On April 17, the United Nations Security Council will discuss
the security implications of global warming for the first time. The
issue was placed on the agenda by the United Kingdom, which assumed
the rotating presidency of the Council for April. According to
Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett:
The destruction described in [the recently released summary of
the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on
Climate Change] is a threat not only to the UK's prosperity but
also to international peace and security. That is why, at the UK's
initiative, the UN Security Council will on the 17th April hold its
first ever discussion on the security implications of climate
change. We hope that this discussion will foster a shared
understanding of the way in which climate stress is likely to
amplify other drivers of conflict and tension, and thereby
strengthen the commitment of the international community to the
collective action that we urgently need.
The United Kingdom is wrong to foist this issue on the Council.
First, the extent, source, and consequences of global warming are
subject to debate, and the possible implications of global warming,
particularly the security implications, are speculative. Even if
these consequences occur as predicted in the IPCC report, they are
not immediate security threats.
Second, numerous policy initiatives, forums, and organizations
are focused on studying and evaluating the consequences of global
warming. The focus of these efforts and discussions is to clarify
the science of global warming and weigh the costs of action to
address global warming against the risks of inaction. A debate in
the Security Council is unlikely to contribute to these ongoing
Finally, the Security Council has a full docket of immediate
threats to international peace and security that is has failed to
resolve. Focusing on speculative threats that may arise decades in
the future undermines the seriousness of the body and is an affront
to those suffering from immediate crises. Worse, it distracts the
Council from pressing threats to international peace and
The Uncertainty Surrounding
Catastrophic Global Warming
Global warming is a legitimate environmental concern, but does
it really rise to the level of a security crisis? British policy on
climate change subscribes to the European Union position of
accepting and pursuing policies based upon worst-case scenarios of
global warming. Substantive political debate on global warming in
the U.K. is minimal, and Prime Minister Tony Blair, Chancellor of
the Treasury Gordon Brown, and Conservative Party Leader David
Cameron are competing to out-do one another with their green
credentials and proposals to tax, cap, or otherwise regulate
Most leading British scientists, institutions, and policy
advisers support extensive, binding international regulatory
initiatives on climate change. Specifically, the U.K. has ratified
the Kyoto Protocol, the multilateral treaty to reduce greenhouse
gas emissions. Sir David King, Chief Scientific Adviser to the U.K.
Government, argues that without immediate action to address global
warming, particularly by the U.S., millions of people around the
world will fall victim to extensive flooding, drought, hunger, and
debilitating diseases such as malaria. King has argued that global
warming is a far greater threat to the world than international
terrorism. Indeed, King believes that "climate change is the most
severe problem we are facing today."
Such certainty is not supported by the evidence. Contrary to the
impression given in press coverage, considerable scientific
uncertainties and debate exist. This is particularly true regarding
the more alarming predictions of harm which are invoked to justify
the unusual step of the Security Council addressing an issue more
appropriately within the purview of the U.N. Environment Program
(UNEP) and other bodies.
The Current Evidence
The state of current scientific understanding undermines the
case for consideration of global warming in the U.N. Security
Council. A review of the evidence reveals fundamental uncertainties
and projected harms that, even under worst-case scenarios, are not
pressing threats requiring immediate attention by the Security
- To what extent is warming caused by human
activity? The earth's average temperature has increased
over the last 30 years, and many point to this as evidence of
harmful, human-induced warming. But temperatures have risen and
fallen many times in the past. For example, the Medieval Warm
Period was likely as warm as the present. While it is likely that
mankind's activities have made a contribution to warming, current
temperatures are within the historical range of natural
- How much of an immediate and dire threat is posed by
warming? Given that the current upward trend in temperatures is
not unprecedented, it stands to reason that such minor warming will
not lead to unprecedented catastrophes, and scientific evidence is
independently confirming this. The planet and its inhabitants are
much more resilient to temperature variability than had been
previously assumed, and the warming over the last few decades has
not been particularly harmful to humans or the environment. Indeed, the
rise in greenhouse gas emissions and temperatures over this period
has been accompanied by declining damages from natural disasters,
not the opposite. In sum, the more alarming
predictions-dramatic sea level rises, increased storms, wider
spread of malaria, etc.-are not extrapolations of current trends,
but radical departures from them. At the very least, they are
highly implausible in the near term and so not an imminent threat
to international peace and stability, which is the claim made to
justify consideration before the U.N. Security Council.
- Is reducing CO2 emissions worth the costs?
China, which will soon overtake the U.S. as the world's biggest
emitter of carbon dioxide, and other developing nations are exempt
under Kyoto, and most of the European signatories to the Protocol
are not on track to meet its requirements, with several actually
seeing their emissions since 2000 rising faster than in the U.S. Britain's
emissions are at a ten-year high. Even if the U.S. had ratified the Kyoto
Protocol, and even if Europe and others were in full compliance
with it, the treaty would avert an inconsequential 0.07 degree
Celsius temperature increase by 2050, at a cost to the U.S. of $100 billion to
$400 billion annually. This would directly impact the public
with higher gasoline and electricity prices as well as fewer jobs
and other consequences. In other words, the Kyoto approach leads to
great economic pain and almost no environmental gain.
Even if global warming occurs as envisioned, it is far from
clear that acting now to address the threat is the most efficient
use of resources. Many of the disasters predicted by alarmists
(e.g., floods, droughts, crop-failures, storms, and vector-borne
diseases) will occur from time to time whether or not global
warming makes them more frequent or severe. These threats should be
faced directly, irrespective of global warming. Costly measures
like Kyoto, however, will do almost nothing to cool the planet but
would damage economies and sap resources away from more useful and
direct efforts to fight these problems.
For example, the Copenhagen Consensus Conference brought
together leading economists, scientists, and specialists in May
2004 to prioritize how to best allocate limited resources to
address the most pressing global problems. In June 2006, the
Copenhagen Consensus Conference brought together U.N. ambassadors,
including the U.S., Chinese, Indian, and Pakistani ambassadors, for
the same purpose. In both cases, "[Participants] agreed that the
world's top spending priorities should be around the areas of
health, water, education and hunger. And, perhaps more
courageously, they also said what should not come at the
top-financial instability and climate change ranked at the bottom
of the list."
Another global forum to debate global warming is unnecessary and
counterproductive. The list of international organizations and
forums focused on researching global warming includes many national
environmental ministries and agencies and innumerable
non-governmental organizations focused on environmental issues.
Within the U.N. system, UNEP and other specialized bodies like the
World Meteorological Organization (WMO) are already dedicating
massive resources to this issue. Treaties focusing on global
warming include the Kyoto Protocol, which has been in force since
2005, and the Asia-Pacific Partnership on Clean Development and
Two high-level multilateral institutions are expected to grapple
with the issue of global warming in the coming months:
- The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was
established in 1988 to examine the issue of global warming through
joint effort of the World Meteorological Organization and the
United Nations Environment Programme. The IPCC seeks to forge a
consensus among climate experts on the state of climate science
relating to global warming every five to seven years and present a
report for consideration by world leaders. The IPCC issued
assessments in 1990, 1996, and 2001. Its Fourth Assessment Report
(AR4) is being released in stages this year and will serve as
justification for a post-Kyoto climate treaty at the U.N. Climate
Change Conference in Bali in December 2007.
- The 33rd G8 summit, hosted by German Chancellor Angela Merkel,
will be held on June 6-8, 2007, in Heiligendamm, Germany and will
focus on climate change. Merkel has promised to make global warming
"an important issue once again on the agenda during our G8
presidency." The agenda will build on the 2005
Gleneagles G8 Summit in Scotland, which adopted a statement on the
importance of climate change and an agreement to "act with resolve
and urgency now."The statement concluded that"greenhouse
gas emissions need to slow, peak and reverse and that G8 countries
need to make 'substantial cuts' in emissions."Gleneagles also saw the
creation of the G8+5 Group comprised of the G8 and Brazil, Mexico,
South Africa, China, and India. The mission of this group is to
advance deeper cooperation on climate change and trade.
It is difficult to imagine how additional debate in the Security
Council will contribute to these efforts. The Security Council
lacks the expertise of existing forums or of dissenting groups and
scientists and can contribute little of value to the overall
discussion. Between these high-level forums and incessant media
coverage, it is impossible to justify placing the issue of global
warming on the agenda of the Security Council as necessary to
increase international awareness of global warming.
An Affront to the Suffering
In essence, the United Kingdom is asking the Security Council to
replicate the work of other forums in order to discuss a threat
that, even if it develops as predicted, will not result in a
tangible threat to international peace and security for decades.
This effort is an affront to the millions currently
suffering from the depredations of dictatorial regimes around the
world and those facing the near-term threats posed by proliferation
of weapons of mass destruction, transnational terrorism, and
Consider the plight of the people in the Darfur region of Sudan
or in Zimbabwe. Both situations involve millions of displaced
persons and directly affect the security and stability of
neighboring nations Yet the Council has been either silent or
ineffective in both cases. Similarly, the Council has long been
silent on human rights violations in numerous other countries.
On the issue of the proliferation of weapons of mass
destruction, the Council has proven to be a paper tiger in its
dealings with North Korea and Iran, which are leading the charge
toward widespread proliferation of nuclear weapons technology.
The Security Council has similarly proven unable to address the
issue of transnational terrorism. It has not condemned state
sponsors of terrorism despite ample evidence of links to
international terrorist groups and has demonstrated little concern
about encouraging and supporting those groups in their efforts to
attack citizens of U.N. member states. The U.N. has been unable
even to define what constitutes terrorism.
As of February 2007, the total number of personnel serving in 18
United Nations Department of Peacekeeping Operations-led peace
operations and political missions was over 100,000 individuals. This number
is expected to increase sharply. The U.N. has more troops deployed
than any nation in the world except for the United States. The
unprecedented frequency and size of recent U.N. deployments and the
resulting financial demands have challenged the willingness of
member states to contribute uniformed personnel in support of U.N.
peace operations and have overwhelmed the capabilities of the
Department of Peacekeeping Operations and other parts of the
Secretariat that support peace operations. This has lead to
mismanagement, misconduct, poor planning, corruption, sexual abuse,
unclear mandates, and other weaknesses. Yet the Security Council
has been largely silent about how these weaknesses affect its
decisions and mandates.
The Security Council has a full docket of immediate threats to
international peace and security that would benefit from more
deliberation and action. Focusing on the speculative threats that
may result from global warming distracts from these vital issues
and undermines the seriousness and stature of the body by reducing
it to a political theatre.
The Security Council should not be deliberating global warming.
The purpose of the Security Council is clearly laid out in the U.N.
Charter, which confers on the Security Council "primary
responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and
security." The security implications of climate
change are speculative at this point and, even if they result as
predicted, would not pose an immediate threat for decades. The
projected threats of global warming do not rise to the level of
Security Council consideration.
The decision to raise the issue in the Council is troubling
considering that such a step is often a prelude to a Council
decision or resolution. A Council decision is the sole venue
capable of compelling states to adopt actions to address global
warming-something that should not be contemplated
without greater certainty and evidence of urgency.
While it is possible that the consequences of global warming may
one day become a threat to international peace and security, the
science and predicted outcomes remain subject to considerable
uncertainty, and the proposed solutions raise problems of their
own. Until these uncertainties are resolved, global warming will
not be ripe for Security Council deliberation. The resources and
attention of the Council are better spent on pressing crises.
D. Schaefer is Jay Kingham Fellow in International Regulatory
Affairs in the Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom, a division of
the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International
Studies, at The Heritage Foundation and
Ben Lieberman is Senior Policy Analyst in Energy and the
Environment in the Thomas A. Roe Institute for Economic Policy
Studies at The Heritage Foundation.
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