At the UN, Climate Change & Security Must Be Tackled Together

People wade through water during floods in the Kurigram district of Bangladesh. Credit: UNICEF/G.M.B. Akash

By Beatrice Mosello and Adam Day
NEW YORK, Jul 13 2021 – Could the next wars be triggered by climate change?

Until recently, the question might have seemed like science fiction, but now it is very real. Ethiopia and Egypt are locked in an upward spiral of tensions over the Nile, as a combination of dams and shifting weather patterns pose existential risks to both countries.

In the Sahel region, climate-driven changes in pastoralist patterns have contributed to a massive spike in conflicts, while oscillations in the size of Lake Chad are influencing recruitment into the terrorist group Boko Haram.

From coral bleaching driving Caribbean fishing communities into organized crime to the drought that preceded the Syria war, a large and growing evidence base points to the fact that climate change is a real factor in today’s and tomorrow’s violent conflicts.

How can the UN – an organization established to prevent the kind of wars witnessed in the first half of the twentieth century – reshape itself to address the growing security risks posed by climate change?

The UN needs to undergo three related shifts to tackle climate security: (1) from sectors to systems, (2) from exclusivity to inclusivity, and (3) from sovereign rights to global public goods.

Taken together, these shifts will require the UN as an organization to transform from an exclusive club of powerful States making decisions behind closed doors into a hub that generates leverage by connecting different actors at local, national, regional, and global levels.

Systems not sectors

The UN system is structured as a series of loosely affiliated sectors, with bespoke agencies focused on single issues like refugees, food, health, migration, and the environment.

While there have been meaningful efforts to bring those actors together around common objectives – not least the Sustainable Development Goals and universal human rights – in practice the UN continues to operate largely on the basis of sectoral approaches to risks.

As a result, information and programming tends to be linked to a single agency’s mandate, driven by siloed sources of information.

But climate change cuts across these issues, exacerbating underlying socio-economic tensions and making indirect contributions to the risk of conflict. Erratic rainfall causes crop failure, leading to increased tensions over natural resources.

Extreme weather destroys arable land and displaces entire communities, driving conflicts over land and contributing to unplanned urbanization.

The pervasive and interdependent ways in which climate change is driving security risks should galvanize a shift towards a systemic mindset across the UN.

This means producing cross-cutting analysis that brings together disparate sources of information, as well as establishing effective ways to do multi-scalar risk analysis in which local, national, regional, and global trends are examined together. In short, it means thinking in terms of complex systems, rather than separate sectors.

Inclusivity not exclusivity

When responding to climate change, national governments are highly susceptible to various forms of maladaptation that may increase rather than decrease conflict risks. Facing massive land loss due to extreme weather, a government may reclaim land from the sea (e.g. in Bangladesh), or invest in new agricultural sectors (e.g. in Nigeria), without considering how these actions might create new competition over land, disrupt existing livelihoods, or contribute to large-scale demographic shifts.

And there is clear evidence that the UN’s support to State-led development and peacebuilding programming is highly susceptible to elite capture, potentially contributing to precisely the kind of inequalities that are a root cause of violent conflict.

If the UN is to tackle the growing climate-security challenge, it must place inclusivity (i.e. providing equal access to opportunities and resources for people who might otherwise be excluded or marginalized), at the heart of its work.

There are good examples of this, as in the ways in which UN peacebuilding has conditioned its support on gender inclusivity. The UN should place clear conditions on international support, by demanding that national governments account for potential risks to marginalized communities, clearly track whether funds are being captured by a small elite, and ensure that their national programming is inclusive.

Global public goods not sovereign-owned commodities

Despite clear evidence that our carbon-driven consumption is unsustainable, we still treat the environment as a commodity: something to be exploited for the benefit of human societies.

The commodification of the environment not only poses existential risks for humanity, but also drives conflict, as States and societies compete to own increasingly scarce natural resources, or use them in a way that negatively affects others.

The UN has to become an advocate for a shift towards treating the environment as both a global public good and an essential aspect of our peace and security architecture. As the COVID-19 pandemic response acutely demonstrated, collective responses to shared threats are not only the most effective approach, they are often the difference between large-scale life and death.

Last year, the UN General Assembly passed a resolution on our Common Agenda that committed to “transformative measures” to address climate change. To deliver on the commitment, the transformation needs to include a repositioning of the environment within the multilateral system.

This can take many shapes. Ecuador has given the environment legal personality, allowing for claims to be brought on its behalf for environmental destruction.

In May, a court ruled that a Royal Dutch Petroleum (the world’s ninth biggest emitter) was bound by the provisions of the Paris Agreement to reduce global emissions by 45%, demonstrating that our obligations to the Earth can have legal effect.

The Biden Administration has placed climate change within its national security strategy, giving real weight and clear priority to the links between climate and security. And there are interesting and dynamic proposals for transforming the UN’s Trusteeship Council into a guardian for the environment, or creating a Commissioner for Future Generations tasked with protecting the environment for the coming 100 years.

Regardless of what path is chosen, the UN should play a growing role in advocating for the environment to be exempt from the Westphalian mindset of sovereign ownership, pushing instead for a collective approach to our climate.

Just as, 75 years ago, the founders of the UN came together to build a multilateral system based on collective security responses, today the UN should reconstitute its institutions toward collective climate-security action.

Climate change is already bringing nightmarish science fiction scenarios into reality; only radical changes in our conceptions of collective action will help us wake up.

Beatrice Mosello is Senior Advisor at adelphi, the German think tank and organizer of the influential Climate Diplomacy project and Senior Fellow at the UN University Centre for Policy Research (UNU-COR); Adam Day is Director of Programmes at UNU-CPR.


!function(d,s,id){var js,fjs=d.getElementsByTagName(s)[0],p=/^http:/.test(d.location)?’http’:’https’;if(!d.getElementById(id)){js=d.createElement(s);;js.src=p+’://’;fjs.parentNode.insertBefore(js,fjs);}}(document, ‘script’, ‘twitter-wjs’);  

Papua New Guinea Battles COVID-19 and Health Workers’ Vaccine Scepticism

Papua New Guinea (PNG), like many other Pacific Island countries, successfully held COVID-19 at bay last year, aided by early shutting of national borders. However, by March this year, the pandemic was surging in the most populous Pacific Island nation, and by July, it had reported 17,282 cases of the virus and 175 fatalities.

Logistic and communication challenges to rolling out the COVID-19 vaccine are immense in the rural and remote highlands region of Papua New Guinea. Credit: Catherine Wilson

By Catherine Wilson
CANBERRA, Australia , Jul 13 2021 – Papua New Guinea (PNG), like many other Pacific Island countries, successfully held COVID-19 at bay last year, aided by early shutting of national borders. However, by March this year, the pandemic was surging in the most populous Pacific Island nation, and by July, it had reported 17,282 cases of the virus and 175 fatalities.

PNG has a steep battle against the virus ahead, made more problematic by a high rate of refusal by health workers to take the vaccine. PNG’s Health Minister, Jelta Wong, stressed in an interview with Australia’s Lowy Institute for International Policy in April that “the vaccine will be the key to containing COVID-19 in our country.”

But in Eastern Highlands Province in the country’s rural interior, Dr Max Manape, the province’s Director of Public Health, told IPS that “in our province, there is a huge COVID-19 hesitancy due to so much negativity of COVID-19 vaccinations in social media and we are finding it very hard to convince our fellow frontline workers, including health workers.” By early July, only 23.3 percent of all health and essential workers in the province were vaccinated, including 329 health workers.

The situation is causing wider community concern. “Health workers are the frontline and first responders in this pandemic, and their refusal places them at a greater risk to contract the virus. This will lead to the feared collapse of our struggling health system, and the roll-on effect of other deaths from preventable diseases and maternal health issues created by a lack of manpower,” a spokesperson for the PNG National Council of Women told IPS.

In April, the country was supplied with 132,000 doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine, the first batch of a total supply of 588,000 doses by COVAX, the global alliance of organizations, including the World Health Organization (WHO), working to achieve equitable vaccine access. The Australian Government also supplied eight thousand doses. The national vaccination rollout began in early May, with priority given to frontline responders.

Yet progress has been very slow. By this month, only 59,125 people in a national population of about 9 million had been vaccinated, including 7,844 health workers. The largest group of healthcare recipients, about 1,150, were located in the capital, Port Moresby.

PNG’s Health Minister says there are numerous challenges to achieving widespread inoculation. “In this country, we’ve never had an adult vaccine go out, we’ve always had the children’s ones, and that has worked really well. It is going to be a real challenge for us to do this vaccination rollout…The biggest thing will be education. Our people need to be educated enough to know that this vaccine will help them in the future,” Wong said.

More than 80 percent of people in PNG live in rural and remote areas where logistic and communication challenges are the greatest. Here scepticism of the vaccine is high. Only 12 percent of all health and essential workers in remote Enga Province in the northwestern highlands region have been vaccinated. “The uptake of the vaccine is very poor in Enga Province. Frontline health workers at the hospital have mostly refused the vaccine,” Dr David Mills, Director of Rural Health and Training at Kompiam District Hospital in the province, told IPS.

However, it’s a nationwide issue. PNG’s newspaper, The National, conducted a public online survey last month, reporting that 77 percent of respondents did not want the vaccine. In May, a survey of students at the University of Papua New Guinea by the Crawford School of Public Policy at the Australian National University, Canberra, revealed a high level of indecision among respondents. Only 6 percent said they would accept the vaccine, 46 percent had not decided either way, while 48 percent planned to refuse it.

Doctors and health care leaders claim that major reasons for the low uptake are cultural and religious opposition, misinformation and conspiracy theories being touted on social media. And lack of public trust in the country’s health system, which, for decades, has struggled with an insufficient workforce, very poor infrastructure, and resources.

However, Dr Mills said that the government was very active in responding to conspiracy theories with facts and authoritative health information. “There is plenty of information, too much information. It’s a blizzard of information but sorting it out is the hard part. Keep in mind that there is a high level of mistrust and scepticism generally in this society. People don’t take anything at face value. It’s fertile soil for believing alternative hypotheses,” he said.

Confusion was one of the biggest reasons for indecision among respondents to the Australian National University’s survey. And they were more likely to trust the information provided by local Christian leaders (32 percent), followed by family and friends (31 percent) and the WHO (29 percent). In contrast, faith in the government as a source of information was negative (-8) percent, leading to the study’s conclusion that ‘distrust of institutions of authority and vaccine hesitance goes together.’

Despite having an economy based on natural and mineral resource wealth, PNG has a relatively low human development ranking of 155 out of 189 countries and territories, and basic service delivery beyond urban centres, hindered by lack of investment and corruption, has been deficient for decades. There are 0.5 physicians and 5.3 nurses per 10,000 people in the country, according to the WHO.

Distrust of the vaccine by healthcare staff has consequences. “High vaccine refusal amongst health workers, particularly nurses, confuses the general public and fosters vaccine scepticism. And unvaccinated health workers can be a danger to the very vulnerable patients that we have as inpatients in hospitals,” Professor Glen Mola, Head of Reproductive Health, Obstetrics and Gynaecology at the School of Medicine and Health Services, University of Papua New Guinea in Port Moresby, told IPS.

Although uptake by health staff in the capital could change following a new ruling at the Port Moresby General Hospital. “Recently, the hospital board approved a policy of the hospital management that any new health workers, contract renewals and trainees, like interns and medical students, must be vaccinated before they can enter the clinical care areas of the hospital,” Professor Mola said.

However, in the highlands, Dr Mills said the challenges were too great for vaccinating everyone. “For the broader population, vaccination was never going to be the way out (of the pandemic). The uptake is too small, the delivery too small, and delivery mechanisms too weak. We will get to herd immunity the hard way, which is by getting most people infected,” he claimed.

Nevertheless, in June, further funding of US$30 million was approved by the World Bank to boost PNG’s COVID-19 inoculation program, where it is now being offered to all citizens aged 18 years and over.


!function(d,s,id){var js,fjs=d.getElementsByTagName(s)[0],p=/^http:/.test(d.location)?’http’:’https’;if(!d.getElementById(id)){js=d.createElement(s);;js.src=p+’://’;fjs.parentNode.insertBefore(js,fjs);}}(document, ‘script’, ‘twitter-wjs’);