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By A.N.M. Muniruzzaman
The recent statement of the UN Security Council identifying the impacts of climate change as a threat to international peace and security is most timely. Nothing can be more severe as a looming threat to humanity than the rapid climatic changes witnessed by the world today.
Putting an end to the debate over climate change, the UN Security Council in a presidential statement declared at its meeting on climate change on July 20 that possible adverse effects of climate change may, in the long run, aggravate certain existing threats to international peace and security.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon declared that climate change was an "unholy brew" that could create dangerous security vacuums, and that we must address a clear danger that not only exacerbated the threats but was itself a threat to international peace and security.
The security implications of climate change cover a wide spectrum. The recent scientific assessment presents a worrisome picture.
According to the Fourth Assessment Report of Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), 11 of the 12 years from 1995 to 2006 rank among the 12 warmest years since 1850. The 2007 IPCC report predicts temperature rise of 1.1 to 6.4 degrees Celsius by 2100.
The number of natural disasters in the world may double during the next 10 to 15 years. Over the past 10 years, 3,852 disasters killed more than 780,000 people, affected more than two billion others and cost a minimum of $960 billion.
Major vulnerabilities induced from climatic hazards include human displacement, drinking water shortages, reduced agricultural productivity and food insecurity, loss of livelihoods, health hazards, energy crises, and disasters.
Climate change worsens water quality and availability in regions with water scarcity. Currently, 1.1 billion people are without access to safe drinking water. About 120 million to 1.2 billion people will experience increased water stress by the 2020s in South Asia and South East Asia.
More than 3.5 million people die each year from water-related disease; 84 percent of them are children. Nearly all deaths – 98 percent - are in the developing world.
This crisis may in turn fuel existing internal or inter-state conflicts and social conflict and it is feared that unresolved water issues could trigger Indian-Pakistan conflict, which would have unpredictable consequences internationally.
Reduced agricultural productivity and the resultant situation of food insecurity is potentially the most worrying consequence of climate change. If global warming rises to 3 degrees Celsius it is likely that the number of people suffering from hunger will increase by 250 million to 550 million.
According to the German Advisory Council on Global Change, agricultural production from rain-fed agriculture could fall by about 50 percent in some regions by 2020. Rising food prices could potentially push hundreds of millions of people back into poverty.
This situation can undermine the economic performance of weak and unstable states, thereby aggravating destabilisation, the collapse of social systems and violent conflicts.
A changing climate affects the essential ingredients of maintaining good health: clean air and water, sufficient food and adequate shelter. Every year, the health of 235 million people is likely to be seriously affected by gradual environmental degradation due to climate change.
Climate change is projected to cause over 150,000 deaths annually and almost 45 million people are estimated to be malnourished because of it.
Direct economic losses and human casualties of global disasters have increased in recent decades, with particularly large increases since the 1980s. According to Oxfam, developing countries will require at least $50 billion annually to adapt to unavoidable climate change-related disasters.
The impacts of climate change may damage key energy infrastructures, such as energy plants, energy routes and nuclear installations, and consequently destabilise public order. For instance, the recent earthquake in Japan caused damage in the Fukushima nuclear plant, causing human casualties and disruption to energy production.
The decline in hydroelectric power generation may additionally reinforce competition and conflicts over fossil energy sources.
Climate change could potentially trigger large-scale displacement and migration from one region to another. The 2001 World Disasters Report estimated that there were currently 25 million "environmental refugees." It is estimated by the IPCC that by 2050, 150 million people could become climate refugees, being displaced by sea level rise, desertification, increasing water scarcity, floods and storms.
Climate change also has security dimensions. Climate-induced insecurities can trigger interstate tensions and conflicts. States may be stressed to the point of collapse. The potential for regional conflicts due to climate induced condition will be extremely high.
Radicalisation and terrorism may increase in many developing societies, particularly in South Asia, due to the climate-induced social and economic deprivation. When a government can no longer deliver services to its people, conditions are ripe for extremists and terrorists to fill the vacuum.
Resource scarcity could be a contributing factor to conflict and instability. The 1994 genocide in Rwanda was in many ways a consequence of squabbles over agricultural resources. The 1974 Nigerian coup resulted largely from an insufficient response to famine.
The situation in Darfur, which had land resources at its root, is spilling over into neighbouring Chad. The United Nations estimates 300 potential conflicts over water exist around the world today.
Bangladesh is one of the most vulnerable countries to the effects of climate change. The country is facing more frequent and intense natural disasters such as floods, droughts, and cyclones, lack of access to adequate safe drinking water, contamination and water-related diseases, and lack of water for irrigation.
Rainfall patterns could also change drastically, causing unusual floods. More importantly, if sea level were to rise by the predicted amount of two to three feet by the end of the century, then the effect on Bangladesh would be disastrous; loss of roughly 20 percent of its landmass, and displacement of nearly 20 to 30 million people.
The mangrove forests of the Sunderbans, the Bengal tiger and hundreds of bird species may disappear. About 53 percent of the coastal areas are affected by salinity. Millions of people in northern Bangladesh are threatened by riverbank erosion and severe droughts.
Rising sea levels will wipe out more cultivable land in Bangladesh than anywhere else in the world. By 2050, rice production is expected to drop by 10 percent and wheat production by 30 percent.
At this juncture, it is crucially important to recognise that climate change is pervasive and has more security implications than any other threat today.
Climate-induced challenges should be placed at the core of security considerations in a rapidly changing world. Hence, effective international cooperation, as advanced by the UN Security Council, should be formed to address the unpredictable security consequences of climate change.
Major General A.N.M. Muniruzzaman is president of the Bangladesh Institute of Peace and Security Studies. This blog first appeared in the Bangladesh Daily Star.