This article was exclusively written for the Sting by Mrs Bodil Valero, Member of the European Parliament for the Swedish Green Party
For a long time, climate change has been seen as a “soft” issue, one that states and citizens can afford to care about when the rest of society’s problems aren’t as pressing. Portrayed as separate from other policy areas and set in a distant future somewhere else, climate have had to settle with a few weeks of limited attention in the political spotlight, every other year 3-5 years, when there is a major climate summit.
This has had the effect that real efforts to effectively stop climate change are often put on hold, in favour of more pressing issues, be it the economy, social welfare, or security. But is there really a contradiction between climate and these policy areas?
A few years ago, when I was sitting in the Swedish Committee on European Affairs in the Swedish parliament, I questioned the long term sustainability of replacing coal with gas, since it is also a fossil fuel. I will never forget the reply I got Carl Bildt, who was Swedish foreign minister at the time. He said he was grateful for every step that reduces greenhouse gases. But, he said “If we replace coal with gas, we cut emissions in half. Then Bodil can say that gas is not sustainable because it will be different in 50 years – Well in 50 years we will all be dead. And by then we will surely have found something new.”
I don’t think Mr. Bildt meant any harm, but I can’t help to think that his answer was symptomatic for the way that climate change has been treated over the years. After all, who cares about polar bears and rising sea levels in the future, when there are people dying in war and poverty here and now? Luckily, with the advent of new scientific research, (and more sadly with natural disasters occurring more and more frequently) that perception is beginning to change.
After devastating conflicts in Sudan, Darfur and the Horn of Africa there it is rare to find serious security researchers denying that climate has an effect on security. In 2013, researchers from Berkley University published the largest meta study to date “Quantifying the Influence of Climate on Human Conflict”, with a remarkable convergence of results. They found that there is “strong causal evidence linking climatic events to human conflict across a range of spatial and temporal scales and across all major regions of the world.”
For each standard deviation of one degree Celsius warmer temperatures, the frequency of interpersonal violence on average rises 4% and the frequency of intergroup conflict rises 14%. With global warming expected to raise temperatures between 2 and 4 degrees until 2050, you can only imagine the consequences in terms of violent conflict. Or as former US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel put it: “Rising global temperatures, changing precipitation patterns, climbing sea levels and more extreme weather events will intensify the challenges of global instability, hunger, poverty and conflict,”
The links between climate and security have never been stronger. In fact, (though most people don’t know it) we are already dealing with the consequences. Before the start of the civil war in Syria, the country suffered a five year long drought, one of the worst in its history. Years before the Assad regime and before anyone had heard of a terrorist group called ISIS, some 1.5 million Syrians, many of them farmers, had already fled their homes and migrated. The effects were unprecedented. Food prices rose, cities were quickly getting crowded and jobs were in short supply. And not just in Syria, this affected the whole area. Out of these frustrations grew the sparks that would ignite the Arab world. What happened after, you already know.
Climate migration was, and is very real in Syria. But the magnitude of the effect of climate change is underestimated when we only consider those who have fled as direct victims of a flood or a drought, when crops are failing and food is scarce. Today more than half of Syria’s population have fled their homes, and sadly it looks like more will follow.
Considering that only a few hundred thousand refugees has been enough to throw Europe into what is being labelled a “migration crisis”, creating tensions that threatens to risk the foundations of the Union, I think it is safe to say that Europe is not prepared.
If climate is a security threat large enough to force millions of people from their homes and to multiply threats of war and conflict, then it should be treated as such. Make the comparison with terrorism. Terrorism is instant fear, visual and gruesome – and it leaves legislators panicking, suggesting the toughest laws and measures they can think of within the week. But with climate change, although millions are already being affected and the future of our life on this planet is at stake, we are still waiting.
Framing climate change as a security threat does not mean taking away other arguments why climate needs to be taken seriously. It only adds another dimension to the problem.
Likewise, widening the concept of security to include climate change does not mean watering down the concept of security and forgetting about traditional “hard” security issues that already exist – It only adds to the understanding of this complex field. If we continue to look at security in a traditional short term manner, we are destined to fail in the face of long term security challenges.
As leaders gather in Paris for what could be the political meeting of our time, I hope the issue of security will be on their mind. Because while some of them might be gone in 50 years, as it turns out, our children certainly won’t be.
About the author
Bodil Valero is a member of the Group of the Greens/European Free Alliance of the European Parliament and a member of the Swedish Green Party. A full member in the LIBE committee and substitute in the AFET committee she is also the coordinator for the Greens in the Subcommittee on Security and Defence at the European Parliament.
After spending 12 years in municipal politics, Bodil became a member of the Swedish Parliament in 2006. In the parliament she was the Green Party’s spokesperson for foreign affairs and responsible for migration issues. Her main focus has been on development cooperation, human rights and peace and security. She particularly centres on global justice issues and opportunities for people to move around in the world. Bodil is a lawyer by vocation and has previously worked as a translator, interpreter and assistant to former Green Party MEP Inger Schörling.
Throughout her political career Bodil has spent a lot of time talking about the links between climate, conflict and migration.