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World risks ‘collapse of everything’ without strong climate action, Attenborough warns Security Council

Young girls carry water from a source near Yangambi, Democratic Republic of the Congo.
CIFOR/Axel Fassio
Young girls carry water from a source near Yangambi, Democratic Republic of the Congo.

World risks ‘collapse of everything’ without strong climate action, Attenborough warns Security Council

Climate and Environment

More collective action is needed to address the risks climate change poses to global peace and security, the UN Secretary-General told a high-level Security Council debate on Tuesday, as renowned natural historian David Attenborough warned countries that the planet faces total ‘collapse’. 

Climate shocks such as record high temperatures and a “new normal” of wildfires, floods and droughts, are not only damaging the natural environment, said UN chief António Guterres, but also threatening political, economic and social stability. 

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“The science is clear: we need to limit the global temperature increase to 1.5 degrees by the end of the century,” the Secretary-General said.  

“And our duty is even clearer: we need to protect the people and communities that are being hit by climate disruption. We must step up preparations for the escalating implications of the climate crisis for international peace and security.” 

A matter of when, not if: Boris Johnson 

Heads of State and Government, as well as other senior political leaders, participated in the Council meeting, which was convened by the United Kingdom, co-host of the latest global climate change conference, known as COP26, taking place in Glasgow, Scotland, in November. 

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson chaired the online meeting, calling for action now. 

“Whether you like it or not, it is a matter of when, not if, your country and your people will have to deal with the security impacts of climate change”, he said, urging them to show the global leadership necessary to keep the world safe. 

Sir David Attenborough’s warning 

The UK holds the rotating presidency of the 15-member Council this month, and renowned British naturalist and broadcaster Sir David Attenborough issued a sobering warning to leaders. 

“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,” he said, adding “and if the natural world can no longer support the most basic of our needs, then much of the rest of civilization will quickly break down.”  

While there is no going back, Sir David stressed that if countries act fast enough, “we can reach a new stable state.”  He pointed to the immense public support worldwide for climate action. 

“People today all over the world now realize this is no longer an issue which will affect future generations,” he said.  “It is people alive today, and, in particular, young people, who will live with the consequences of our actions.” 

‘Young people are the solution’ 

Nisreen Elsaim, a young activist from Sudan, spoke of how climate vulnerability is forcing young Africans and their counterparts elsewhere to leave their homelands, which can contribute to conflict.   

“As a young person I am sure that young people are the solution”, said Ms. Elsaim, chair of the UN Youth Advisory Group on Climate Change. “Give us more space, listen to us and engage youth.” 

She also welcomed the Council’s resolution establishing the new UN political mission in her country, UNITAMS, which specifically mentions climate change and youth participation as priority issues. 

‘The multilateral challenge of our age’ 

The UN Secretary-General has repeatedly referred to climate change as “the defining issue of our time”.   

In his briefing to the Council, Mr. Guterres outlined the need for action in four priority areas: prevention, protection, security and partnerships. 

Under prevention, he emphasized the need for countries to achieve the goals of the Paris Agreement on climate change, which seeks to limit global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. 

“The climate crisis is the multilateral challenge of our age”, he said, underlining the need for unparalleled global coordination and cooperation.  

“I urge Council members to use their influence during this pivotal year to ensure the success of COP26, and to mobilize others, including international financial institutions and the private sector, to do their part.”