Remarks at a UN Security Council Open Debate on the Impacts of Climate Related Disasters on International Peace and Security

Ambassador Jonathan Cohen
Acting Permanent Representative
U.S. Mission to the United Nations

New York City
January 25, 2019


Thank you, Mr. President – Foreign Minister Vargas – for calling this important meeting. And welcome to the many ministers joining us today. I would also like to thank Administrator Steiner, Under-Secretary-General DiCarlo, Professor Kabat, and Ms. Getschel for your contributions and your helpful framing of today’s discussion.

Many of our nations has experienced devastating natural disasters in recent years – from hurricanes to floods to droughts – affecting two billion people worldwide in the last decade alone. These events inflict loss of life, destruction of property, and displacement of citizens. They increase the risk of food insecurity and disease outbreak.

This past year, the United States experienced the deadliest wildfire in my home state of California’s history and one of the strongest hurricanes on record to hit the U.S. mainland. We saw devastating flash floods in Maryland and destructive mudslides on our West Coast. And in Puerto Rico, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration assesses Hurricane Maria was the most destructive hurricane to hit the island in modern times. That catastrophic hurricane led to loss of life and more than $90 billion in damage.

Mr. President, we’ve seen how natural disasters can exacerbate existing vulnerabilities, threatening critical infrastructure that citizens rely on to reliably deliver food, water, and shelter in the wake of such events. This makes things harder for everyone – from relief workers to police forces to national militaries – as they try to access remote areas, supply their teams, and deliver needed services.

Natural disasters also frequently lead to breakdowns in social order and spikes in crime, violence, and instability.

Over time, incomplete recovery from repeated severe natural disasters erodes and impedes development, including of critical infrastructure and institutions. Particularly in communities with a history of conflict or civil violence, this can create conditions that allow illicit activities to flourish.

It is the policy of the United States to provide humanitarian and relief assistance to countries to deal with extreme weather events and natural disasters.

Mr. President, the East Coast of the United States and our Caribbean neighbors to the south have always been subject to devastating hurricanes and for generations the United States has experienced and dealt with earthquakes, hurricanes, tornados, droughts, floods, and other environmental disasters. We are constantly learning new and better ways to mitigate their effects and to protect lives and property.

When possible to enact, good zoning laws and fire zones, flood plains, or areas vulnerable to coastal storm surges can significantly reduce losses, as can good building codes. And early warning has saved countless lives.

The United States has and will continue to share best practices with its neighbors and friends who face extreme environmental challenges.

Mr. President, Central America and the Caribbean have suffered greatly from the follow-on effects of natural disasters. Hurricanes have impacted national economies and created huge recovery needs. Recent droughts have exacerbated food and water insecurity and contributed to new migration flows in the region.

In response to hurricane Matthew in Haiti, the U.S. supported recovery needs with $100 million of assistance, including critical governance, health, shelter support, and food assistance for the more than 1.8 million people, as well as cash to revive destroyed farms and restore livelihoods.

In response to drought in Central America, the United States is working with partners to provide support for new agriculture technology and to improve the business environment for small scale farmers as a means to boost productivity, incomes, and resilience.

Mr. President, beyond the Caribbean and Central America, the United States is partnering with governments and regional organizations to bring relief and disaster preparedness to those who need it most. It’s the right thing to do, and it also helps preserve order, maintain basic services to populations suddenly in need, and mitigate the threat of instability after a natural disaster.

Each nation must do its part, but we believe the Security Council and its Member States can and should play an especially important role in this common effort to assist with disaster preparedness and response.

As other speakers have done, Mr. President, we encourage the Security Council Member States and UN agencies to increase information sharing and identify best practices for post-disaster recovery. We each focus on a small piece of this challenge, and aggregating data will improve our overall understanding.

And, as Lindsay Getschel and other speakers have suggested, we would also like to see Security Council members explore ways in which the UN’s special political missions can place a greater focus on post-disaster resilience. The United States will be assessing how best to incorporate this work into relevant mandates, and we encourage our friends around this table to do the same.

I thank you, Mr. President