Out of the Greenhouse – Jointly and globally, the climate change security risk can still be prevented
When we think of climate change, most of us think of natural disasters, melting icebergs and, with a guilty conscience, possibly also going on vacation by plane. But the problem and its consequences go far beyond rising sea levels, forest fires, droughts and floods. Climate change is now an international security risk that affects every country, and it can only be prevented or contained if we join forces. Current commitments by countries to reduce their emissions date back to the 2015 Paris Agreement. Yet in the foreseeable future, these commitments will miss the target also set at that time: to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. The signatories would need to cut global emissions by 7.6 percent each year until 2030 – a 45 percent reduction from 2010 levels – in order to stay below the 1.5 °C target.1 “The data [...] show that the global mean temperature for 2020 was around 1.2 °C warmer than pre-industrial times, meaning that time is fast running out to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement.”2 If global warming then rises to 2 degrees Celsius or more, the international community will face very different challenges – namely gigantic flows of refugees from regions that are no longer habitable, enormous international relief efforts to alleviate natural disasters and famines, and an increasing threat of climate-related conflicts.
Politicians have been aware of the problem since long before Paris. For more than three decades, scientists have pointed to increasing global warming, which has risen steadily with industrialization since the mid-19th century. “The last time the atmospheric CO2 amounts were this high was more than 3 million years ago, when temperature was 2-3 C (3.6-5.4 °F) higher than during the pre-industrial era, and sea level was 15-25 meters (50-80 feet) higher than today.”3
The problem of global warming has been sufficiently documented by science. It is a well-known fact now. What has been lacking to date is the will on the part of the international community to follow through on their understanding, rethinking, promises and commitments with measurable action. Almost 69 percent of global greenhouse gases are caused by only ten countries. The United States lies in ignominious second place behind China, followed by the European Union and India. Russia, Japan, Brazil, Indonesia, Iran and Canada trail somewhat behind.4 These countries should set an example, and yet too often the blame is placed on others. Emerging economies want to catch up, and industrialized countries are having a hard time making the transition – as was made clear by the United States’ temporary withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, for example.
Joe Biden goes all out on climate
After four wasted years with a U.S. administration under Donald Trump that was not even remotely interested in climate issues, now that Joe Biden is in the White House, there is a great opportunity to set new, international climate justice goals. Even before the U.S. presidential elections in November 2020, climate change was one of the main themes on Biden’s overall ambitious agenda. He called it “an existential threat”.5 President Biden seems to have recognized the seriousness of the situation: not only did he rejoin the Paris climate agreement on his very first day in office, and shortly afterward order the decarbonization of the U.S. economy (which is to reach net zero by 2050), he also described climate change as the greatest threat to the national security of the United States. Biden named former U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry as his special envoy for climate – sending an important signal that America wants to move forward internationally as well as domestically. At the same time, he appointed Gina McCarthy as White House National Climate Advisor. Her role is to coordinate the administration’s climate efforts, from the military to the diplomatic service to the Department of the Treasury and the Department of Transportation. She will also lead negotiations with Congress to pass new climate legislation that will endure and cannot easily be watered down or rolled back by the next administration.
When Biden hosted a virtual climate summit on Earth Day, on April 22, 2021, Pope Francis and German Chancellor Angela Merkel were joined by Chinese President Xi Jinping, Russian President Vladimir Putin, and many other heads of state and government. Right at the beginning, the United States made a surprise commitment to halve its emissions by 2030 compared to 2005 levels. That is almost twice the reduction compared to the most recent pledge under Barack Obama.6 Biden also announced that the U.S. would double its annual climate funding for developing countries by 2024. In addition, the U.S. announced it would protect 30 percent of its land and water from human exploitation by 2030, thereby joining the international “30 x 30” initiative that enjoys bipartisan support in the United States Congress.7 And this is only one of the points on which the U.S. can find a common basis for negotiation with China. These are crucial developments ahead of the United Nations Climate Change Conference (26th Conference of the Parties, COP26) scheduled for November in Glasgow.
Everyone for the planet?
China announced at the virtual meeting in April that it would cut its carbon emissions to net zero by 2060. President Xi Jinping also promised that the country would phase out coal from 2026 and by 2030. Considering the otherwise anything but harmonious relationship between China and the United States, this is an important announcement that shows that China, too, seems ready to (help) tackle the most important global challenge.
Competition and even rivalry will continue in trade relations, technological and digital growth, and in the respective understanding of democracy and human rights. Not only between the U.S. and China, but also against Russia and others. Yet, despite all competition and even antagonism, when it comes to climate protection cooperation must be at the forefront. Joe Biden has already understood that climate change is an opportunity to build infrastructure (from roads to ports and energy grids), and he wishes to transform his country’s economy accordingly. He is responding to the realization that dramatic climate change is not only a threat to the environment that transcends borders, it is also throwing the global financial and economic system into disorder.
When Germany’s Federal Constitutional Court ruled in April 2021 that the country’s Climate Change Act (Klimaschutzgesetz) was inadequate, the German government reacted swiftly with ambitious improvements. Svenja Schulze, Environment Minister, and Olaf Scholz, Finance Minister and the SPD’s candidate for Chancellor, immediately proposed new targets. The current climate targets now provide for a 65 percent emission reduction by 2030 instead of the planned 55 percent, rising to 88 percent by 2040. Climate neutrality is to be achieved by 2045 instead of 2050.8 At the 12th Petersberg Climate Dialogue, which also took place in April, Chancellor Angela Merkel additionally proposed an international CO2 pricing system to help curb global CO2 emissions. Reactions to the pricing system proposal were rather mixed.
Other top 10 greenhouse gas emitters have also increased their emission reduction targets. Japan, for example, is aiming for a 46 percent reduction by 2030 compared to 2013, up from 26 percent. Canada, too, revised its targets and announced it would reduce emissions by 30 percent below 2005 levels by 2030. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau underlined Canada’s existing commitment to reach the net zero target by 2050. Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro promised that Brazil would achieve climate neutrality by 2050 – ten years earlier than previously stated. Illegal logging in Brazil’s rainforests is also set to stop by 2030.
Seen against the emission reduction targets that had been set before, these are moves in the right direction. But experts believe this still will not be enough to reach the overall target and stop global warming or keep it below 1.5 degrees Celsius.
Geopolitical framework and impacts
Climate change is entwined with current global challenges such as the pandemic, globalization, the threat to democracy, and energy dependence. Its impacts can now be observed in all regions of the world. It is not only the poorest countries or remote regions like the Arctic that are affected. Climate change affects the entire planet. It acts as a threat multiplier for political instability in some of the most volatile regions of the world. Negative impacts will be felt in the form of health risks, food prices and availability, and economic competitiveness. Countless people will pay for climate change with their lives. And last but not least, it will devour enormous financial resources. All of this is not in some distant future – it is already happening, and it will become exponentially worse.
Let us take the example of Syria, whose ongoing, climatically enhanced conflict started in 2011. Before the civil uprising, there were several factors that contributed to tensions within society. Between the late 1980s and the end of the century, several droughts plagued the country, and rivers began to dry up. In addition, around 1.2 to 1.4 million refugees arrived in Syria during the Iraq war.9 In 2005, a record-breaking five-year drought began, causing water shortages, economic losses, and negative social consequences. The combination of the climate-induced drought, migration flows from Iraq and the social tensions arising from these two factors contributed to the turmoil in Syria.10
Geopolitical rivalries can be additional obstacles in the fight against climate change. The world’s largest countries tend to be geopolitically hostile toward each other. There have been brief periods of rapprochement between Russia and the U.S. – they were allies from 1941-1945 in the war against Nazi Germany, and in more recent history both countries worked toward a better understanding in the immediate post-Soviet period from 1992 to the end of the century. But they keep reverting to a competitive stance.
Like Russia, Saudi Arabia, not an easy partner for the United States either, relies heavily on fossil fuel sales. Fossil fuels account for the lion’s share of government revenues in both countries. Their governments know that this cannot be a permanent source of revenue; the fossil resources are expected to run out in a matter of decades. But so far neither country has shown the necessary political nor, as it were, the entrepreneurial will to embrace the transformation and start to rethink. This in turn may have considerable consequences for the stability and security of their regions.
Of course, China is most important when it comes to international security. The United States and China are the world’s largest economies, and together are responsible for 43 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions.11 Europe and many other countries see the United States as occupying a leadership and guidance role, but there are many other states that will look more to China when it comes to implementing or increasing their own targets. China seems ready to take necessary steps to reduce emissions at home, while at the same time moving into a vanguard position. Both countries do not only need to rigorously implement the existing reduction targets, but they must also gradually increase them. Only then can the U.S. and China set an example that other countries will take seriously, which will move them to actually implement the targets they have set for themselves.
President Biden stands behind his ambitious USD 2 trillion climate package, but it needs to pass both chambers of Congress before he can sign it into law. If it succeeds, it would send a signal not only to China but to the entire international community that the United States is indeed back. Now the U.S. and China will need to compartmentalize their relations, otherwise the joint fight against climate change cannot work. It is not that system conflicts, trade disputes, human rights, Taiwan, technological competition and other potential sources of tension should become irrelevant, but they should be addressed and discussed through other diplomatic channels. Under no circumstances should the fight against climate change be allowed to become a political football, to be exploited by states in retaliation for other points of difference, or to gain advantages. At a press conference on March 7, Wang Yi, China’s highest-ranking diplomat, indicated that his country was willing to cooperate openly with the United States on the issue of climate change. A first signal was the announcement of improved targets at the Leaders’ Summit on Climate convened by President Biden on Earth Day. While this on its own does not bring positive results, it does offer the opportunity for further cooperation in this area.
It would also be important for China to halt its global fossil fuel based industrial investments via the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), or switch to renewable energy. Since the BRI was established, China has invested billions of U.S. dollars in fossil fuel projects worldwide.12 This is clearly heading the wrong way in the fight against climate change. A first positive step was the Belt and Road Initiative International Green Development Coalition (BRIGC), founded in 2019, which aims for sustainable, green development throughout the BRI project and participating countries, and supports the United Nations 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.
Furthermore, most developing countries will need a huge amount of aid – not only financial – to be able to counter climate change. The United States and China are needed here. Existing instruments (Adaptation Fund, Green Climate Fund) should be expanded in the long term and new structures developed. In this context, Biden has announced the mobilization of public and private sector funding to advance net zero and help vulnerable countries cope with climate impacts.13
The role of the United Nations
Since the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) entered into force in 1994, its ultimate objective has been “to stabilize greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that will prevent dangerous human interference with the climate system, in a time frame which allows ecosystems to adapt naturally and enables sustainable development.”14
Since then, the international community has met once a year under the UNFCCC for multilateral negotiations. The 2020 event was only canceled because of the pandemic, and the meetings will now continue in November 2021 in Glasgow as “COP26”. Despite the universally acclaimed successes of the Paris Agreement (COP21) for example, none of the results negotiated in the past 26 years have been contractually binding – including the emission reduction targets. Not only are there no internationally applicable legal remedies, there is often a lack of political will to take global issues seriously and consider them in the long term – rather than for just one term in office. Donald Trump’s presidency made this clear. The sheer Herculean task of tackling the problem of climate change, the costs involved and the ease of counting on ignorance – which should not be underestimated – could always obstruct voluntary climate agreements or even condemn them to failure.
The knowledge that the transition to climate-neutral economies will consume enormous financial resources worldwide leads some states to choose caution, pursue low targets, or simply ignore targets. The right incentives are lacking, as are penalties for non-compliance. Joe Biden sees climate change as an opportunity not only to save the planet, but also to rebalance his country’s economy, making it climate-neutral but growth-oriented at the same time. The United Nations can learn from this and set the right incentives. They should set a binding agenda and create instruments that are not only coordinated globally, but also monitored. This requires financial incentives, for example, and a catalog of sanctions. Both could ensure the continuous and long-term participation of the negotiating countries.
The renowned British naturalist Sir David Attenborough addressed the members of the UN Security Council during a debate on February 23, 2021, with a sobering message: “If we continue on our current path, we will face the collapse of everything that gives us our security: food production, access to fresh water, habitable ambient temperature, and ocean food chains,” he said, adding “and if the natural world can no longer support the most basic of our needs, then much of the rest of civilization will quickly break down.”15 The consequences of climate change, if they are not prevented, may lead to social and political instability, harm the international economy, bring about demographic changes and mass migration, and trigger civil as well as military conflicts. For these reasons, the UN Security Council, which is responsible for maintaining international peace and security, has been addressing climate-related security risks since 2007. Such risks feature prominently in the Council’s deliberations, and since that time there have been various resolutions emphasizing the negative impacts of climate change, and calling for further steps to be taken.
All hopes pinned on Glasgow?
Many climate activists breathed a sigh of relief when Joe Biden took the helm in the White House. With his commitment to climate policy, as described above, he will play an important role at Glasgow. But what Joe Biden is shaping now must also endure. Whatever form the agreement takes, whatever new targets are set, everything must be legally underpinned and binding. The next U.S. president cannot again relinquish the leading role at the stroke of a pen, and condemn the globe to climate disaster.
By 2030, global greenhouse gas emissions should be halved. By mid-century, humanity’s net greenhouse gas emissions should reach zero. That is the goal, but the actual individual targets are divergent: not every country sets the same targets, nor are they always pursued with the necessary resolve.
Expectations for COP26 in Glasgow could hardly be higher. 2020 was one of the three warmest years ever recorded. Ocean warming is at an all-time high. In a talk hosted by the London School of Economics, UNFCCC Executive Secretary Patricia Espinosa summarized the four main goals of COP26: keeping promises to developing countries (including USD 100 billion annually in climate aid); finally and fully implementing the Paris Agreement; further reducing emissions and raising climate ambitions; and engaging observers and impartial stakeholders.16
Glasgow cannot be a second Paris, a business as usual. Glasgow must set new targets that match the reality – and are therefore much higher and more ambitious than those currently in place.
1 Cf. United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (2019): “Cut Global Emissions by 7.6 Percent Every Year for Next Decade to Meet 1.5°C Paris Target – UN Report”. https://unfccc.int/news/cut-global-emissions-by-76-percent-every-year-for-next-decade-to-meet-15degc-paris-target-un-report (all links accessed May 28, 2021).
2 Guterres, António (2020): Foreword in: “The State of the Global Climate 2020”. https://public.wmo.int/en/our-mandate/climate/wmo-statement-state-of-global-climate
3 Lindsey, Rebecca (2020): “Climate Change: Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide”. https://www.climate.gov/news-features/understanding-climate/climate-change-atmospheric-carbon-dioxide
4 Cf. Friedrich, Johannes, Mengpin Ge and Andrew Pickens (2020): “World’s Top 10 Emitters”. https://www.wri.org/insights/interactive-chart-shows-changes-worlds-top-10-emitters
5 Busby, Joshua, Morgan Bazilian and Florian Krampe (2021): “Biden called climate change an ‘existential threat.’ Can the U.N. Security Council help?” Washington Post, March 2, 2021.
6 Cf. Sengupta, Somini, and Lisa Friedman (2021): “U.S. says it will sharply cut emissions and increase funds to vulnerable countries to fight climate change”. New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/live/2021/04/22/us/biden-earth-day-climate-summit
7 Cf. Pike, Lili (2021): “Biden wants to triple protected lands”. https://www.vox.com/22251851/joe-biden-executive-orders-climate-change-conservation-30-by-2030
8 Cf. “Klimaschutzgesetz 2021 – Generationenvertrag für das Klima”. https://www.bundesregierung.de/breg-de/themen/klimaschutz/klimaschutzgesetz-2021-1913672
9 Cf. Kenyon Lischer, Sarah (2008): “Security and Displacement in Iraq: Responding to the Forced Migration Crisis”. Quarterly Journal: International Security. https://www.belfercenter.org/publication/security-and-displacement-iraq-responding-forced-migration-crisis
10 Cf. Holleis, Jennifer (2021): “How climate change paved the way to war in Syria”. https://www.dw.com/en/how-climate-change-paved-the-way-to-war-in-syria/a-56711650
11 Arvin, Jariel (2021): “How the US and China can jump-start cooperation on climate change”. https://www.vox.com/22319488/china-biden-alaska-blinken-climate-change
12 Cf. Hillman, Jennifer and Alex Tippett (2021): “The Climate Challenge and Chinaʼs Belt and Road Initiative”. https://www.cfr.org/blog/climate-challenge-and-chinas-belt-and-road-initiative
13 Cf. U.S. Department of State (2021): “Leaders Summit on Climate”. https://www.state.gov/leaders-summit-on-climate/day-1/
14 UNFCCC Secretariat: “About the Secretariat”. https://unfccc.int/about-us/about-the-secretariat
15 World Meteorological Organization (2021): “UN Security Council debates climate change”. https://public.wmo.int/en/media/news/un-security-council-debates-climate-change
16 Cf. Espinosa, Patricia (2021): “Our Slim Window of Opportunity – what the climate change agenda must achieve in 2021”. Lecture, London School of Economics and Political Science. (Audio). https://www.lse.ac.uk/lse-player?id=c490ba04-dfee-4205-aa82-01ef2a7bfb4c
Michael Czogalla is Senior Program Officer for Foreign and Security Issues at the Washington, DC office of the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung. Before joining the FES, he taught at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln (2000-1) and published the book “Behind the Laughter”, which deals with social controversies in U.S. popular culture. He regularly writes on transatlantic foreign and security policy issues. He holds an M.A. in American Studies, Political Science and German Studies from the University of Leipzig. He is also a graduate of the Center for Digital Imaging Arts (CDIA) at Boston University.