U.N. Security Council must act preemptively – on climate change

This global threat requires a war-room mentality.

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The United Nations tackled the task of troubleshooting climate change last month. Between holding special General Assembly meetings at headquarters in New York, bringing 100 environmental ministers to Monaco in the largest meeting of ministers since Bali, and launching a Climate Neutral Network to highlight best practices in tackling global warming, the UN appears to be doing what it can to ensure that climate change does not fall off the political radar. Yet, it still isn't enough. A concerted international strategy, on a par with the seriousness and scope of an UN Security Council resolution, is what's needed to counter this climate crisis.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon was right in comparing the effects of climate change to the effects of war, given the potential level of human and environmental devastation potentially wrought by rising sea levels and increasingly catastrophic weather conditions. Philanthropist Sir Richard Branson, who keynoted UN General Assembly deliberations on climate change, was correct to call for a "war room" to adequately respond to a rapidly warming planet.

Both leaders recognize the need for serious strategy and the comparisons to war were not casually made. The threat to international peace and security calls upon nothing less than the purview of the UN Security Council.

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Under Article 39 of the UN Charter, the Security Council maintains the right to identify threats to international peace and security and to devise means to counter these threats. The potential impact of that on climate change is substantial: the Security Council's toolbox includes the capacity to cap greenhouse-gas emissions on every country and sanction those who fail to comply. Both a carbon tax, as well as a carbon-trading scheme, could incentivize countries to reduce emissions below even capped levels.

It is a moral imperative that the Security Council acts quickly. While island nations like Palau and the Maldives stand to face warlike scenarios sooner than the Security Council's five permanent (P5) members – China, Russia, United States, Britain, and France are not immune. Moreover, the culpability of the P5's populaces in contributing to climate change must be recognized. China and the US rank as the world's top two greenhouse-gas emitters.

Not surprisingly, this may well account for the Security Council's reluctance to tackle climate change with carbon caps and concomitant sanctions. The P5 has a hard enough time wrestling with resolutions that put parameters on their own political prowess. To expect them to write a resolution that restricts their right to pollute may be unrealistic. But the alternatives to inaction on this issue are dire.

Disappearing Pacific islands, due to rising sea levels, are projected for within our lifetime. Catastrophic weather conditions accosting the coastal regions of China, the US, and the UK, once mere prediction, are already taking place. Conflicts escalating over depleted natural resources, due to disrupted and rising temperatures, are already occurring. The planet may not wait patiently until the Security Council overcomes its propensity for political pandering.

Unless we act now, and with formidable preemptive force, more of this is what could face the international community. Transcending the Security Council's usual scope of nation-state conflicts, climate change-related conflict will affect all of us – with particular devastation to developing countries not represented by the P5. Thus it is incumbent upon the Security Council, which has a responsibility to protect weaker member states, to step up and save the world.

A global threat requires global commitment. And that commitment can be best coordinated in the Security Council.

Representative Gregory Meeks (D) of N.Y. is vicechair of the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee on Asia, the Pacific and the Global Environment. Michael Shank is the government relations adviser at George Mason University's Institute for Conflict Analysis and Resolution.

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