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Climate and Security Time Machine: December 6, 1988

Выступление Михаила Горбачева на сессии Генеральной ассамблеи ООН

“Mikhail Gorbachev addressing UN General Assembly session”. December 1988, Photo by Yuryi Abramochkin

1988: Thirty years ago, on December 6, 1988, the world received a particularly authoritative warning on climate change, with a convergence of findings from a broad range of climate scientists that came together in United Nations General Assembly Resolution 43/53.[i] That resolution called for the creation of an Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to “provide internationally co-ordinated scientific assessments of the magnitude, timing and potential environmental and socio-economic impact of climate change and realistic response strategies.”

In 1988, the basis for the creation of the IPCC – the warning signs – were already clear. As stated in Resolution 43/53:

Concerned that certain human activities could change global climate patterns, threatening present and future generations with potentially severe economic and social consequences,

Noting with concern that the emerging evidence indicates that continued growth in atmospheric concentrations of “greenhouse” gases could produce global warming with an eventual rise in sea levels, the effects of which could be disastrous for mankind if timely steps are not taken at all levels,

Recognizing the need for additional research and scientific studies into all sources and causes of climate change,

This resolution followed on the heels of testimony by James Hanson with the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies to the United States Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources in June of 1988.[ii] Hanson’s principle conclusions were: “1. The earth is warming in 1988 faster than at any time in the history of instrumental measurements, 2. The global warming is now sufficiently large that we can ascribe with a high degree of confidence a cause and effect relationship to the greenhouse effect, and 3. In our computer climate simulations the greenhouse effect now is already large enough to begin to affect the probability to occurrence of extreme events such as summer heat waves; the model results imply that heat wave/drought occurrences in the Southeast and Midwest United States may be more frequent in the next decade than in climatological (1950-1980) statistics (Preface, Page 2).”

June of 1988 also witnessed the “World Conference on the Changing Atmosphere: Implications for Global Security,” which included participation from over 300 scientists and high-level political leaders from 46 different countries. The Conference Statement drew clear links between a changing atmosphere and a changing security landscape:[iii]

“The Earth’s atmosphere is being changed at an unprecedented rate by pollutants resulting from human activities, inefficient and wasteful fossil fuel use and the effects of rapid population growth in many regions. These changes represent a major threat to international security and are already having harmful consequences over many parts of the globe. Far-reaching impacts will be caused by global warming and sea-level rise, which are becoming increasingly evident as a result of continued growth in the atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases…The best predictions available indicate potentially severe economic and social dislocation for present and future generations, which will worsen international tensions and increase risk of conflicts among and within nations (Summary, Page 292).”

*This post is an excerpt from a forthcoming article: “The Thirty Years’ Warming: Climate Change, Security and the Responsibility to Prepare”

[i] General Assembly resolution 43/53, “Protection of global climate for present and future generations of mankind”, A/RES/43/53 (6 December 1988), available from

[ii] The Greenhouse Effect: Impact on Current Global Temperature and Regional Heat Waves, 100 th Cong. (1988) (statement of James E. Hanson, Director, NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies).

[iii] The Changing Atmosphere Implications for Global Security, Toronto, Canada, 27-30 June 1988, Conference Proceedings, WMO No. 710.

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