What can the Coronavirus response teach us about dealing with climate change?

13 Apr 2020

Can we learn any lessons from the COVID 19 response in order to handle similar existential problems facing the world - such as climate change

Coronavirus impact on climate change
A public health crisis of this magnitude is unprecedented in recent memory.

The world is facing a global crisis unlike any other since the Second World War. The current outbreak of novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV) has led to shocks in economic and labour markets. The whole of India, as also large parts of several other countries, are under complete or partial lockdown, causing disruption in economic activities at an unanticipated scale. A public health crisis of this magnitude is unprecedented in recent memory. However, it has galvanised governments and nations across the world to take urgent and immediate measures to contain the pandemic in the short term and finding ways to overcome the threat in the long term. Whether the measures succeed in the planned timeframe is yet to be seen, but the overwhelming international response is a cause for comfort.

Can we learn any lessons from the COVID 19 pandemic in order to handle similar existential problems affecting the globe? Experience from this pandemic leads one to believe that global threats of this scale and magnitude can be addressed if actions to be taken are mounted early and coordinated internationally. Is there scope for similar actions in case of climate-related adversities and devastations that qualify as equally serious global problems? There are calls for recognition of climate change as a threat to international security, not least because it has trans-national ramifications.

Climate change impacts and implications for health and human security

Public health issues across countries can be aggravated by climate change. Scientists and health experts expect to see changes in disease outbreaks as global temperatures rise. These diseases include directly or indirectly transmitted anthroponoses (diseases that are transmissible from human to human) and zoonoses (diseases that are transmissible from animal species to humans) (WHO 2012). There is a greater likelihood of climate change, along with other environmental disturbances, triggering the rise of more novel diseases including vector-borne ones. As the climate changes, many animal species will change behaviour and migrate to new geographical areas, increasing the likelihood of their coming into close contact with humans. Such future phenomenon requires not only scientific query but also a revisit of present policy paradigms in terms of institutional mandates, response and collaboration.

The present health crisis highlights the need for swift and coordinated policy responses and better preparedness to handle future crisis scenarios at local, national and international levels. It is also evident that it requires strong multilateral leadership in all domains including science, policy, and governance. More significantly, climate change can no longer be treated as a second-order world problem that can be handled only as an environmental threat to growth. The lessons from COVID crisis tell us that we need to arm ourselves with better and effective institutional structures to be able to handle social, economic, humanitarian as well as geo-political implications of climate change.

Growing role of security establishments in disaster response

Is there a case for handling climate change as a multi-sectoral disaster, the way countries are treating COVID 19? In the wake of the COVID19 outbreak, defence establishments around the world are involved in activities such as rescue, control, prevention and even cure. The United States Department of Defense, for instance, has army researchers working and collaborating to develop rapid COVID 19 testing technology and vaccines. The response in India has been to invoke the provisions of the Disaster Management Authority Act 2005 to treat COVID 19 as a national disaster. This involves undertaking measures, in coordination with state governments, for rescue, relief and rehabilitation. Having recognised the enormity of global challenge, even the G20 countries recently held an extraordinary meeting over a digital platform to coordinate their responses. It is worthwhile to note that the parent ministry of the National Disaster Management Authority and National Disaster Response Force in India is the Union Ministry of Home Affairs, the highest organ of the government related to internal security.

Climate change and security: Is it a global governance issue?

According to one school of thought, the present international cooperative structures are inadequate to handle climate change. There are suggestions that the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) should be asked to step in and mandate member countries to treat climate change not only as a disaster but also as a security threat. Article 39 of the United Nations Charter gives the power of determining a security threat to the UNSC. So far, five open debates have been held in the UNSC concerning climate change and security. Member states basically debated if climate change can be considered as a security issue and whether UNSC can deal with security issues. European Union member states favour legitimising UNSC's role in addressing security concerns arising from climate change. The Pacific Small Island Developing States support the view that climate change could be elevated to a priority in global deliberations if UNSC dealt with climate security concerns.

Expectedly, member states of G-77 and China have opposed the legitimisation of the Council to deal with climate change. Among the Permanent Representatives of the UNSC, France and United Kingdom have supported its legitimacy in the matter while Russia and China have opposed it. The position of the United States of America (USA) remains ambiguous. India's position has been linked to UNSC reform in the wake of new challenges such as climate change, famines, natural disasters, pandemics, cyber security, and humanitarian crisis. India has also emphasised that more representative bodies like the United Nations General Assembly and United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) can better deal with climate change.

Security implications of climate change for India

Given the present state of global preparedness to deal with climate change, the question is whether there is a need for strengthening and widening the national perspective on climate change. A recent article in the journal Climatic Change ranked 187 countries based on composite scores for an index comprising seven broad dimensions - water security, food security, energy security, sea level rise impact on inhabited land, social stability, health, and economic resilience (Phillis et al 2018). This index is based on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) approach of evaluating three related components of exposure, sensitivity, and adaptive capacity. India ranks at the 100th position and is placed in the bottom half of the list of ranked countries, implying higher vulnerability (ibid).

Amongst the likely scenarios of the worst impacts that climate change can have is one that foresees melting of ice and snow and dwindling water resources in the polar, Antarctic region as well as the Himalayan region. Considering our shared geography and intersecting geo-political ambitions in this region, there is a need to strengthen policy establishments and institutions to mitigate possible conflicts rooted in climate-induced water shortages. Such situations may arise if an upper riparian state like China, which controls the source of origins for most Indian rivers, decides to unilaterally divert the waters of the Himalayan Rivers, particularly the Brahmaputra flowing into India, in the event of water scarcity. A lower riparian state like Pakistan attempting territorial intervention is also a possibility (Pai 2008). Security establishments in India, therefore, need to be geared for conflict prevention and disaster response involving irrigation infrastructure, hydro-electric power plants, and humanitarian assistance/disaster relief.

Internal security establishments would also have to be sensitive to humanitarian situations involving refugees whose exodus from neighbouring countries such as Bangladesh and Myanmar (TERI 2019) cannot be ruled out in case of displacements caused by natural disasters and extreme events. The scenarios are scary but not unrealistic. India certainly needs to rethink its strategy and prepare itself to address them not only as environmental or public health concerns but also as issues that could have security implications for its neighbourhood.

Advancing the dialogue on climate change and security

TERI organised a dialogue in Kerala in February 2020 to deliberate on the security dimensions of climate change as a serious threat to natural and human systems. The resource dialogue partnered by Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung (KAS) and implemented by TERI aimed to bring together a diverse set of experts drawn from the domains of climate change, governance, and security. The dialogue discussed various aspects of 'securitisation of climate change' such as non-traditional security, external security, internal security, and political dynamics. Some of the issues mentioned above found reflection in this dialogue. You can find the complete proceedings from the dialogue below.



- Pai, N. (2008), "Climate Change and National Security: Preparing India for New Conflict Scenarios", Policy Brief, Bengaluru: The Takshashila Institution.
- Phillis, Y. A., N. Chairetis, E. Grigoroudis, F. Kanellos and V. Kouikoglou (2018), "Climate security assessment of countries", Climatic Change, 148(1): 25-43.
- TERI (The Energy and Resources Institute) (2019), Securitization' of Climate Change: International and National Implications, New Delhi: TERI.
- WHO (World Health Organization) (2012), Climate Change and Infectious Diseases, Geneva: WHO.