Standing before the United Nations General Assembly in October 1987, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, President of the Maldives, made an appeal representing "an endangered nation." That year for the first time, "unusual high waves" in the Indian Ocean inundated a quarter of the urban area on the capital island of Male', flooded farms, and washed away reclaimed land. Gayoom cited scientific evidence that human activities were releasing greenhouse gases that warm the planet, ultimately raising global sea level as glaciers melt and warmer water expands. The trouble extended beyond small islands; studies showed that rising seas would wreak havoc on the U.S. Gulf Coast, the Netherlands, and the river deltas of Egypt and Bangladesh.
Fast-forward through two decades of swelling seas and more powerful storms and the call has moved from the need to study global warming to the necessity of dramatic action to stabilize climate. With small island nations in peril, these days President Gayoom evokes the vision of a United Nations where "name plates are gone; seats are empty." He does not speak alone: this fall, some 50 countries, including a number of small island nations along with Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and the European Union, are planning to put a resolution before the U.N. General Assembly requesting that the U.N. Security Council address "the threat posed by climate change to international peace and security." As Ambassador Stuart Beck of Palau has asked, "Would any nation facing an invading army not do the same?"
Without a dramatic reduction in emissions of greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide, the global average temperature is projected to increase by up to 12 degrees Fahrenheit (6.4 degrees Celsius) and sea level could rise some 3 feet (1 meter) by the end of this century. Alarmingly, recent accelerated melting on the Greenland and West Antarctic ice sheets--which together contain enough ice to raise global sea level by 39 feet--means that seas could rise even faster than predicted.
The warming of the globe also provides more energy to fuel stronger storms. More-powerful storms can combine with even a modest rise in sea level in a dangerous synergy, allowing for ever larger storm surges that can flatten coastal communities. Because much of humanity, including many residents of the world's major cities like Kolkata (Calcutta), London, Shanghai, and Washington, DC, are located in vulnerable coastal areas, hundreds of millions of people are directly at risk. A large part of the New York metropolitan area is less than 15 feet above sea level; a Category-3 hurricane could easily swamp a third of lower Manhattan.
All together, one out of every 10 people on the planet lives in a coastal zone less than 33 feet above sea level. If higher seas and extreme weather render these areas uninhabitable, more than 630 million people could be left searching for safer ground. Yet no place in the world is equipped to deal with mass population movements or can accommodate millions of climate refugees. Fragile countries already stretched to their limits could be pushed past the breaking point into complete state failure. As British Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett warned the U.N. Security Council, the risk of massive economic disruption and "migration on an unprecedented scale" make climate change a true security threat.