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UN refugee agency chief warns of security, displacement threats from climate change

© UNHCR/J.-M.Ferre. High Commissioner Guterres at the opening of the annual Executive Committee meeting.

On 23 November, UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres warned the UN Security Council of the growing threat to international peace and security posed by climate change and its interaction with other mass displacement factors.

Guterres said climate change was fuelling both the scale and complexity of global displacement. He also cautioned against viewing climate change in isolation from other global megatrends such as population growth, urbanization, and growing food, water and energy insecurity. 

"There is little value in posing the simplistic question, how many people are going to be displaced by climate change?" he said. "Instead, we should be addressing the more complex issue of the way in which global warming, rising sea levels, changing weather patterns and other manifestations of climate change are interacting with, and reinforcing, other global imbalances, so as to produce some very powerful drivers of instability, conflict and displacement."

Guterres listed declining farming possibilities in developing countries and competition for scarce resources, such as water and agricultural land, as potential causes of both displacement and conflict. He also spoke of risks to citizenship among people forced to abandon small island states due to rising sea levels, and the increasing evidence of a relationship between climate change and flooding and other natural disasters which by one estimate displaced over 40 million people in 2010. 

"The process of climate change and its role in reinforcing other global imbalances constitutes an important threat to peace and security," he said. In a world that is becoming smaller and smaller, and which for the first time is facing physical limits to economic growth, that threat can only grow.

Guterres called for steps to be taken to limit the extent to which climate change acts as a driver of conflict and displacement. He said it was imperative for the international community to establish a support programme to help poorer countries adapt and cope. And he urged the international community to formulate and adopt a set of principles to help people forced to leave their country as a result of catastrophic environmental events, but who may not otherwise meet the requirements necessary to be recognized under international law as refugees.

"Providing such support is a humanitarian imperative. But it is also our common interest," Guterres said. "If climate change goes unchecked, and if we fail to find sustainable solutions for displaced populations, we will be creating the conditions in which further breaches of international peace and security are certain to take place."