Center for Strategic Decision Research

Brazilian Ambassador Dr. Everton Vieira Vargas

Ambassador Dr. Everton Vieira Vargas
Brazilian Ambassador to Germany

Climate Change and Security


The issue of climate change and security is not discussed very much in international fora. It is an issue that is very complex because of two very complex elements: On one side there is climate change, one of the most challenging and complex issues on the international agenda, and on the other side there is the issue of security, which everyone here knows much more about than I do. Both issues are becoming more and more interlinked these days, but the challenge is how to address their relationship. We have seen the possible consequences of an increase in the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere in terms of rain patterns, the desertification process, and agricultural effects on ecosystems. And we all know how difficult it has been for the international community to address this issue. Perhaps the biggest example of this was the conference in Copenhagen in December 2009, where there was no progress in reaching a legally binding agreement involving all countries to address climate change.
The ecological schedule of climate change is one that holds major implications for social and political instability. These will be particularly felt in developing countries where the capability to respond to climate change is very limited. They have also been felt in industrial countries as a result of the cost that must be borne in switching from the current economic path to a more sustainable one.


The international order is changing not only because of the new role of countries or blocs that until a short time ago were at the margins of world decision-making, but also because of the rise of essentially transnational problems such as climate change. These transformations have a significant impact on the way we think about security. Historically, security has been understood in terms of threats to the territory and population of a state. Science has asserted with reasonable certainty that climate change affects the physical survival of societies, which is the most basic premise of security. Yet climate change is not controlled through military power; rather, addressing it requires radical rethinking of the structure of international order.

As I said before, climate change and security are intimately related to the role of sovereign states as primary actors in the international order. The comprehensiveness of the policies required to face climate change reinforces the centrality of the state as the sole entity with the legitimacy required to enforce political action. Three main consequences for security may be associated with climate change:

First, exacerbation of environmental problems such as droughts, water scarcity, and land degradation related to land-use conflicts

Second, social and economic disruption provoked by the rise of sea level

Third, radical environmental changes like the savannahization of tropical forests such as the Amazon or the disappearance of the Asian monsoon
Political decisions to promote national development while disregarding the effects of intensive use of fossil fuels or the consequences of deforestation may increase the probability of droughts, floods, sea-level rise, disease propagation, and so on. We have seen through the studies of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that if there is an increase of 2.5 to 3 degrees Celsius in surface temperature this can lead by the middle of this century to a gradual replacement of tropical forest by savannah in the eastern Amazon. For Brazil, this would be a disastrous consequence: The Amazon is not only important for its biodiversity and water resources, but its rainfall regime is crucial for the agriculture in the center-west of the country, one of the major export areas of soy and meat to the world markets.


There is a need to address and to think about this issue, not only from my local perspective but taking into account how the current order serves political decisions, international law, and domestic order in all of our countries, because it is a source of insecurity. Addressing climate change requires not only new ways of thinking and acting, but also of refocusing the power structures implicit in the provision of security. Security, therefore, should not be seen only in terms of anarchy. Justice and equity are key elements to promote security and order. The different periods of development in rich and developing countries led to acknowledging at the Climate Convention that different countries hold different historic responsibilities for causing the problem. This has established a hierarchy in the parties’ obligations under the convention.

There is consensus that prevention, mitigation, and adaptation to climate change demand decisions that have domestic and international implications. At the domestic level, efforts to adapt will require robust institutions. These institutions should be capable not only of taking urgent action to counter the negative effects of climate change, but also of planning future measures. They will also have to coordinate with other sectors of government at the national and local levels as well as with civil society.
At the international level, the U.N. will have to be adequately prepared to support the governments of the most vulnerable countries. A good example here is how the international community had to respond to the devastating earthquake that rocked Haiti in January 2010, even though that earthquake cannot be attributed to climate change. We will need to have adequate instances, institutions, and early warnings to respond to such situations.

The search for answers to how to deal with this issue will require that the international community as a whole look for ways to arrive at commitments and to fulfill the obligations they have under the Climate Convention. In 2007, at the initiative of the British president, the U.N. Security Council held the first debate ever on the impact of climate change on peace and security. Many developing countries saw this debate as an encroachment of the Security Council on the roles and responsibilities of the other main organs of the United Nations. This is a major issue, because climate change and security should not be focused on from a military perspective but from a cooperative perspective, and in this regard we will need to combine historical responsibility and sensitivity with the internal demands particularly of developing countries. The developing countries made clear in Copenhagen that they do not intend to accept uncritically the roles and procedures set by traditional powers to deal with the world’s problems. Both the new rules and institutions must be developed taking into account their needs and perceptions.


To conclude, I would like to say that there is a need for an aggiornamento of global governance mechanisms as well as a need to rethink international cooperation. This will have to be achieved through an equilibrium in which all countries have the possibility to quest for prosperity and be enhanced by an international regime that serves as the foundation for cooperation to minimize the consequences of climate change.

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