Stressing Rising Seas Already Creating Instability, Conflict, Secretary-General Says Security Council Has Critical Role in Addressing Devastating Challenges

Following are UN Secretary-General António Guterres’ remarks to the Security Council in its debate on “Sea-Level Rise: Implications for International Peace and Security”, in New York today:

I thank the Government of Malta for shining a light on the dramatic implications of rising sea levels on global peace and security.

Rising seas are sinking futures.  Sea-level rise is not only a threat in itself, it is a threat-multiplier.

For the hundreds of millions of people living in small island developing States and other low-lying coastal areas around the world, sea-level rise is a torrent of trouble. 

Rising seas threaten lives and jeopardize access to water, food and health care.  Saltwater intrusion can decimate jobs and entire economies in key industries like agriculture, fisheries and tourism.

It can damage or destroy vital infrastructure, including transportation systems, hospitals and schools, especially when combined with extreme weather events linked to the climate crisis.  And rising seas threaten the very existence of some low-lying communities and even countries. 

The World Meteorological Organization (WMO) has just released a new compilation of data that spells out the grave danger of rising seas.  Global average sea levels have risen faster since 1900 than over any preceding century in the last 3,000 years.  The global ocean has warmed faster over the past century than at any time in the past 11,000 years.

Meanwhile, the WMO tells us that even if global heating is miraculously limited to 1.5°C, there will still be a sizeable sea-level rise.  But every fraction of a degree counts.  If temperatures rise by 2 degrees, that level rise could double, with further temperature increases bringing exponential sea level increases.

Under any scenario, countries like Bangladesh, China, India and the Netherlands are all at risk.  Mega-cities on every continent will face serious impacts including Lagos, Maputo, Bangkok, Dhaka, Jakarta, Mumbai, Shanghai, Copenhagen, London, Los Angeles, New York, Buenos Aires and Santiago.

The danger is especially acute for nearly 900 million people who live in coastal zones at low elevations — that is one out of ten people on earth.  Some coastlines have already seen triple the average rate of sea-level rise.  I have seen with my own eyes how people in small island developing States in the Western Pacific are facing sea-rise levels up to four times the global average.

In the Caribbean, rising seas have contributed to the devastation of local livelihoods in the tourism and agriculture sectors.  Rising seas and other climate impacts are already forcing some relocations in Fiji, Vanuatu, the Solomon Islands and elsewhere.

Flooding and coastal erosion in West Africa are damaging infrastructure and communities, undermining farming and often costing lives.  In North Africa, saltwater intrusion is contaminating land and freshwater resources, destroying crops and livelihoods alike.  Somalia is also grappling with saltwater intrusion, contributing to competition over scarce freshwater resources.

And around the world, a hotter planet is melting glaciers and ice sheets.  According to NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration of the United States) Antarctica is losing an average of 150 billion tons of ice mass annually.

The Greenland ice cap is melting even faster — losing 270 billion tons per year.  And consider the hundreds of millions of people living in the river basins of the Himalayas.  We have already seen how Himalayan melts have worsened flooding in Pakistan.

But as these glaciers recede over the coming decades, over time, the Indus, Ganges and Brahmaputra rivers will shrink.  And rising sea levels combined with a deep intrusion of saltwater will make large parts of their huge deltas simply uninhabitable.

We see similar threats in the Mekong Delta and beyond.  The consequences of all of this are unthinkable.  Low-lying communities and entire countries could disappear forever.  We would witness a mass exodus of entire populations on a biblical scale.  And we would see ever-fiercer competition for fresh water, land and other resources.

The impact of rising seas is already creating new sources of instability and conflict.  We must meet this rising tide of insecurity with action across three areas.  First, we must address the root cause of rising seas — the climate crisis.

Our world is hurtling past the 1.5°C warming limit that a liveable future requires, and with present policies, is careening towards 2.8°C — a death sentence for vulnerable countries.  We urgently need more concerted action to reduce emissions and ensure climate justice.

Developing countries must have the resources to adapt and build resilience against climate disaster.  Among other things, this means delivering on the loss and damage fund, making good on the $100 billion climate finance commitment to developing countries, doubling adaptation finance, and leveraging massive private financing at a reasonable cost.

Second, we must broaden our understanding of the root causes of insecurity.  That means identifying and addressing a much wider range of factors that undermine security — from poverty, discrimination and inequality, violations of human rights to environmental disasters like rising sea levels.  That is why, for example, the Peacebuilding Fund is actively supporting grassroots resilience efforts against the effects of climate change. 

We must also improve foresight and early warnings to prepare and protect vulnerable communities.  One prime example is our plan to ensure that early warning systems against natural disasters protect every person on earth within five years.

Third, we must address the impacts of rising seas across legal and human rights frameworks.  Rising sea levels are — literally — shrinking landmasses, a cause of possible disputes related to territorial integrity and maritime spaces.

The current legal regime must look to the future and address any gaps in existing frameworks.  Yes, this means international refugee law.  But is also means innovative legal and practical solutions to address the impact of rising sea levels on forced human displacement and on the very existence of the land territory of some States.

People’s human rights do not disappear because their homes do.  Last year, the International Law Commission considered this issue and explored a range of potential solutions.  This includes continuing Statehood despite loss of territory, ceding or assigning portions of territory to an affected State, or even establishing confederations of States.

These discussions are critical to finding solutions, and I appreciate the active consideration by delegations in the Sixth Committee [Legal].  We must keep working to protect affected populations and secure their essential human rights.

The Security Council has a critical role to play in building the political will required to address the devastating security challenges arising from rising seas.  We must all work to continue turning up the volume on this critical issue, and supporting the lives, livelihoods and communities of people living on the front lines of this crisis.  Thank you.

For information media. Not an official record.