On October 13, the United Nations General Assembly appointed Antonio Guterres as the next UN secretary-general. When the former prime minister of Portugal and high commissioner for refugees begins his term in January 2017, he will face a world of increasing climate and security crises. In a Wilson Center NOW interview and op-ed for The Daily Climate, Wilson Fellows Ruth Greenspan Bell and Sherri Goodman express optimism in Guterres’ ability to address these interconnected challenges and provide insight on the role of institutions like the United Nations in fighting climate change.
While the United Nations is not the only leader on climate change, it remains the best hope for global mobilization, as evidenced by the successful adoption of the Paris climate agreement in December 2015. “A Secretary who understands the security implications of a changing climate can lead the way to thread climate and its consequences into everything else the UN does,” write Bell and Goodman, “both to push hard for greenhouse gas reductions and to address the self-described ‘truth’ articulated by President Obama, ‘that many nations have contributed little to climate change but will be the first to feel its most destructive effects.’”
The next big challenges for Guterres are the refugee crisis and water, which is the “frontline of climate change,” says Goodman. The breakdown in Syria and incredible displacement of people demonstrates how climate change-induced water scarcity can create competition over resources, exacerbate other problems in a society, and leave a void for militant and terrorist groups to emerge.
Bell says that Guterres is well aware of the destabilizing nature of climate change and its ability to exacerbate conflict. While he was the high commissioner for refugees, Guterres spoke to the Security Council about the central role of climate change in future peace and security challenges.
Guterres’ background and advocacy on behalf of climate change and displacement are good signs, but slowing climate change and blunting its impacts will require more than the United Nations. More collaboration between the public and private sectors is key. “It’s not any single government, and it’s not just government alone,” says Goodman.
There is reason to hope that such multilateral collaborations can work. The Paris Agreement was ratified and went into effect in record time, and during the same week as Guterres’ appointment, almost 200 countries agreed to amend the Montreal Protocol to phase out the use of harmful hydrofluorocarbons, which are responsible for about eight percent of climate-changing emissions.
Such agreements are imperative to building trust between key stakeholders and showing that change is possible, says Bell. Perhaps progress does not look like unilateral action and agreement on all issues, but focusing on shared interests, “trying to find avenues and places where you can solve specific problems.”
As the climate changes, so too do the conditions in which non-state armed groups operate. The complex risks presented by conflicts, climate change and increasingly fragile geophysical and socio-political conditions can contribute to the emergence and growth of non-state armed groups. Our new report examines the links between climate-fragility risks and non-state armed groups.
Worsening climate conditions directly threaten the realization of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and with them the conditions for peaceful societies. As the Paris Agreement comes into force on November 4, 2016, the world will be committed to the best existing global strategy for limiting and reversing climate change. Advancing sustainable development and peace will require bold climate action that looks beyond short-term political constraints.
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