Climate change pushes the boundaries of security

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Climate change is likely to cause complex legal, foreign policy and security issues, claims Cleo Paskal in a paper for Chatham House published in June 2007. Adapting international law is only addressing part of the problem, he believes.

The author observes the impact of a few aspects of climate change including rising sea levels and melting sea ice and glaciers. These impacts often fall into one of these three categories:

  • Triggering legal disputes, both at the domestic and international level; 
  • changing the degree of access to vital resources : water, fossil fuels, food and arable land, and;
  • impact on infrastructure. 

As political and physical boundaries are often entwined, the retreat or advance of coastlines, or even their complete disappearance in the case of low-lying islands, raises the question of the shift of maritime boundaries. Such phenomenon will create an increase in hostilities related to borders, the paper states. The author therefore gives the hypothetical example of a retreat in Florida’s coastline that would legally put the entrance to the gulf of Mexico in Cuban waters. It is likely to be international politics and security concerns, rather that international law, that will determine whether the boundaries change or not. 

Another hypothetical case allows the author to describe another impact of climate change: the potential threats to sovereignty. The disappearance of Tuvalu Island in the South Pacific because of the rise in sea levels would raise the question of the potential existence of a nation without physical states. Similar solutions to those which China has adopted, such as stationing military outposts on partially submerged atolls to claim the surrounding area, could be implemented. 

The opening of new transportation routes, following the melting of glaciers and sea ice, will increase tension between states, says the paper. The Northwest Passage is already subject to legal disputes. Canada claims that much of it is part of its internal waters, but the United States says that it is an international strait, open to free passage for all. Canada claims are legally sound, but the conditions caused by climate change create legal uncertainties and give an opening in which international politics can outflank international law, the author claims. 

Finally, climate change will make the access to vital resources more difficult and therefore create risks of increased regional conflict, massive migration and instability. The possible inundation of big cities also involves clear insecurity risks. Moreover, the challenges caused by larger triggers of environmental change are even more complex than the ones exposed in the paper, the author concludes. 

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