From Climate Change to Collapsed States

Syed Zain Al-Mahmood
Thursday, May 4th, 2017

Gen (retd) Muniruzzaman speaks at a UNSC meeting


Major General A N M Muniruzzaman, ndc, psc (Retd), President of the security think-tank Bangladesh Institute of Peace and Security Studies, was invited to give a briefing at a consultative meeting of the UN Security Council at the UN headquarters in New York recently. General Muniruzzaman briefed the Security Council on sea level rise and its security implications. The meeting was attended by all members of the Security Council including the P5 members and invited member states.


He spoke to Syed Zain Al-Mahmood about how global warming is threatening global security.


You were invited to this UNSC meeting in your capacity as the current Chairman of the Global Military Advisory Council on Climate Change (GMACCC). What did you say to the UNSC?


I gave a briefing by invitation at a consultative meeting of the UN Security Council on 10 April. The focus was on emerging threats to security from climate change, especially risks from sea level rise to global peace and stability.


It is evident from scientific data that the sea level is rising faster than any time in history: the sea rose eight inches since 1880 and is expected to rise between 11 inches to 38 inches by 2100. Scientists fear that if the Greenland ice sheet is lost, the sea level could rise up to 23 feet with catastrophic consequences. The window to prevent this catastrophe is small and it is closing.


What would be the nature of the threat to nation states from sea level rise?


Island states like the Maldives and Papua New Guinea would disappear. Many other countries, such as Bangladesh, would lose a significant part of their territory.


Sea level rise will cause great food insecurity as agricultural land in the coastal areas will become unfit for cultivation due to salinity.


We have to remember that eight out 10 mega cities in the world are in coastal areas and may be partially lost due to sea level rise. Some world financial centers are in coastal cities like Shanghai, Mumbai, and New York, so if those cities are left partly uninhabitable, that would be a significant shock to the international financial system. There would be plenty of other shocks as well.


There would be a substantial threat to infrastructure such as energy and transportation?


Precisely. Sea level rise will negatively impact energy infrastructure, as it will destroy many energy grids including hydel plants and nuclear power plants.


Numerous major international ports are vulnerable to sea level rise with potential impacts on global trade and supply. Military bases and installations in coastal areas are likely to be negatively impacted by sea level rise.


Our water supply will be contaminated by salt, both in our rivers and our aquifers.


How will communities deal with displacement?


We know that 40% – 45% of the global population lives within a hundred kilometers of the coast. In other words, half of the global population will be affected by sea level rise. Their livelihood will be severely affected. There will be internal displacement as well as crossborder migration. There will be tensions between the host community and the migrants over scarce resources. States will be unable to provide services and could collapse.


These tensions can obviously lead to direct security threats.


Yes, food insecure people can easily become lawless and turn to crime and violence. There could be far-reaching implications to food and resource insecurity that we can’t fully fathom. If we look at some recent examples, just before the Arab Spring there was drought in Russia which led to Moscow banning wheat export. This in turn raised the price of food in the Middle East which contributed to the riots in Tunisia.


In Syria there was a four-year drought before the civil war started. The drought led to internal displacement which fed civil unrest.


Would you say there is a high risk of conventional warfare in such a scenario?


States could be forced to fight conventional wars over precious resources. We see in Asia near-conflict situations and tensions over water. For example, tensions are running high between India and Pakistan over the Indus river treaty which India has threatened to cancel. Pakistan has said that would amount to a declaration of war. There are similar tensions between India and China over shared rivers.


These countries are also nuclear armed so we can’t really tell where the situation will escalate.


Could terrorists take advantage of such anarchy?


Internally displaced people could be vulnerable to exploitation by armed groups. Many of the countries most affected by global warming also typically have weak governance and fragile institutions. So there is a real danger civil unrest, state collapse and internal anarchy.

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