Climate change now code red threat to survival of entire human race

Photo: VIR

As published in Sustainable Development Publication of Vietnam Investment Review in December 2021

Climate change is a risk multiplier, and the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow, UK and the upcoming International Conference on Sustainable Ocean Economy and Climate Change Adaptation in Hanoi are key moments to discuss climate-related security issues, write Caitlin Wiesen, UNDP Resident Representative in Vietnam, and Grete Løchen, Norwegian Ambassador to Vietnam.

The COVID-19 pandemic may be the story of 2020 and 2021 but it will be climate change-related threats to human security that will dominate the narrative for the remainder of the decade. At the United Nations Climate Change Conference 2021 – or COP26 – UN Secretary-General António Guterres warned that we are “careening towards climate catastrophe”. Climate change is now a code red situation. It is acting as a risk multiplier in unstable situations – an accelerator that complicates efforts to prevent or end conflict and sustain peace – and we can expect headlines that tell stories of reduced human security for all, especially vulnerable communities.

Throughout the world in 2020, more than 30 million people were displaced by climate-related disasters. The vast majority (90 per cent) of refugees come from countries that are among the most vulnerable and least able to adapt to the effects of climate change. If the world fails to follow through on the Paris Agreement’s goal of reducing carbon emissions and limiting global average temperature rise to 1.5oC, then sea-level rise and coastal flooding could threaten as many as 570 cities worldwide by 2050, putting over 800 million people at risk.

Small Island Developing States in the Asia-Pacific, the Caribbean, and elsewhere are already on the front lines of rising sea levels, coastal flooding, and saltwater intrusion. For these countries, climate change is an existential threat. More than 80 per cent of the 1,200 small coral islands that make up the Maldives are less than one metre above mean sea level – meaning that a sea level rise of even a metre would cause the loss of the entire land area.

Under current projections, 40 per cent of the land area of Vietnam’s Mekong Delta will be inundated by 2100. This will directly impact the local population and have major consequences for national rice production, export rice production, national aquaculture production, and fish exports.

The effects of climate change are particularly profound when they overlap with fragility and past or current conflicts. Where coping capacities are limited and there is high dependence on shrinking natural resources and ecosystem services, such as water and fertile land, grievances and tensions can explode.

In the lead up to COP26, the US government released an unprecedented National Intelligence Estimate forecasting that intensifying climate impacts will exacerbate geopolitical flashpoints, with impacts felt most acutely by developing countries that are least able to adapt. Vulnerable communities – including women and girls, indigenous people and ethnic minorities, and persons with disabilities – will be hit the hardest.

Work of the UN

During the past decade, climate and security issues have increasingly been incorporated into the overall work of the UN.  The UN’s Climate Security Mechanism – of which the UNDP is a founding member – was established in 2018 with support from Norway, Germany, Sweden, and the UK. Through this mechanism, the UN is conducting assessments and supporting follow-up activities in climate and security hotspots, generating knowledge, and advocating for effective policies and actions on climate-related security risks. The Climate Security Mechanism Toolbox was launched in 2020 to assist UN agencies and others to assess the linkages, feedback loops and tipping points that occur between climate change effects and social, ecological, and economic variables.

As the largest provider of technical support to climate change mitigation and adaptation in the UN system, the UNDP is partnering with the International Organization for Migration through the Peacekeeping Fund to strengthen the understanding of climate security risks in the Pacific. The UNDP’s research on the links between climate security and the prevention of violent extremism, the impact of climate change on peace mediation, the gender-differentiated impacts of climate security risks, and climate finance for sustaining peace is informing global climate change mitigation and adaptation dialogues.

The UN Security Council is also paying increasing attention to the ways in which climate and ecological change are undermining stability in specific countries and regions. Closing COP26, the UN Secretary-General António Guterres welcomed some important steps achieved in the Glasgow Climate Pact, including reaffirming resolve towards the 1.5oC goal, boosting climate finance for adaptation and recognizing the need to strengthen support for vulnerable countries suffering from irreparable climate damage. However, he emphasized that our fragile planet is hanging by a thread: “we are still knocking on the door of climate catastrophe… climate change adaptation isn’t a technocratic issue, it is life or death.”

Tackling climate-related security risks from Hanoi and Oslo

Addressing the UN Security Council in September, State President Nguyen Xuan Phuc of Vietnam also described climate change as “code red” and a metaphorical “war without gunfire… igniting disputes over natural resources between populations, displacing tens of millions from their homes and triggering trans-border security threats of ecology, environment, food, and water resources”. President Phuc proposed that the UN should establish a comprehensive database system on multi-dimensional impacts of sea-level rise in support of global response policy formulation.

In the same council meeting, Norway strongly emphasised the importance of including consideration of climate risks in all relevant mandates of UN peacekeeping and special political missions. Climate risks must also be addressed in mediation and preventive diplomacy efforts. The shared experience of climate change can be an entry point for building trust and dialogue across communities and countries. To succeed, strong local and regional partnerships are needed, as well as reliable, relevant, timely, and actionable information on climate-related security risks in specific country situations.

In line with the common agenda of Norway and Vietnam during their current overlapping terms on the UN Security Council as well as both being coastal nations heavily affected by climate change, governments from the two countries with the technical support of the UNDP in Vietnam will co-chair an International Conference on Sustainable Ocean Economy and Climate Change Adaptation on December 13-14, 2021 – as a follow up on positive outcomes from the COP26 in Glasgow where Vietnam’s Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh announced an ambitious and praiseworthy national target of net-zero emissions by 2050 and joined 190 countries in both phasing out coal power and ending support for new coal power plants, and 131 countries in committing to halt and reverse forest loss and land degradation by 2030.

The conference in Vietnam will take place in Hanoi and online, and will bring together ministers and senior officials from up to 60 climate-vulnerable countries as well as donor countries, international organizations, and experts. It is a timely and crucial opportunity to address topics such as the oceans currently being under grave threat from the effects of climate change, overfishing, and marine pollution. The accelerating pace of climate change is severely affecting development gains, especially in vulnerable coastal countries, and accelerated adaptation actions are needed.

The conference will have a special session on climate change as a risk to international peace and security, with an update from Vietnam’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs on the work of the UN Security Council during Vietnam’s current term, including Vietnam’s proposal on a comprehensive database system on multi-dimensional impacts of sea-level rise. Participating countries will address the climate crisis, including climate-induced international migration and internal displacement, development of early warning systems, conflict prevention, mediation, and peacebuilding for a systematic approach to this code red situation and the protection of human security.