Arms Trade Treaty circles climate change agenda

Last Thursday a conference summoned by the UN General Assembly failed to approve a draft Treaty on the threat to global security posed by the arms trade. A week earlier the UN Security Council refused to hold a formal debate on the threat to global security posed by climate change.

Adopting similar language to record these two sorry outcomes is my lazy device to suggest that climate change and the arms trade have more relevance to each other than meets the eye. If only the disparate participants in New York had made the connection, we might have had more to cheer over the weekend.

I fear that climate change is now so far advanced that we must begin to think of the Arms Trade Treaty as a tool of climate adaptation, alongside drought-resistant seeds and sea walls. Or maybe it belongs in the category of “beyond adaptation”, alongside disaster risk insurance and litigation for loss and damage.

If this sounds far-fetched, remember that recent months have seen a steady flow of published research concluding that climate change is a serious threat to global peace and security. Preventing arms falling into unsuitable hands makes complete sense in that context, quite apart from the more familiar concerns identified in the draft Treaty.

Whether by chance or design, the latest example of this research genre was published to coincide with the arms trade negotiations. Preliminary findings of a major survey by the American Security Project – an influential New York think tank – concluded that: “the governments and militaries of an overwhelming majority of countries – at least 110 – have identified climate change as a threat to their secu­rity.”

Last week also saw a conference at Oxford University’s Centre for the Study of African Economies at which the keynote speaker tackled the subject of Conflict, Climate and African Development. Edward Miguel of University of California, Berkeley, presented wide-ranging evidence of a close correlation between rising temperature and conflict.

This angle of research, often described as the securitisation of climate change,  comes in the wake of The Arab Spring and Climate Change, a searching series of essays published in February by the Center for American Progress.

They conclude that, whilst there is no direct link between the topics of their title, it is not difficult to trace paths between the political drama and tensions provoked by global warming. For example, drought in China in 2010/11 had a severe impact on global wheat supplies on which Egypt depends for its food security.

As Anne-Marie Slaughter explains in a Preface: “this concept of a “threat multiplier” is a helpful way to think about climate change and security more broadly.” The arms trade is also a threat multiplier in the context of international security.

There are mixed feelings about the prospect of the securitisation of climate change. Some welcome the injection of a greater sense of urgency. Others fear that security issues are traditionally resolved with little reference to the interests of poorer countries, the antithesis of principles underpinning the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.

The Arms Trade Treaty will have a second chance this week, as moves to put it to a General Assembly vote have been approved. Will its effectiveness become a measure tracked by researchers on climate and conflict?


The Global Security Defense Index on Climate Change from American Security Project

The Arab Spring and Climate Change from the Center for American Progress

Will Rising Temperatures Derail Africa’s Rise? from World Bank blogs