Human Security and the Threat of Climate Change

14 Sep

“There is every reason to believe that as the 21st century unfolds, the security story will be bound together by climate change… Climate change is a security issue because if we don’t deal with it, people will die and states will fail” – John Ashton, UK Foreign Secretary’s Special Representative for Climate Change

What is human security? This concept – raised last week with regard to natural disasters in Pakistan and elsewhere – is increasingly prevalent and yet still hazily defined. It is important to flesh out the details for two key reasons. First, human security will become increasingly necessary and prominent as climate change-related events become more frequent. Accordingly, states and international organizations will need a clear and precise definition if they are to enact policies. There is no reason why human security cannot follow the model of conventional security, where specific vulnerabilities are identified and funds allocated to address the shortcoming.

The three fundamental pillars of human security are natural resources and ecosystems, food, and health. Each of these three alone or in concert with the others can lead to profound population insecurities which in turn threatens state health. United Nations University writer Christian Webersik identifies climate change as a variable that can drastically undermine each of these pillars, with stark consequences. “A poor response to natural hazards,” he writes,  “may create anti-government grievances in societies with weak governance structures and stricken by political violence and poverty.” The loss of dwelling areas or habitats (Pakistan), the scarcity of food resources (Bangladesh) or the prospect of expanded disease vectors all represent bridges between human and conventional security. Center for a New American Security fellow Christine Parthemore points out that at least 11 violent conflicts since 1990 have been driven by the degradation of natural resources.

The common thread between the three main aspects of human security is climate change. Even in the absence of precise climactic predictions there is nonetheless ample evidence to show significant detrimental effects on all natural resources, food and health security simultaneously. The Women’s Environment and Development Organization (WEDO) put it succinctly: “Most of all, [climate change] is a human issue, where the livelihoods of numerous communities are threatened and their security is at stake.”

This tripartite casting of human security may allow states and multinational organizations greater leeway in boosting aid – rather than individual mandates to protect a forest resource or boost agricultural yields, a more holistic view of human security offers the possibility of a robust and comprehensive adaptive strategy. The payoff – in terms of productivity gains, disasters avoided or mitigated and societal instability averted – will be ample.


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