COP 21: Our climate imperatives

Laurent Fabius
Laurent Fabius

By Laurent Fabius

Toward the end of this year, France will host the 21st United Nations climate conference. The aim? To reach a universal agreement that will limit the rise in average global temperatures to 2 degrees Celsius, compared to the pre-industrial period, by the end of the century. There is real hope for success, but it is an enormous task.

As the president of the conference, known as COP21, my role will be to facilitate an ambitious compromise between 195 states (196 parties when we include the European Union). In the negotiations, the differences among countries that are at distinct stages of development necessitate differences of approach. Yet strong common interests unite us. One example is the impact of climate change on our shared security.

The climate has always posed threats to security. Climate disruption upsets the full range of economic and social equilibrium — and it therefore threatens countries’ internal security.

In France, for example, historians have shown that disastrous weather in 1788 caused the food crisis that contributed to the outbreak of the French Revolution. More recently, in 2005, Hurricane Katrina wreaked havoc that led to disturbances in civil order and the deployment of the army on American soil.

Beyond borders, climate change can stoke international conflict over the control of vital and increasingly scarce resources — particularly water. Examples of this include the tensions among Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia over the Nile and its tributaries, between Israel and its neighbors over the Jordan River basin, and among Turkey, Syria and Iraq over the Euphrates.

Another source of insecurity is the massive displacement of people. By making certain areas uninhabitable, droughts and rising water levels uproot entire populations. They often find refuge in regions that are already overpopulated, creating or exacerbating tensions among countries or groups.

When uprooted, such populations can fall prey to radical movements. This is what happened in the Sahel in the late 1970s, when extreme droughts contributed to the exodus of many Tuaregs toward Libya, many of whom then enrolled in Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi’s Islamic Legion. A trace of this was found in the destabilization of northern Mali that led to France’s military intervention in 2013.

Threats to peace and security will increase in both number and intensity if the rise in temperatures exceeds 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) — and this rise will happen if we fail to act or take insufficient action. A climate-disrupted planet would be an unstable one.

There is nothing abstract about these risks. In Egypt, an increase of 50 centimeters, or almost 20 inches, in the sea level would cause millions of people to flee the Nile Delta, with security consequences for the entire region. Increased desertification of unstable areas, such as the Sahel, would foster the growth of criminal networks and armed terrorist groups, which are already thriving there.

Similarly, climate disruption would exacerbate the threats that are currently concentrated in regions from Niger to the Persian Gulf. This “arc of crisis” is also an “arc of drought.”

These facts should lead us to two conclusions. First, it is essential to limit global warming to below 2 degrees Celsius. Second, we need to reduce the exposure of people to the damage caused by climate disruption — in particular, by protecting coastlines from rising water levels and by organizing more effective management of water in dry areas. In the language of international negotiations, this is called adaptation, a topic that has not always received the attention it deserves. Adaptation must be a central focus of the agreement that is to be reached at the end of 2015.

The massive use of fossil fuels — coal, oil, gas — has accelerated conflicts ever since they have been central to our economies. Fossil fuel deposits are very unevenly distributed, leading to dependency, jealousy and often violent competition. It should not be forgotten that control of coal resources on both sides of the Rhine was a core issue in the conflicts between France and Germany. It is thanks to the European Coal and Steel Community and to the reduced dependence on coal that these rivalries have disappeared.

Today, at the very gates of Europe, control of natural gas supply routes is also at the center of conflicts that threaten to destabilize our Continent, as demonstrated by the “gas war” between Russia and Ukraine in 2009. In Asia, exploitation of the hydrocarbon-rich seabed and the securing of supply routes for these resources contribute much to the tensions between China and Japan.

We need a “global clean energy community” to free us from dependence on fossil fuels and the related risks of conflict. Reducing carbon intensity improves security — energy security and security in general — as it equalizes access to energy. A country that develops its own solar- or wind-energy production takes nothing from anyone: The light and wind that it uses are not only renewable; they belong to all. We should not underestimate the major contribution this could make to peace and security.

It follows that it is essential for COP21 to provide — first and foremost to developing countries — the practical means to increase access to energy, while reducing the carbon intensity of economies. This would decrease considerably the risk of fossil fuels becoming a cause of conflict in the coming decades.

Helping countries reduce their exposure to climate damage, and democratizing energy access while reducing carbon intensity are two imperatives for our fundamental security needs. Aligning all of our interests around them should allow us to reach a universal agreement. If we want to achieve this objective — and doing so is essential for humanity — we will need everyone to contribute.

Laurent Fabius is France’s minister of foreign affairs and international development and the president of the United Nations conference on climate change scheduled for later this year.


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