Paris agreement critical to global security

You are probably reading a lot this week about the ratifying of the COP21 Paris Agreement. Handshakes and big speeches will accompany somber warnings that this must be about more than just talk.

However, to many people, climate change still remains an abstract warning. The consequences still seem far away. Or, they hear about it so often they have been numbed by familiarity and generalizations.

Ali Bongo Ondimba, President of Gabon.
Kevin Winter | Getty Images
Ali Bongo Ondimba, President of Gabon.

In sub-Saharan Africa, including my home country of Gabon, the specific social and political effects of inaction would be seen within decades, not generations. Our security as a region depends on nations adhering to the Paris Agreement.

Ever since I was defense minister, I have participated in global meetings on the issue of climate and security. Although we live in a safe and stable country, Central Africa as a region has been held back by seemingly perpetual conflict — over power, resources and who controls them.

Just to the north of Gabon lies the Sahel region, where temperatures have risen by nearly 1°C since 1970 — nearly twice the global average. People are already fleeing and further changes would exacerbate this, sending countless people south and away from the Sahara and Sahel.

This climate migration will destabilize a region only just recovering from decades of conflict. Any threat to the finite resources that people in Central Africa are now regaining control over would almost certainly lead to further unrest.

Indeed, climate change has been identified as one of the major threats to security across the entire African continent. If left unchecked, a rising climate could drive mass-enforced migration and conflict over resources such as water and arable land, leading to a humanitarian crisis within the next 30 years.

Geologists have demonstrated that Gabon has enjoyed a relatively stable climate through the ages, and our forests, which cover 88 percent of the country, act as one of the green lungs of the planet. Yet the human effects of climate change will certainly reach us if action is not taken.

So what is to be done to make COP21 more than platitudes? First, industrialized nations must recognize their role in causing this phenomenon, and honor the financial and technical assistance pledged to the developing world.

This cannot be a one-off gesture, and further collaboration will be the price of our shared responsibility. Our challenges as developing nations are specific, but the consequences of failure are universal.

As the leader of an oil producing nation, I know how hard it can be to prioritize environmental issues, but the short-term risk to our economic security is far outweighed by the potential risk to our national and regional security. And it can also deliver jobs — already hydro-power plants employ many Gabonese, and we anticipate that will only increase as more and more emphasis is put on renewables.

Countries like Gabon, the continent of Africa, and the whole global south have an opportunity to lead in this transformation as well. It is critical that we are more than just the potential victims; that solutions do not come only from the West.

A "South-to-South" dialogue among developing nations, which has already begun, must continue so we can become contributors and leaders into a new, greener, global marketplace.

This is not a time for scaremongering — and, thankfully, the Paris agreement gives us a path forward to avoid scenarios such as mass climate migration — but it is beholden on all nations to keep to their word in the not-too-distant future.

Commentary by Ali Bongo Ondimba, president of Gabon.

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