WorldClimate ChangeSummer 2021 Edition

Climate Change: Human Security is in the Hands of the G7

Charleigh Stone
Staff Writer

In recent years, our understanding of the climate crisis has evolved beyond a singular environmental perspective to a complex, multifaceted approach that recognizes the broader implications of climate change. Evidence shows that climate change significantly impacts long-term human security by undermining the livelihoods of people, compromising their cultural values and identities, perpetuating internal displacement and forced migration, and challenging the ability of states to overcome insecurity. Unfortunately, many of the countries already experiencing these effects are unable to make tangible progress simply because of their small economies and inability to influence international action. Resolving the climate crisis requires the collective action of the international community, with a particular emphasis on large-economy countries. Countries such as those in the G7 – the United Kingdom (UK), United States, Canada, France, Italy, Germany, and Japan – are some of the top contributors to climate change, being responsible for a combined equivalent of 9678.4 metric tons of carbon dioxide (MtCO2e) across all forms of greenhouse gas emissions, according to recent data collected by ClimateWatch in 2018. Crucially, these countries are also the ones able to bolster substantial climate action by leveraging their international influence and economic advantage to incentivize states to adopt universally beneficial policy initiatives. Moreover, the G7 and other large-economy countries have a responsibility to provide logistical and financial assistance to countries lacking the necessary infrastructure to support climate-sensitive policies, as well as a duty to reprimand private actors and businesses taking advantage of climate-affected economies. Meanwhile, small, developing nations continue to face human security threats as a result of climate change, despite contributing the least to the problem at hand. 

The increasing effects of climate change on human security have dire consequences for the future. As noted in United Nations General Assembly resolution 66/290, “human security is an approach to assist Member States in identifying and addressing widespread and cross-cutting challenges to the survival, livelihood, and dignity of their people”. The correlation between climate change and human security indicates that insufficient environmental management and resource governance could give rise to difficulties safeguarding people’s fundamental rights and freedoms. Moreover, because human security refers to the security of people and communities as opposed to the security of states, it is recognized as a human right under Article 3 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). The concept of human security also encompasses other rights present in the UDHR, such as that to life (Article 3), an adequate standard of living (Article 25), and freedom from fear (Preamble). As perpetrators of climate change, not only do states compromise their responsibilities under international human rights law by contributing to the crisis, but their failure to address the impacts of climate change on human security can also be considered a human rights violation. Of course, many states have committed to improving their climate considerations through vital policy initiatives such as the Paris Agreement, a landmark international treaty that has received near-universal adoption. However, these developments are hindered by key states who are failing to set strong targets or take substantive action to reduce their emissions. In truth, the consequences of climate policy stagnation are not felt by those states with the ability to enact sizeable change – instead, small, developing countries are the ones with insufficient resources to mitigate the effects of climate change. 

In the context of climate change, human security is threatened by the effect of rising sea levels and extreme weather events on the operation of markets, the state, and civil society. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) identifies the deprivation of basic needs, such as the loss of household assets and agricultural land, increased water scarcity, and the loss of property and residence, as direct results of climate stressors on state resources. Moreover, changes in hydrological regimes have been linked to increased riverbank erosion, floods, and groundwater deprivation. The alteration of these regimes –seasonally variable patterns in the water flow, sediment, and nutrients of rivers and streams – affects access to agricultural land and food security. Meanwhile, sea-level rise and extreme weather events have led to the destruction of property and infrastructure. As these conditions perpetuate human insecurity and increase the volatility of living conditions, populations are experiencing mass levels of internal displacement and migration. UN Secretary-General António Guterres, who was once the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, raised the issue of forced displacement and its ambiguity under international law. He notes that, despite climate change being named the key accelerator of all other drivers of forced displacement, climate refugees find themselves in a “legal void” if they cross a border since forcibly displaced persons are not covered by the refugee protection regime. Moreover, internal displacement and climate migration not only constitutes a growing threat to regional stability and intensifies intra- and inter-state competition for resources, but also perpetuate national security concerns by exacerbating border tensions and increasing the potential for disease outbreaks. As climate patterns gradually worsen, the international community must reconcile with the need for appropriate legal recourse and accompanying institutional frameworks to accommodate and protect climate refugees. 

Another dimension of human security that is affected by the climate crisis is the preservation of cultural values and identity, particularly with rising sea levels which threaten to submerge small island developing states (SIDS) and eradicate their populations. States facing such realities include Maldives, Tuvalu, and Fiji; in the United States, many coastal cities including Houston, Virginia Beach, and New Orleans are also at risk, according to the World Economic Forum. While displacement and forced migration trends escalate, cultural norms, religious customs, and social support systems are similarly at risk of being lost as individuals adjust to new cultural settings that change their perceptions of identity and concepts of self. Since culture – the sum of characteristics such as language, morals, and social habits – is shaped through factors like geography, lands must be recovered in the aftermath of disasters to mitigate the negative effects of cultural dilution on climate migrants. Additionally, host governments often encourage “precarious” housing arrangements to dissuade migrant populations from putting down roots along with a lack of political will to craft long-term climate-resilience plans that cater to the needs of climate refugees, reports The New Yorker.  

The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) notes that SIDS share certain characteristics that underscore its overall vulnerability to the climate crisis, including limited natural resources, highly-concentrated coastal infrastructure, susceptibility to natural disasters, dependence on water, and insufficient financial, technical, and institutional capabilities that are necessary to mitigate the adverse effects of climate change. Additionally, due to their geographic location and limited physical size, SIDS are heavily influenced by large-scale water movements responsible for sea-level changes and weather pattern variation. As a result, not only are SIDS more susceptible to sea-level rise, but they are also at the mercy of increasingly volatile weather patterns and natural disasters that can result in economic damage and loss of life. The GermanWatch Institute (GW) reports that over the past two decades, more than 475,000 people lost their lives as a direct result of over 11,000 extreme weather events – eight out of the ten countries of the most affected were low and lower-middle-income, with half being least-developed countries. The Global Climate Risk Index (CRI) developed by GW identified Mozambique, Zimbabwe, the Bahamas, Japan, and Malawi as the five most affected countries in 2019; compared to the long-term CRI (which analyzes the period from 2000 to 2019) Puerto Rico, Myanmar, Haiti, the Philippines, and Mozambique, rank as the five most affected countries overall. Relatively speaking – except for Japan – these countries lack the international influence, political power, and economic means to incentivize the international community to act beyond the scope of their individual, short-term interests and respond proactively to climate issues. Until they do, the efforts made by other states will continue to be undermined. 

It is therefore vital that countries, such as those in the G7, prioritize policies that produce long-term global benefits for climate change over those that satisfy short-term interests. Despite accounting for 20 percent of global carbon emissions, the G7’s current pledges to cut emissions do not provide a significant contribution to what would be a fair share of the global effort. In fact, according to the Climate Action Tracker, none of the G7 countries’ climate commitments appear to be enough to hold global warming below 2 degrees Celsius, let alone the 1.5 degrees Celsius required under the Paris Agreement. The UK, Italy, and France, and Canada all received “insufficient” ratings from the EU27+UK assessment, while Japan and Germany were “highly insufficient”, and the U.S. “critically insufficient.” As the world’s largest industrialized countries, the G7 could play a vital role in fast-tracking climate-friendly policies, assisting developing economies, and instilling confidence in energy transitions while taking responsibility to decarbonize their economies. Instead, governments continue to implement contradictory policies and exploit climate-affected countries. In the UK, for example, the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) found that the country remains off-track from its carbon budget, policy implementation, and plans to protect the country from growing climate risks. Carbon Brief reports that Lord Deben, chairman of the CCC, explained the government “understands the seriousness of the challenge but they do not seem to be able to link that to action”. Thus, the UK has fallen behind on adapting to the changing climate and failed to maintain a coherent plan to reduce emissions. On the other end of the spectrum, the U.S. faced enormous setbacks in the wake of President Donald Trump’s hostility towards climate action and withdrawal from the Paris Agreement. Alongside the active censorship of climate science research, Trump also attempted to roll back the Obama-era Clean Power Plan. The inauguration of President Joe Biden in January, however, has improved the outlook on American climate action. Since taking office, he has pledged an emissions reduction of 50-52 percent by 2030 compared to 2005 levels, according to statements from the White House. The executive action is one of five signed by Biden within his first 100 days in office that redirect the Trump administration’s negligent policies and elevate climate change as an essential element of U.S. foreign policy and national security. Among the executive actions were two direct reversals of Trump’s policies, in which Biden led the U.S. to rejoin the Paris Climate Agreement, cancel the Keystone XL pipeline, and direct agencies to further review over 100 of Trump’s environmental actions. 

Ultimately, the G7 would need to act diligently to reduce global emissions through setting targets in conjunction with the coherent policy packages in place to deliver those objectives. It is also vital to extend financial support for energy transitions to developing countries to facilitate the global effort; these financial pledges, however, need to be offered alongside firm budgetary outlines. Despite promises of extra climate finance during the 2021 G7 Summit, global leaders failed to offer further details on these financial commitments with the exception of Canada and Germany, who pledged a twofold and threefold increase in funding, respectively. Without substantial advances in G7 policies and renewed action against climate change, the G7 will become increasingly responsible for its adverse effects on global human security. 

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