UNITED NATIONS – During the first U.N. Security Council debate on climate change, Britain argued that global conflicts are ignited over the issue, while developing nations said the topic didn't belong on the council's agenda.
British Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett said that it was a "security imperative" to tackle the issue because it can ignite conflicts and threatens global peace.
But critics argued that the council — charged with maintaining international peace and security — should leave the issue to other U.N. organs.
"The Security Council is the forum to discuss issues that threaten the peace and security of the international community. What makes wars start? Fights over water. Changing patterns of rainfall. Fights over food production, land use," Beckett said. "There are few greater potential threats to our economies too ... but also to peace and security itself."
But the two major groups representing developing countries — the Non-Aligned Movement and the Group of 77 — wrote separate letters accusing the Security Council of "ever-increasing encroachment" on the role and responsibility of other U.N. organs.
Climate change and energy are issues for the General Assembly, where all 192 U.N. member states are represented, and the Economic and Social Council, not the Security Council, they said.
Pakistan's Deputy Ambassador Farukh Amil, whose country heads the Group of 77, which represents 132 mainly developing countries and China, told the council that its debate not only "infringes" on the authority of other U.N. organs but "compromises the rights of the general membership of the United Nations."
Russia's U.N. Ambassador Vitaly Churkin also said the climate change issue didn't belong in the Security Council.
Acting U.S. ambassador Alejandro Wolff sidestepped the issue, citing instead U.S. programs to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, which are blamed for global warming, and improve the environment.
"The most effective way to bolster security and stability is to increase the capacity of states to govern effectively," Wolff said. "States that can govern effectively can anticipate and manage change."
Britain's U.N. Ambassador Emyr Jones Parry said after the debate that the council wasn't going to usurp power from elsewhere in the U.N., but he did say the debate was meant to send a message to other U.N. organs that they need to act.
"The Security Council is not going to act. Action rests elsewhere quite properly," he said. "The Security Council is sending a simple warning, which is unless you guys act ... we will face consequences that people have not been thinking about because they will affect people's security."
Beckett, who spent five years as Britain's negotiator on climate change, said she understood the reservations.
"I'm the last person to want to undermine the important work that those bodies do," she said, "but this is an issue that threatens the peace and security of the whole planet, and the Security Council has to be the right place to debate it, and clearly if 52 countries wish to speak, that isn't just a view held by the United Kingdom."
By the time the daylong meeting ended early Tuesday evening, a total of 55 countries spoke, including three late additions. The council did not adopt a statement or resolution.
Beckett said Britain was following the precedent of the first Security Council debate on another important global issue — HIV/ AIDS in 2000.
"We want to see the same thing happen with climate change, that it comes from the fringes into the mainstream," she said.
Over the past few years, she said, the threat from climate change has grown and its impact goes far beyond the environment "to the very heart of the security agenda."
She cited flooding, disease and famine leading to unprecedented migration; drought and crop failure intensifying competition for food, water and energy; and the potential for economic disruption on a scale not seen since World War II.
On Monday, Beckett noted, top U.S. retired admirals and generals warned in a new report that climate change is a "threat multiplier for instability."
She said Uganda's President Yoweri Museveni, whose economy depends on hydropower from a reservoir that is already depleted by drought, has called climate change "an act of aggression by the rich against the poor."
"He is one of the first leaders to see this problem in security terms," Beckett said. "He will not be the last."