Expectations for the upcoming UN climate change summit in Paris are higher than they’ve been in years. Experts expect it will be the best chance to achieve a binding, universal agreement to limit carbon emissions. But the conference is still not getting the attention it deserves from policymakers and the public, given the stakes – and not just for the environment but for the international system writ large, said Nick Mabey, founding director and chief executive of the UK-based environmental NGO E3G at the Wilson Center on February 12.
“It’s all about risk,” said Mabey. “You have to understand how fragile a system is before you can decide how much risk to take.” That understanding is sorely lacking, he says.
Mabey likens the climate system to an egg at the edge of a table. Decision-makers who do not fully grasp the risks continue to poke the egg by placing economic growth above all else. Likewise, among the foreign policy community, competing priorities – most notably security concerns like ISIS and the conflict in Ukraine – tend to dominate the conversation. In Europe, the pending Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership is getting more attention than the climate summit, he said.
The long-term economic and geopolitical implications of a climate agreement in Paris, however, far outweigh these headline-grabbing crises, said Mabey. Business as usual is propelling humanity into dangerous territory, as the longer climate change continues unchecked, the harder it becomes to adapt to or mitigate its effects.
What’s at Stake
Fossil fuel emissions are causing more damaging storms, unusual weather patterns, melting sea ice and glaciers, and rising sea levels. Some of the climate security issues E3G began looking at years ago, like mass migration, resentment between countries, and changes to trade balance, are now a reality, said Mabey.
“This is the world we live in,” he said. “The Mediterranean is full of refugees driven by conflict exacerbated by drought, and Arctic politics continue to grow.”
Failure in Paris would undermine public trust in the international system to provide stability and security in this environment. “We’re seeing a global fossil divestment campaign look like the anti-apartheid movement,” Mabey said, “and we saw 40,000 people marching in Copenhagen and 400,000 people marching in New York. There will be a lot more people in Paris.”
Without an agreement, many governments may be forced into contingency modes, planning for scenarios where the global average temperature increase is 5 to 6 °C, as opposed to the 2 °C level that climate experts currently define as the threshold of planetary climate stability. “Europe would pull back adaptation to its borders and not look at Africa,” Mabey said. “There would be no point to try and do adaptation in Africa if you’re under these extreme scenarios. So you would start to have the ungoverned spaces issue coming out really strongly.”
Such a breakdown would also have major financial and economic implications. The low carbon economy, which grew to $4-5 trillion this year, would be hit hard, said Mabey. Pressure for measures to block trade from carbon intensive countries, particularly China, would increase, which could lead to China completely exiting the “rules-based” international system and developing a parallel global development and investment system of its own.
The National Security Agrument
The implications are such that security and foreign policy ministers should be the ones pushing the climate agenda instead of environment ministers, said Mabey. “We will pay for this one way or another,” he said, quoting retired Marine Corps General Anthony C. Zinni. “We will pay to reduce greenhouse gas emissions today, and we’ll have to take an economic hit of some kind, or we will pay the price later in military terms.”
Mabey linked regional violence in northeastern Nigeria to climate change, pointing out that migrants have poured in from neighboring regions and widespread drought and food insecurity in Nigeria itself have helped shape the socio-economic conditions that contributed to the emergence of Boko Haram and violent insurgency. These kinds of flare-ups, as well as more natural disaster response, could lead to an increased burden on the U.S. military and its allies.
After Super Typhoon Haiyan hit the Philippines, more than 14,000 U.S. serviceman and women were dispatched and an agreement allowing U.S. forces to operate at specific locations was hashed out. The United States risks alienating important allies (the Philippines plays a key role in the Obama administration’s “pivot” to the Asia-Pacific) if it turns its back on the international climate process. On the other hand, a strong show of leadership in Paris could strengthen key alliances and reduce calls on U.S. and allied militaries.
It’s important not to assume that the future will look like the past, said Geoff Dabelko, professor and director of environmental studies at Ohio University and ECSP senior advisor. For decision-makers and the general public, this uncertainty can be difficult to internalize and act upon. The security community is more used to dealing with ambiguity and complex risk. Adopting a risk perspective is constructive and can help people understand what’s at stake and how to respond to vulnerabilities, he said.
On the flip side, the military is not used to considering the cross-cutting issues that climate change can affect, such as food price volatility and environmental degradation, said Dabelko. There’s learning to be done on both sides to bring the security perspective into the multilateral.
Uneasy U.S Leadership
U.S. leadership in this space is especially critical during the lead up to Paris, said Mabey. Perhaps contrary to popular perception, “U.S. diplomacy has worked and it’s shaping other people’s positions, especially China and India,” he said. The U.S. and China signed a major climate agreementlast fall, and the United States has also pledged $3 billion to the Green Climate Fund and is leading the global phase-out of highly potent hydrofluorocarbons through the Montreal Protocol. These steps influenced the European Union, Mabey said, in its decision to set an emissions reduction target of 40 percent by 2030.
Yet many Americans still consider climate change a distant problem, and there is concern among European and Chinese policymakers that U.S. political commitment is fleeting, said Mabey. Many in the international community worry that weak political consensus will prevent the United States from entering any legally binding international agreement.
To avoid such a fate, even the threat of which could undermine Paris, it must be made clear who benefits from a good outcome, said Mabey. Getting China and India – the big players in the climate regime – to lower their emissions is in United States’ national interest, he said. The security implications are also a strong argument for U.S. audiences, since the U.S. military is often among the first to respond to humanitarian disasters. And physically, the United States is more at risk than most developed countries. Shrinking snowpack on the West Coast has led to droughts and melting permafrost in Alaska is forcing the relocation of naval bases and communities. Over the last 30 years, the U.S. has lost more in value to natural disasters than any other OECD country, according to the insurance company Munich Re.
Action on environmental issues in the United States historically happens at the state and local levels, a point not always well understood by international audiences, said Dabelko. Grassroots activism has increased political momentum and pressure, yet law-makers have slowed U.S. actions at the international level, he said. “It doesn’t mean that we can tolerate a lack of activity or followership in Washington, but in some ways, we need to understand it may not be as surprising if that continues to be the case.”
“Realize We Have the Agency”
There is still time to begin adapting and seriously mitigating carbon emissions, but without an agreement in Paris, the 2 °C limit becomes nearly impossible, said Mabey. “Unless you have a gut feeling about how much risk you’re going to take, you will not prioritize this to reduce that risk.”
Waiting until December to begin building awareness about the stakes is too late, said Dabelko. He urged NGOs to campaign now and for researchers to raise key issues, as much of the decisions at the working and diplomatic levels will be made within the next four to five months.
Now is the time to take advantage of the increased attention across sectors and to build new coalitions, said Mabey.
A more inclusive definition of what climate response looks like could help, especially as a tool for investment in developing countries, said Mabey. For example, in small-island developing states, labor mobility and remittances provide nontraditional channels for investors and donors. And in wealthier countries, the incorporation of climate change into homeowner insurance policies would bring the discussion about who pays for continued carbon emissions to a level people can understand.
Decision-makers need a healthy sense of risk in order to take the actions needed to adjust to climate change, Mabey said, and the security and foreign policy communities could provide that. “It’s not falling into the trap of making [Paris] the Cup Final or the Super Bowl,” he cautioned, “but realizing that we have agency to drive harder.”
Theo Wilson is an intern with the Environmental Change and Security Program and is pursuing a Master’s in global environmental policy at American University. He is proficient in Korean and Mandarin and has worked as a freelance editor and translator and as a project coordinator at the Friends of the United Nations.