Climate change is biggest threat to security, Attenborough tells UN

Security council warned of risk to food, fresh water, temperature and ocean food chains

Climate change is "the biggest threat to security that modern humans have ever faced", celebrated naturalist David Attenborough warned on Tuesday, as he urged the United Nations Security Council to respond to the climate crisis.

Addressing a virtual high-level summit on climate and security at the security council in New York, the 94-year-old broadcaster told the 15-member body: “I don’t envy you the responsibility that this places on all of you.”

“If we continue on our current path, we will face the collapse of everything that gives us our security: food production, access to fresh water, habitable ambient temperature and ocean food chains.”

Britain, which holds the rotating presidency of the 15-member body this month, chaired the climate and security meeting, with prime minister Boris Johnson noting that climate change "is a geopolitical issue every bit as much as it is an environmental one. If we don't act now, when will we act? That's my question."

Britain is hosting November’s COP26 climate summit in Glasgow, where global leaders are hoping to make progress on the targets set out in the Paris climate accords in 2015.

John Kerry, the US special presidential envoy on climate, said that climate change was "exactly the kind of challenge the United Nations was created to address".

Future demagogues

He said that America was committed to reducing its own emissions, pointing to President Joe Biden’s decision to rejoin the Paris climate agreement on the first day of his presidency. America is on “an irreversible path to achieve net zero emissions by 2050 or even earlier”, he said, in a way that would not allow these measures to be reversed “by any demagogue in the future”.

He also sounded a note of optimism, stating that “it is still possible to stave off the very worst impact of the crisis”, though he said the world’s largest emitters – including the US – “bear a responsibility to the others”.

Mr Kerry also specifically congratulated Ireland on its appointment as co-chair, along with Niger, of the Informal Expert Group on Climate and Security at the security council.

But there was dissent from some members, with Russia's ambassador questioning if climate change was "the root cause" of global conflicts. "There are serious doubts about this," Vassily Nebenzi said.

Among the leaders of the 15 members of the security council who spoke at the event were French president Emmanuel Macron, Norway's prime minister Erna Solberg and Estonian prime minister Kaja Kallas.

‘Collective action’

Ireland, which holds one of the 10 rotating seats on the council for the 2021-2022 session, was represented by Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney, who highlighted the challenge posed by climate change to security issues – a key focus of the event.

“Climate change is the defining challenge of our generation,” he said. “Unaddressed, it will impact every part of our planet. No aspect of our societies will be untouched. We need urgent and collective action by all pillars of the multilateral system, including this council, if we are to meet this challenge.” He noted that Ireland would transition to a net zero emissions economy by 2050.

Meanwhile, the White House announced that Mr Biden and first lady Jill Biden will visit Houston, Texas, on Friday, in the wake of severe storms that left millions without electricity and water. The near-collapse of the state's energy grid in the face of the severe weather event has shone a light on the energy policy of America's most energy-independent state.

Mr Biden has vowed to put climate change at the heart of his presidency. The United States is hosting a climate summit on April 22nd, to mark Earth Day – the first major climate-focused event of the Biden administration.

Suzanne Lynch

Suzanne Lynch

Suzanne Lynch, a former Irish Times journalist, was Washington correspondent and, before that, Europe correspondent