07/24/2011 04:41 pm ET Updated Sep 23, 2011

Needed: A UN Special Representative on Climate Change and Security

On Wednesday, the United Nations Security Council concluded its open debate with a Presidential Statement that formally recognized the link between climate change and the maintenance of international peace and security.

The move lays a foundation for future work on the issue and demonstrates growing concern about the potential for climate change to exacerbate existing conflicts and spark new ones as people are increasingly forced to compete for scarce resources, like food, water, and habitable land.

The outcome clearly marks a shift in the way we think about the realities of life in a warming world, but there is still disagreement over what concrete action the Security Council should now take.

As a representative of the countries who led this initiative, I would like to elaborate on why we are so serious about this issue and on the details of our proposal.

For Pacific island nations, the security implications of climate change are not hypothetical. Right now, prolonged droughts are depleting our limited fresh water supplies and killing our crops; ocean acidification is degrading the coral reefs and fisheries many of us depend on for food and survival; and coastal flooding is ruining our agricultural land.

What's worse, sea level rise has already forced communities in Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands to evacuate their homes for higher ground, while Tuvalu, Kiribati, and the Marshall Islands could vanish entirely by the end of the century.

The changes have heightened competition for resources in a region where they are scarce even in the best of times and could foreshadow life in a world with 10 billion mouths to feed and not enough food and water to go around.

In fact, the past few years alone have witnessed unprecedented severe weather events on nearly every continent, which have displaced millions and triggered widespread food shortages. Agricultural scientists estimate that grain yields drop by 10 percent for each degree the temperature rises above optimum growing conditions. These impacts and others could lead to as many as 200 million climate refugees worldwide by 2050, according to the International Organization for Migration.

Unfortunately, there is already so much greenhouse gas pollution in the atmosphere that even if we stopped all emissions today, these impacts would still be with us tomorrow and for decades to come. We must therefore prepare. At its core, Security Council involvement in climate change is about planning for the risks that in all likelihood lie just around the corner.

The Presidential Statement is an important first step in meeting these challenges. We must now go further and appoint a United Nations special representative on climate change and security.

Sooner or later, the Security Council will be called upon to deal with a conflict in the aftermath of another catastrophic flood or drought or famine. A special representative would not only help anticipate such a challenge before it occurs, but also draw on the wisdom of UN members, particularly from the impacted regions, to make the Council's response more effective. We also need to assess the capacity of the UN system to respond to a crisis of this magnitude.

Now let me tell you what our proposal is not about. It is not about encroaching on the responsibilities of the UNFCCC, which is and must remain the primary forum for negotiating an agreement capable of averting the worst impacts of climate change. If anything, these security threats should inspire countries, particularly the biggest emitters, to redouble efforts to establish a climate treaty. Nor is it about mobilizing blue helmets to stop emissions at their source, as some have feared.

As United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said at the Security Council debate:

The members of this Council bear a unique responsibility to mobilize national and international action to confront the very real threat of climate change and the specific threats to international peace and security which derive from it.

Climate change has transformed the world we live in: It is as big a threat to peace and security as nuclear proliferation or global terrorism. It brings hunger and disease, drought and deluge; in its wake will come the spread of deserts and a tide of refugees.

A failure by the Security Council to respond to this manifest challenge risks rendering the body irrelevant.