Despite all indications to the contrary, the issue of global warming has not received enough attention in the United Nations — at least according to the United Kingdom, which used its term as president of the Security Council to conduct a discussion on global warming on April 17. For those unfamiliar with the U.N. system, the Security Council is charged with maintaining international peace and security and taking action to address immediate or imminent threats.
Considering its responsibilities, it is hardly surprising that the Council had not previously considered the issue of global warming. A review of current scientific evidence reveals many uncertainties about the extent to which climate change is caused by human activity, the extent and consequences of global warming, and how to best allocate resources to address the issue. As knowledge increases, we have seen U.N. estimates for temperature and sea-level increases decline. However, even under worst-case scenarios for global warming predicted by the U.N., it will be decades before global warming results in significant warming, noteworthy sea-level increases, or other consequences that could contribute to conflict or instability. These projected harms are not pressing threats requiring immediate attention by the Security Council.
Indeed, China, Indonesia, Qatar, Russia, South Africa, and other nations objected to the climate change discussion on the grounds that the Security Council was not the place to debate or take action on climate change. China’s deputy ambassador objected that that “the Security Council [lacks] professional competence in handling climate change . . .” The Group of 77 (a group of over 130 developing nations that often vote as a bloc in the United Nations) similarly criticized the session. The Russian ambassador declared that “there are relevant forums and formats for the consideration of the climate-change problems in all aspects, including the assessment of new challenges and threat emerging in this sphere. As far as the UN Security Council is concerned, it should engage in the consideration of issues directly within its mandate.”
It is always a surreal experience for a free-market conservative to quote and agree with statements by the Russian and Chinese ambassadors — much less the G-77 — but in this case they provided a welcome reality check. No doubt the motive of some of these countries was to preserve the authority of the U.N. General Assembly (where developing countries wield more power) from perceived encroachment by the Security Council (where the permanent members largely control the agenda). But the questionable nature of their motives does not undermine the validity of their point.
Numerous U.N. bodies are dedicating massive resources to global warming and its impact on, well, everything. There are numerous agreements and treaties focusing on addressing climate change, such as the Kyoto Protocol, Agenda 21, and the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. There are standing bodies studying climate change like the Commission on Sustainable Development and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). In short, the last challenge facing the issue of climate change is insufficient attention from the United Nations.
The Security Council lacks the expertise of all of these bodies and has little to offer to the international discussion. In addition, between these high-level forums and incessant media coverage, it is impossible to justify placing the issue of global warming on the agenda of the Security Council as necessary to increase international awareness of global warming.
Yet it proved too much to expect restraint from the U.K. on climate change. British policy on climate change ascribes to the E.U. position of accepting and pursuing policies based on worst-case scenarios of global warming. Sir David King, the chief scientific adviser, argues that without immediate action to address global warming, millions of people around the world will fall victim to extensive flooding, drought, hunger, and debilitating diseases such as malaria — . Indeed, King believes that “climate change is the most severe problem we are facing today.” Substantive political debate on global warming in the U.K. is minimal, and Prime Minister Tony Blair, Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown, and Conservative Party Leader David Cameron are competing to out-do one another with their green credentials and proposals to tax, cap, or otherwise regulate greenhouse gases.
Paying no heed to the Russian ambassador’s warning against “panicking and over-dramatising the situation,” Blair’s foreign secretary, Margaret Beckett, launched into hyperbole by suggesting that global warming could lead to situations like Darfur, quoting Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni’s claim that global warming was “an act of aggression by the rich against the poor.” She was echoed by Ambassador Robert Guba Aisi of Papua New Guinea who claimed that “the dangers that the small island states and their populations face are no less serious than those nations threatened by guns and bombs.” The Ambassador from Tuvalu claimed the world had moved from the cold war to a “warming war” which was a “chemical war of immense proportions” in which chimney stacks and exhaust pipes were the weapons. In the press coverage following the debate, Greenpeace characterized global warming as “weather of mass destruction.”
You would never know from these alarmist scenarios that no one actually is asserting that environmental stress caused by climate change is the reason behind the conflict in Darfur or that few assert that the consequences of global warming, should they occur as predicted, pose immediate threats to international peace and security.
Unintentionally, however, these remarks do serve as a pointed reminder that the Security Council has a host of immediate crises on its agenda that it has failed to address. In addition to Darfur, consider the plight of the people in Zimbabwe, where repression has resulted in millions of displaced persons, contributed to widespread suffering, and directly affected the security and stability of neighboring nations. The Council has yet to forcefully address the WMD aspirations of North Korea and Iran. The Security Council has similarly proven unable to address the issue of transnational terrorism. The U.N. has been unable even to define what constitutes terrorism.
Focusing on speculative threats that may arise decades in the future undermines the seriousness of the body and is an affront to those suffering from immediate crises. Worse, it distracts the Council from pressing threats to international peace and security.
In the end, the Security Council debate must have been considered a disappointment by global-warming alarmists and environmental zealots. The discussion was held and over 50 countries offered their comments, but restraint clearly won the day. Brazil reasonably advised “extreme caution in establishing links between conflicts and the utilization of natural resources or the evolution of climate on our planet. To determine whether any particular environmental phenomenon represented a threat to international peace and security remained a very complex task. Not only should conflicts not be traced back to a single cause, but the matter was also invariably loaded with many political connotations, which might impair an objective analysis.”
China bluntly observed, “Discussing climate change at the Security Council will not help countries in their mitigation efforts, nor will it help developing countries affected by climate change to respond more effectively to it.” The United States stated that global warming must be dealt with in a manner that does not constrain economic growth and development and pointed out, “Economic growth provides the resources, in both developed and developing countries, to address energy and environmental challenges, including challenges associated with climate change.”
Based on the alarmist rhetoric threaded through the discussion, it is clear that the purpose of the debate was to exaggerate the extent or immediacy of the dangers of global warming in order to spur action by Council. We should all be thankful for the Council’s inaction on this matter. The Security Council is the sole body capable of compelling states to adopt actions to address global warming — a step that is incredibly premature considering the uncertainties surrounding climate change. While the consequences of global warming may one day become a threat to international peace and security, the science and predicted outcomes remain subject to considerable uncertainty, and the proposed solutions raise problems of their own. Until these uncertainties are resolved, global warming will not be ripe for Security Council action.
–Brett D. Schaefer is Jay Kingham Fellow in International Regulatory Affairs in the Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom, a division of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies, at the Heritage Foundation.