Thursday, July 21, 2011

"Green Helmets" Get a Red Light at the UN Security Council

Today's New York Times reports that a special meeting at the UN Security Council did not result in agreement on action to address security threats caused by climate change. (The article was published online yesterday - U.N. Deadlock on Addressing Climate Shift by N. MacFarquhar, July 20, 2011)

The Guardian's advance coverage of the meeting (UN security council to consider climate change peacekeeping, S. Goldenberg, July 20, 2011) describes the backdrop for the meeting as discussions proposing introduction of "green helmets – which could step into conflicts caused by shrinking resources."

The idea of climate change as a threat to the security of sovereign states is not at all new. The U.S. National Intelligence Council issued an alert back in 2000 about how infectious disease, propelled in new ways by climate change, threatens U.S. security (The Global Infectious Disease Threat and Its Implications for the United States) - though soon after eclipsed by more immediate security threats in 2001.

The idea of the UN acting to address climate change as a global security threat-- that is relatively new. Russia, China, developing nations and climate change denialists argued against this action. The NYT article quotes a government representative of China, Wang Min: "The Security Council does not have the expertise in climate change and does not have the necessary means and resources." He has a point.

The other problem I see with a "green helmet" campaign- what threshold event would trigger deployment? Where does the line between one human-generated crisis and another get drawn? Would the Security Council deploy the theoretical green helmets to evacuate a drowning island nation, where the crisis is clearly caused by climate-driven sea level rise, but perhaps not deploy them to help alleviate the famine in Somalia, where climate change plays a role but less definitively so?

I can't help think about Cyclone Nargis, which devastated Burma/Myanmar right as I was transitioning from a study of the human rights impacts of sanctions on that country to a study of the concept of human security. I was reading strong statements from advocates working within the UN to create a team that would deploy in "human security" crises, as in, crises exactly like Cyclone Nargis, where a population was under massive threat and the government was unequipped (and in this case just reluctant) to help its own people. In that storm in 2008, about 138,000 people died, and the UN stood by, talking about intervention - but not intervening - to help a people devastated by violent weather of the sort we will see more often under climate change.

I presume the "green helmet" promoters are the same people who make the human security argument at the UN (that the UN should intervene if a government can't protect its own people against threats to individual security, such as organized crime, domestic violence, droughts and violent weather, etc., differentiated from national security threats, such as international terrorism, which the military addresses).

I wish it were so that the UN could ever be that organized and well-resourced to take into account climate change threats to security. The reality is that there will be climate refugees, they will look like economic refugees and will be treated as such (badly), and-- like those lost in Cyclone Nargis, living under military dictatorship-- many more will not be able to escape their life-threatening climatic conditions.

Read more about what the International Organization for Migration paper has to say about these climate refugees:
Brown, O. (2008). Migration and Climate Change. Geneva: International Organization for Migration.

Here's a newer IOM report (2011): Climate change, migration and critical international security

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