UN by commanders of UN Peacekeeping Operations, would help ensure that the issue is resilient to changing political winds.
- Institutionalization: At the international level, institutionalization could involve establishing an institutional home for climate and security at the UN, including semi-independent “Climate Security Crisis Watch Centers,” staffed by expert analysts and issuing regular recommendations to the UN Security Council. The centers could be new structures or integrated into existing early-warning systems, and could be replicated at regional or national levels.
- Elevation: Elevating such issues within governing bodies is critical for ensuring preparedness. Within the UN system, for example, the establishment of a senior Climate Security position, reporting directly to the UN Secretary-General and communicating regularly to the UN Security Council, would go a long way toward ensuring that these issues are heard at the highest levels.
- Integration: Climate change affects the whole security landscape, and cannot be siloed. Integration could involve embedding climate and security analysts across issue silos at the UN level, or creating UN-wide structures to facilitate such integration.
- Rapid response: Developing scaled warning systems that identify long-, medium-, and short-term risks, and that include clear “triggers” for emergency action on climate and security, would help ensure that foreseeable events are acted upon with commensurate levels of urgency. This is particularly important for low probability/high impact risks, and creating a governance capacity to prepare for “unknown unknowns” or “black swans.”
- Contingencies for unintended consequences: Despite best efforts, unintended consequences of solutions to these risks may inevitably arise. Governments should seek to identify these potential eventualities and develop contingencies for addressing them.
Given the rapid rate of climatic change and the increasing stress on global security that is likely to follow, the 21st century international order will have to adapt—and adapt quickly.
The difference between today and past centuries of political, economic, and environmental disruption is that we have the ability to spot impending disasters earlier. Technological developments have given us climate models and predictive tools that enhance our ability to anticipate and mitigate risks. We need to better utilize those tools, and better integrate them into international, regional, and national security institutions in order to manage this new world.
But the window of opportunity is narrowing. Delayed actions may result in diminishing returns, and, in the worst-case scenarios, difficult and potentially inhumane choices in the face of continued strains on natural resources, political will, and the capacities of governments to provide for their publics. If we act now—committing to develop and implement the goals of a Responsibility to Prepare—we can prevent this more unstable, and less humane, world. We can no longer lean on the excuse that we did not see the threat coming. We do see it coming. That foresight makes a Responsibility to Prepare both a practical and moral imperative.
Caitlin Werrell and Francesco Femia are Co-Founders of the Center for Climate and Security and CEOs of the Council on Strategic Risks.