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Extreme climate conditions provoked by global warming could lead to “unprecedented” international security threats, with “serious security risks” even if climate change is contained within the European Union's target of a temperature rise of two degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, European leaders were told March 14, writes Stephen Gardner.

The warning was contained in a blunt seven-page paper presented at the European Council in Brussels by the EU's top foreign policy officials, European Commission external relations chief Benita Ferrero-Waldner, and Javier Solana, the EU's High Representative for Common Foreign and Security Policy.

The paper argues that Europe must work internationally to contain the most serious impacts of climate change, which will be felt in already-vulnerable areas, but which threaten to cause damage “even in robust economies.”

In particular, Europe's immediate neighbours, north Africa and the Middle East, could see resource conflicts, failing agriculture, and increasingly scarce water supplies, according to the paper. There will be food shortages and “millions” of environmental migrants crowding EU borders by 2020.

Further afield, the east coasts of India and China – where millions live – will be devastated by typhoons and other extreme weather, which will also batter the Caribbean and Central America. Sea levels will rise, creating loss of territory and border disputes. In short, climate change will mean a more chaotic world.

Bleak pictures

The warnings are not new. The Pentagon painted a bleak picture in a 2003 report that predicted that “disruption and conflict will be endemic features of life” in a warmer world. The United Nations security council debated climate change in April 2007, though China and Russia resisted the international security-climate link. But the latest paper does serve to focus attention at the EU's highest political levels.

Professor Jean-Pascal van Ypersele, of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) says there has been “a lot of talk but up to now there has been little actual adaptation” to climate threats. There are two reasons for this, he adds. First, resources are lacking, especially in developing countries, and second, climate chaos is “unknown territory.” Nobody knows “what is efficient” in countering future weather of mass destruction.

The EU paper addresses these points – but very broadly. It urges building up knowledge and assessing the EU's capacities as “a first step.” The EU should then push the case for global climate security action, and should encourage “trans-boundary environmental cooperation” with non-EU countries to pre-empt disputes.

Emphasis on security

Sonja Meister, climate specialist at Friends of Earth Europe says the report should not undermine efforts to tackle climate change by putting the emphasis on security implications. This could see the climate change debate side-tracked into a discussion about military planning, she adds.

Instead, developed countries should concentrate on providing resources to more fragile parts of the world. “The resources that we need are really huge. We need a big concerted effort from industrialised countries,” Meister says.

John Davison from Christian Aid supports her view. Christian Aid published its own report on climate change and mass migration in May 2007. Rather than worry about protecting its borders, the EU “needs to provide meaningful compensation” to developed countries, says Davison, pointing out that most migrants are internally displaced and do not cross borders.

Overstating Western resilience

However, Cleo Paskal, an Associate Fellow at Chatham House who contributed to the drafting of the Ferrero-Waldner/Solana paper, says the “assumption that the developing world will be hit hardest may be overstated.”

“There is an over-estimation of the west's resilience,” she says. The more climate-vulnerable parts of the world are already used to dealing with disasters, and have “coping mechanisms that we do not.” Paskal cites the cases of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, and devastating floods in Mumbai, India at around the same time. In the latter case, the government response was inadequate but the strength of social infrastructures helped Mumbai bounce back. In New Orleans, meanwhile, both official and social infrastructures failed.

The EU report is a useful contribution but is mainly a concise clarification of the issues with a call for more resources at EU level to help plan for climate change. The IPCC's van Ypersele says this could lead to the report being seen as a device to attract more funds from member states, though it may also encourage EU leaders to redouble their efforts to mitigate climate change, or to focus more seriously on adapting to the consequences.

But the focus on climate change may be misplaced, says Cleo Paskal. Global warming is just part of a broader issue of general environmental change, which is often exacerbated by local circumstances and man-made local problems – for example, devastation was wreaked in New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina not just because of the storm, but also because areas of the city had been allowed to subside because of swampland drainage. “We need an accurate assessment of what the real problems are,” says Paskal. Despite the Fererro-Waldner/Solana paper, this is still lacking.

A version of this article was originally published at Climate Change Corporation.

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