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The Warming War

By Kirsten Davies

There is a legal basis for the United Nations Security Council to declare climate change as a threat to international peace and security.

The drought in Syria has pushed it into war. Credit: Christiaan Triebert

There have been metaphoric wars throughout recent history, such as the Cold War, the War on Terror and the War on Drugs. We are now in the era of the Warming War as the impacts of greenhouse gases threaten the future of human life on Earth. The concept of a Warming War moves beyond a metaphor as climate science continues to affirm the dangers and warns of its catastrophic impacts in the absence of urgent action.

Of particular concern are vulnerable states and communities, including small island developing states whose territorial integrity and sovereignty are directly challenged by the impacts of climate change. This could therefore be interpreted as a breach of international laws prohibiting acts of aggression and extraterritoriality.

There is already evidence of the capacity of climate change to seize territory, such as in Pacific Island nations where in­undation of the ocean is presenting significant challenges. It’s predicted that there will be 150 million climate change refugees this century in the Asian region alone, destabilising many people and raising questions around their citizenship.

To which nation do people belong if their “home” state is no longer viable? Which nation will provide the resources to sustain stateless peoples? Will these people be provided for under existing migration laws and programs?

The impacts of climate change can also act as a “threat multiplier”, contributing to the destabilisation of governments and communities by exacerbating existing vulnerabilities. For example, the drought in Syria has pushed it over a tipping point into war.

To date, these threats have largely been approached through diplomacy, negotiation and human rights. These processes are too slow, particularly for the most vulnerable people and places, such as small island developing states and their citizens. Voluntary commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions are politically vulnerable, as we saw with the Trump Administration’s withdrawal of the USA from the Paris Agreement. Voluntary commitments such as the Paris Agreement should be supported and endorsed. However, climate change is too big a problem, and the actions required are too immediate to rely largely on voluntary actions.

It is critical now to establish non-voluntary, or enforceable, international legislation. Across the world we are now witnessing a changing legal landscape as courts are increasingly hearing cases focused on the damages caused by the changing climate that affects the lives of current and future generations.

However, most instruments of international environmental law were drafted before the development of our understanding of the implications of global warming, so it is understandable that they are not “fit for purpose”. One exception is the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, yet this convention does not include an enforcement mechanism – such as a tribunal – and would benefit from one. By contrast, the rulings of The International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea are final and binding under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

Another legal option is to recognise global warming as a threat to peace and security, thus falling within the jurisdiction of the United Nations Security Council. This would enable states to seek reparations through the International Court of Justice. Such a position could enlist international law’s ever-evolving definition of a “threat” to declare the impacts of climate change as a threat to peace, security and sovereignty. The Ebola crisis provided such a precedent, with the United Nations Security Council declaring it a threat to peace and security in 2014. This provides the evidence that “security threats” don’t necessarily need to be restricted to situations involving armed conflict.

Approaching climate change as a national and international security issue promises to create new opportunities for immediate action to limit the emissions of greenhouse gases and support reparations and adaptation measures for vulnerable nations. This article is not proposing this as the only legal route, rather one of a suite of approaches.

War implies a critical threat requiring urgent responses. The capacity of wartime rhetoric has, throughout history, drawn people together against a common enemy and encouraged them to act. The opposite of war is peace, which may be maintained by avoiding threats to security. The Warming War concept creates more opportunities for action to protect people and nature by reframing climate change as a national and international security issue.


Kirsten Davies is a senior lecturer in Macquarie University’s Law School.