Just a little over 40 years ago, the Aral Sea was a blue spot on every geographic map, representing the fourth largest inland sea in the world. But cotton was needed throughout Russia, and human interference, fertilizers and pollution did the rest. Today, that blue spot and the life of what was once a coastal fishermen’s town are a legend for the new generations that live in Muynak, a village that is now surrounded by desert, with hardly any resources whatsoever.
Lurking behind many ecological and humanitarian tragedies are man’s doing and irresponsible development. Although there may be plenty of cotton today, the Aral Sea region is now one of the most contaminated places on the planet; the fishing industry has vanished and arable land is in short supply. In addition to the problems resulting directly from climate change, we now have to factor in the indirect effects climate change entails in terms of the security and stability of populations, countries and regions.
Climate change is a multiplier of threat, tension and instability. The progressive decline in arable soil, as well as water scarcity, food shortage, floods and droughts intensify situations that are already extreme by nature, adding fuel to some conflicts and sparking many others. In 2007, the United Nations had already estimated that of all its appeals for urgent humanitarian aid, only one of them was unrelated to climate change.
One fifth of the world’s population lives in coastal zones. Higher sea level and the rise in the number of natural catastrophes, furthermore, pose a social and economic threat to these regions. The eastern coasts of China and India, the Caribbean and Central America would be particularly affected. Increased occurrences of humanitarian catastrophes and crises would give rise to heavy pressure on countries donating humanitarian assistance and weaken response capability in carrying out emergency operations.
Receding coastlines and submergence of major coastal plains can bring about significant changes to the world geopolitical map. The United Nations predicts that by 2020 millions of migrations will have occurred due to environmental causes. Such migrations will put debilitated nations and those in different phases of disintegration to the test when attempting to augment their capacity to deal with new social and geographical challenges. A nation’s inability to address the new needs of its population may unleash strife among ethnic and religious groups and lead to processes of political radicalization.
Doing nothing to change the current situation with respect to climate change could entail a cost of up to 20 % of world GDP per year, whereas taking action to mitigate the effects of climate change could mean spending just 1 %. Furthermore, apart from economic costs and the resulting costs in terms of human security, many of the problems related to the impact of climate change clearly have global consequences and require international action and engagement.
We are so highly interconnected and interdependent in matters of international politics that, as meteorologist Edward Lorenz would say, the flapping of a butterfly’s wings in one part of the world can have unimaginable consequences in the opposite part of our planet. To give an example, fulfillment of many of the goals of the United Nations favoring development would be in a position of considerable risk given that climate change, if left unmitigated, could render years of effort in the struggle for progress useless.
The impact of climate change is no longer an issue to be dealt with tomorrow. Climate models are undergoing transformations and temperature changes are noticeable around the world. The first step we need to take is to increase our knowledge and evaluate our capabilities for dealing with the consequences of climate change. Investment in impact attenuation to prevent or mitigate these situations and the pursuit of strategies to adapt to the unavoidable should be guided by national, regional or global preventive security policy. Climate change is already a key component of international relations and will continue to gain ever-increasing importance, encompassing its security-related dimension as well, in the coming years. Acknowledging this reality is essential to drawing up present and future maps of political relations that are consistent with a common underlying thread and the protection of our common future.
Legend tells that the Aral Sea has dried up three times and that it has reemerged three times. Taking action to promote sustainable development through the pursuit of clean and environmentally-friendly means of achieving progress is the only alternative for mitigating the global risks of climate change and advocating for climate security. It is indeed the only way for us to someday make it possible for Muynak to once again see the break of waves of the Aral Sea.