After Hurricane Irma destroyed 90% of homes on the Caribbean island of Barbuda in 2017, the government — faced with a second storm bearing down — evacuated all 1,600 residents to the nation’s larger island, Antigua.
“What if Hurricane Irma had shifted some miles south and hit both islands?” pondered Prime Minister Gaston Browne in a speech to the U.N. Security Council on Tuesday, during a discussion on rising security risks linked to climate change.
As a warming world brings growing threats to lives and stability in vulnerable island states, “what international plan and system would my country have recourse to, in the aftermath of such an attack to our peace and security?” he asked.
Major shifts — from new tools to predict and prepare for climate-linked security threats to changes in international law to accommodate “climate refugees” — are now urgently needed to protect people, Browne told other world leaders.
“Make no mistake, climate change’s existential threat to our own survival is not a future consideration, but a current reality,” he said during the virtual event.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who hosted the session ahead of the COP26 U.N. climate negotiations planned for November in Glasgow, Scotland, said climate change had become “a geopolitical issue every bit as much as an environmental one”.
Around the world, weather-related disasters are now displacing 16 million people a year and fueling migration, with water shortages and crop failures also making vulnerable people prey to violent extremists and human traffickers, he said.
Climate change impacts — from sea level rise to worsening wildfires, droughts, floods and storms — are undermining development in poor countries and will worsen without swift action to slash planet-heating emissions, he and others said.
The dangers are increasingly obvious for rich nations as well as poor, they added, whether in the form of wilder weather, soaring insurance costs or more migrants crossing borders.
“It is absolutely clear that climate change is a threat to our collective security and the security of our nations,” Johnson said. “Whether you like it or not, it is a matter of when, not if, your country and your people will have to deal with the security impacts of climate change.”
Through the U.N. climate negotiations and other groupings, countries have taken some steps to address the growing risks, including creating new insurance pools for poor countries threatened by extreme weather.
Under the Paris Agreement on climate change, wealthier countries also committed to raise $100 billion a year starting in 2020 to help poorer countries grow cleanly and adapt to more extreme weather and rising seas — a goal yet to be met.
The Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS) has pushed hard for three decades for a formal means to address unavoidable “loss and damage” from climate change, including the potential loss of entire islands to higher seas.
A “Warsaw Mechanism” to deal with climate loss and damage was created under U.N. talks — but little help is on offer besides support for insurance policies.
So far, representatives of small island states said, international action was lagging, with Browne calling efforts “fragmented and quite frankly inadequate.”
Aubrey Webson, AOSIS chairman and Antigua and Barbuda’s ambassador to the United Nations, said getting the U.N. Security Council to back swifter action on climate risks could pave the way for breakthroughs at COP26.
“What we might need to see is the Security Council using its muscle to push the COP forward,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in a telephone interview.
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