States must understand the linkages between climate change and security to foster better cooperation in climate change efforts, according to five international affairs experts at a summit in Gaston Hall on April 6.
The conference, organized by the Georgetown Initiative for Diplomatic Engagement and the School of Foreign Service, brought together five international practitioners to evaluate both the progress and future of international cooperation in mitigating climate change.
The summit, part of a series of events commemorating the upcoming SFS centennial anniversary, opened with a keynote address from former National Security Adviser Gen. James L. Jones (SFS ’66), who underscored the role of today’s diverse military methods in controlling climate-induced conflict.
“I will submit that the nexus between climate change and national security is the case study in the evolving nature of threats to which our country and our allies must adjust,” Jones said. “A new and more complicated global environment demands that we modernize our national security thinking.”
One of the priorities that must be at the forefront of this modernization, Jones said, “is updating the U.S. national security architecture and strategy to account for the pivotal role of food and energy, sufficiency and climate — and even human dignity — will play in our present and future of security.”
Jones, who led the United States’ military tours in Afghanistan and Iraq under former President Barack Obama from 2009 until 2010, also warned against the dangers of ideology when coupled with climate-induced conflict.
“The reality is that extreme poverty and extreme ideology make a lethal cocktail,” Jones said. “This interplay causes major challenges to every single one of our United States institutions stationed overseas.”
A panel of ambassadors examined recent efforts to reduce the adverse consequences of climate change following James’ address. The discussion included Ambassador of Barbados to the United States Selwin Hart, Ambassador of Denmark to the United States Lars Gert Lose and Ambassador of Germany to the United States Peter Wittig, and was moderated by Senior Vice President of the Center for Strategic and International Studies Kathleen Hicks.
In their opening remarks, the ambassadors explained the situation of their respective countries and their position vis-a-vis the international climate change regime, which is currently governed by the 2015 Paris Agreement within the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.
The Paris Agreement was ratified at the 21st Conference of Parties in Paris in April 2016 and focused on individualized commitments to reducing carbon emissions from 55 signatory nations as opposed to a one-size-fits-all solution.
Wittig emphasized the role Germany played in addressing climate change during its one-month rotating term as president of the United Nations Security Council.
“I decided that I wanted to introduce this topic of climate change and its repercussions on international peace and security,” Wittig said. “It’s not self-evident that it can be introduced on the agenda of the Security Council.”
Along with a bloc of African nations and small island developing states, Wittig helped to negotiate a UN Security Council presidential statement calling on states to address the threat of climate in conflict.
Lose said the 1973 oil crisis in Denmark, in which the country’s oil industry faced a sudden supply shock, is evidence of the effects of climate change on the economy and security.
“We had the major oil crisis and it spurred a security concern in Denmark because back then, 99 percent of our energy consumption was covered by imported fossil fuels and it led to a major economic recession,” Lose said. “We had major unemployment; we even had car-free Sundays and — trust me — this is when it became a security issue.”
Lose also emphasized the disproportionate effect of climate change on indigenous people living in Greenland. Though an autonomous constituent country, Greenland has been politically associated with the Kingdom of Denmark for more than a millennium.
“If you’re ever in doubt whether climate change is real go to Greenland, go to the arctic,” Lose said. “The ice cap is receding, ice poles are melting and this is completely changing the livelihoods of the indigenous population up there.”
Barbados has been hit especially hard by climate change due to its geography as a low-lying small island in the Caribbean, according to Hart.
“Ninety percent of all economic activity takes place within 1 mile of the coast line. So therefore, sea level rise, the increase in frequency of extreme weather events, has a devastating impact on the Caribbean,” Hart said. “And for those who think climate change is some future event, I’m here to say it’s happening now and it is getting worse.”
Hart also said state defense against climate change comes with a significant price tag.
“Nineteen of the major cities in the Caribbean are extremely vulnerable to sea level rise and for us to protect those cities it will require building 300 kilometers of sea walls and levees costing over $4.5 billion with an annual estimated maintenance cost of over $150 million,” Hart said. “These are resources that could be invested in health, education and other social goods.”
Collaboration from other countries with U.S. leadership has been vital to advancing the ambitious goals of the Paris Agreement, according to Hart.
“There is no other country that can drive innovation and technological change and development like the United States,” Hart said. “I’m hopeful the new administration will weigh the costs and benefits of its leadership and participation in this universal global move towards addressing climate change.”
The panelists also addressed the increased involvement of China on the international stage.
“China is very assertive in wanting to assume a leadership role,” Wittig said. “If the United States thinks of leaving its position, then China will step into the room and will act as a leading protagonist in the climate policy.”
According to Hart, it is in the global interest for the United States to maintain its involvement in climate change efforts.
“It is very concerning — and I can’t say this diplomatically — that there is this consideration of the United States not participating in the implementation of the Paris Agreement or developing the rulebook for the Paris Agreement,” Hart said. “We want the United States at the table to ensure that those rules remain strong.”
This post has been updated.
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