24 August 2022

In the age of environmental decimation, is it time for a Climate Security Initiative?

There is no doubt the global climate is being driven to a cliff edge by anthropogenic behaviour. Toppling over will see seismic changes to life on earth that are virtually unimaginable for a species that has thrived in the relatively stable conditions of the last 12,000 years. The climatic breakdown will force humanity to face the prospect of worldwide and holistic insecurity, impacting everything from the intensity and frequency of extreme weather events to crop yields and water accessibility.    

Efforts to grasp this global problem have been underway since 1992, through the guise of international law. The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change established basic principles to prompt international cooperation. Following this, the Kyoto Protocol and Paris Agreement were agreed to implement a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. In 2021 the Glasgow Climate Pact saw the introduction of a rule book designed to facilitate closer cooperation and more tangible progress for the Paris Agreement. Yet, both Glasgow and the 2022 follow-up conference in Bonn saw the international community entrenched in the same historic straitjacket of self-interest and state recalcitrance.

The only metric that really matters is that international climate law has been unable to prompt significant emissions reduction. Something must change, and fast. We need a distinct policy shift at the international level, one that will centralise the insecurity attached to climate breakdown and dart around the intransigence of the international legal process.

Learning from the proliferation security initiative?

One way to achieve this lies in the creation of a Climate Security Initiative (CSI), which is an idea borrowed from the field of nuclear proliferation. The Proliferation Security Initiative is a set of principles drafted by a concerned few, and absent negotiation third-party states were given the option to sign up. Principally what this allowed was the creation of a regime intended to curb proliferation without multiple states arguing from nuanced perspectives entrenching the process, as typically happens during the creation of international law.

Drafted in a matter of months, the Proliferation Security Initiative created a global network that allowed signatories to utilise the resources of partner states to disrupt proliferation. Those that agreed to the initiative were obliged to share information with one another and allow those forces actively pursuing proliferators to use their ports and resources as necessary. The initiative provided a fast and direct mechanism in which to generate cooperation and although it only opened with 11 members, this number has now risen to 107. That’s a significant portion of the international community working to interdict proliferators, and while it is difficult to attribute an exact measure of success to the Proliferation Security Initiative, the USA has acknowledged its positive impact in certain high-profile cases, such as the interdiction of the ship BBC China that was found to be transporting nuclear centrifuge technology.

Making a climate security initiative work

The question becomes can this model of collaboration be transitioned to the climate arena? Certainly, the abstract benefits of speed and precision could be harnessed. The challenge would be to find a state willing to spearhead its design. The obvious candidates are unlikely to take this step. The USA although greener under Biden’s presidency is still not a climate leader. The UK, a one-time climate leader on the international stage is now consumed by a government of contradiction and environmental confusion. While the EU already maintains a climate policy of delicate compromise between its members. However, there is nothing to prevent a CSI from being led by an unlikely candidate with a reputation for greener thinking.

Perhaps a step away from the traditional hegemony of powerful states would even lend legitimacy to a CSI. New Zealand for instance, is a progressive nation that prioritises its environmental responsibilities. It also has the benefit of having maintained positive relations with much of the international community, likely aiding endeavours to encourage states to become members of a CSI, so long as its content remains appealing.

Complementing the Paris Agreement and drawing on the legitimacy that stems from its universal uptake, the CSI should target the gap between the 1.5°C ambition and the Nationally Determined Contribution documents that seek to attain it. Demanding its members introduce reduction targets that proportionately meet the 1.5°C objective would allow a CSI to do something international climate law has so far been unable to achieve. Setting dates and clearly defined targets would help quantify progress and highlight where we are getting things right and where improvement is required.

Moreover, by capitalising on a network of genuine cooperation through shared ambition, resources and technology could be more readily distributed, specifically between the developed and developing. Trade deals could be linked to the CSI, centralising aspects of economic growth that stem exclusively from greener endeavours. For example, those states that join the CSI could operate a free trade agreement on commodities that support the transition to a greener economy, removing tariffs and duties on those sustainably sourced products or technologies designed to facilitate less emissions. 

Key to the construction of a CSI, it must create a more binding set of climate ambitions and provide a network that members can utilise to support their attainment. Rigorous targets and clear pathways to achieve them will take us beyond international climate efforts so far witnessed. Moreover, it comes with the added vantage of drawing a distinction between those states taking appropriate climate action and those coasting under the radar of discretion that percolates through the Paris Agreement.   

While sounding aspirational, it must be reinforced that a CSI would not be compulsory, nor would it come with global pressure to join. It would therefore attract, at least to begin with, only those states already feeling climatic harm or those intent on transitioning to a carbon neutral economy. But if the incentives of joining are clear, its membership will grow. And for those that do not participate, a light is shined upon their recalcitrance, which is no bad thing considering the daily march of humanity towards the climatic cliff edge.


This article is written by Ash Murphy, a lecturer at the Manchester Metropolitan University.  It is meant to stimulate debate on ways to address climate-security through a multilateral arrangement. Feedback is welcome on Twitter @PlanSecu or by email at psi@clingendael.org
Photo credit: United Nations Photo/ Flickr