The climate will decide how we all get along

  • Laurent Fabius
  • Updated: May 07, 2015 21:48 IST

In December, France will be hosting the 21st UN climate conference, COP21. The aim is to reach a universal agreement that will limit temperature rise by the end of the century to 2°C compared to the pre-industrial period. As the president of COP21, my role will be to facilitate a compromise among 195 states — 196 parties with the European Union. In negotiations, differences in the situation of countries that are at distinct stages of development create differences of approach. Yet, strong common interests unite us: One example is the impact of climate change on our shared security.

Climate has always posed threats to security. In public debate the emphasis has been on environmental impact, but climate disruption upsets economic and social equilibriums and threatens internal security of countries. In France, historians have shown that the torrential rain of 1788 caused a food crisis, which contributed to the outbreak of the French Revolution. More recently, in 2005, Hurricane Katrina wreaked havoc, leading to disturbances in civil order. Beyond borders, climate change can stoke the risk of international conflict over the control of vital and scarce resources — particularly water. Examples of this include the tensions between Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia over the Nile and between Turkey, Syria and Iraq over the Euphrates. Another source of insecurity is the displacement of populations. By making certain areas uninhabitable, droughts and rising water levels uproot entire populations that often refuge in overpopulated regions, exacerbating tensions between countries or groups.

When uprooted, such populations can fall prey to radical movements. This is what happened in the Sahel in the late 1970s, when droughts contributed to the exodus of many Tuaregs towards Libya, most of whom then enrolled in Gaddafi’s “Islamic Legion”. The trace of this is still to be found in the destabilisation of northern Mali, which led to France’s military intervention in 2013.

The conclusion is clear: A ‘climate-disrupted’ planet would be a fundamentally unstable one. Threats to peace and security will increase in number and intensity if the rise in temperature exceeds 2°C.

There is nothing abstract about these risks. In Egypt, a 50-cm increase in the sea level would cause four million people to flee the Nile Delta, with security consequences for the entire region. Increased desertification of unstable areas would further foster the growth of criminal networks and terrorist groups, which already thrive there. Similarly, climate disruption would exacerbate threats that are concentrated in regions from Niger to the Persian Gulf, which will be among the most affected. For this “arc of crisis” is also an “arc of drought”.

These facts lead us to two conclusions. First, it is essential to limit global warming to below 2°C. Second, we need to reduce the exposure of populations to the damage caused by climate disruption — in particular by protecting coastlines from rising water levels and organising more effective management of water in arid regions. In the language of international negotiations, this is called ‘adaptation’, a topic that has not always received the attention it deserves. Adaptation must be a central focus of the agreement that is to be reached at the end of 2015.

I would like to emphasise another essential point: The massive use of fossil fuels has accelerated conflicts ever since they have been central to our economies. Because fossil fuel deposits are very unevenly distributed, leading to dependency and often violent competition, which threaten international security. Today, at the very gates of Europe, the control of natural gas supply routes is also at the centre of conflicts, which threaten to destabilise our continent — as demonstrated by the “gas war” between Russia and Ukraine in 2009. In Asia, the exploitation of the hydrocarbon-rich seabed of the Senkaku archipelago and the securing of supply routes for these resources contributes to tensions between China and Japan.

I would like to draw another conclusion: We need a global clean energy community to free us from dependence on fossil fuels and the related risks of conflict. Reducing carbon intensity improves security as it equalises access to energy. A country that develops its own solar or wind energy production takes nothing from anyone: The light and wind that it uses are renewable and belong to everyone. We should not underestimate the major contribution this could make to international peace and security. It follows that it is essential for COP21 to provide — first and foremost to developing countries — the practical means to increase access to energy, while reducing the carbon intensity of economies. This would considerably reduce the risk of fossil fuels becoming an increasing cause of conflict.

Helping countries to reduce their exposure to climate damage, and democratising energy access while reducing the carbon intensity of economies: These two imperatives correspond to our immediate security needs. Aligning our interests together around them should allow us to reach a universal agreement. If we want to achieve this objective, we will need everyone to contribute.

(Laurent Fabius is France’s minister of foreign affairs and international development. The views expressed are personal.)

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