Sailors, Disasters, and Climate Security

The story of 15 British sailors captured and later released by Iran made for the stuff the media crave: drama, high-stakes brinkmanship, and, most importantly, individual names and faces that could be translated into gripping stories for Western audiences. But did the standoff between Britain and Iran warrant the obsessive reporting that was served up?

Of course, the incident carried great importance in the sense that it might have led to a fatal expansion of war and instability in the Middle East. Arguably, this confrontation, like the ongoing war in Iraq to which it is connected, is but one element in the larger Anglo-American strategy to maintain a dominant position in the world’s foremost oil-rich region and thus leverage over the petroleum-centered world economy.

But the sailors’ captivity all too easily drowned out other important stories around the world. Had the sailors' release occurred just a day or two later, it is possible that even such weighty matters as the latest scientific assessment of climate change would have been elbowed aside in the battle for headline real estate.

Referring to the rising hazards from climate change, the new IPCC report argues that “poor communities can be especially vulnerable because they tend to be concentrated in relatively high-risk areas, have more limited coping capacity, and can be more dependent on climate-sensitive resources such as local water and food supplies.”

In an April 5 New York Times article, Andrew Revkin points out that “the people most at risk from climate change live in countries that have contributed the least to the atmospheric buildup of...greenhouse gases.”  In a monumental case of injustice, the richest countries—which have acquired their wealth with the help of the fossil fuels that are destabilizing the planet—tend to face the least harm, partly because of the good fortune of geography. Revkin writes that the United States alone has contributed 29 percent of carbon emissions from energy use since 1850, and Western Europe another 25 percent, compared with 8 percent for China.

With gathering climate change, we might expect to hear an intensifying drumbeat of how marginalized populations are struggling in the face of droughts, floods, and other events that threaten their lives and livelihoods. All too often, these millions of people are “faceless” and thus ignored in media coverage. For anyone willing to look, however, there are already plenty of indications of what the future is likely to hold:

  • In parts of Angola, Madagascar, Mozambique, Namibia, and Zambia, more than 1 million lives are imperiled by an unprecedented series of cyclones, tropical storms, and heavy rains.
  • In sharp contrast, Lesotho, Namibia, southern Mozambique, much of Swaziland, and part of Zimbabwe have all suffered prolonged dry spells in a different, but equally serious, threat to the region’s crop production.
  • In Afghanistan, some 60,000 people in remote and war-torn areas were hit by devastating floods from heavy rain and melting winter-snow.
  • In Nepal, UN agencies are supporting some 400,000 people affected by ongoing drought, now including the eastern Terai region that has been marked by political violence.
While UN agencies and other aid groups are struggling to provide assistance to millions of affected populations in the face of chronic funding shortages, there are indications of growing interest in climate repercussions from a different direction: their impact on foreign policy and security. An October 2006 publication coordinated by the Hague-based Institute for Environmental Security (IES), called Inventory of Environment and Security Policies and Practices, provides an overview of initiatives of a range of governments and international organizations. 

In December 2006, discussions were held on “mainstreaming” these concerns at the European Parliament in Brussels, and in March 2007 the 56-member state Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) hosted an expert workshop near Vienna. IES played an instrumental role in these efforts, which brought together parliamentarians, government representatives, and experts from civil society organizations, including Worldwatch. 

On April 17, for the first time, the U.N. Security Council will discuss potential threats to international security from climate change. UK Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett, who will chair the meeting, has invited the 14 other members to be represented at the ministerial level to discuss the impacts of climate change on water, food production, famine, and sea-level rise. Unlike the matter of the British sailors, which was also brought before the Council, this session will likely be remembered as a major turning point in both environmental and security policymaking.