August 2017 Monthly Forecast

Posted 31 July 2017
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In Hindsight: The Security Council and Climate Change-An Ambivalent Relationship


The year 2017 marks the tenth anniversary of the Security Council’s earliest consideration of climate change. During the past decade, it has been a matter of some controversy whether or not the Council is an appropriate body to address this issue. Numerous Council members have underscored the security implications of climate change, but China, Russia and other countries have expressed concern that the Council’s engagement on this matter encroaches on the prerogatives of other UN organs, notably the General Assembly and the Economic and Social Council. Despite the political tensions associated with addressing climate change, the Council has over time managed to engage with this issue in two open debates, in formal meetings covering a wide range of emerging threats to peace and security, and in informal Arria-formula meetings.

The first time the Council focused explicitly on climate change was on 17 April 2007 during a ministerial-level open debate on the relationship between energy, security and climate, which was convened by the UK and included a briefing by then Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon (S/PV.5663 and Resumption I). Sharp divisions coloured the debate. The UK representative said that “an unstable climate will exacerbate some of the core drivers of conflict, such as migratory pressures and competition for resources”, a view echoed by other members who drew a clear linkage between climate change and the Council’s conflict prevention responsibility. However, Council members China, Russia and South Africa questioned the compatibility of the issue with the Council’s mandate under the UN Charter, with China saying that although “climate change may have certain security implications…generally speaking it is in essence an issue of sustainable development”. Both the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) and the Group of 77+China sent letters to the Council expressing concern about infringement on the work of the General Assembly and the Economic and Social Council. The statements of the wider membership (38 member states spoke in addition to the 15 Council members) largely mirrored the divisions among Council members.

The Council again took up climate change on 20 July 2011, in an open debate initiated by Germany that featured a briefing by Secretary-General Ban and the Executive Director of the UN Environment Programme (S/PV.6587 and Resumption I). As in 2007, differences of opinion regarding whether the Council was the appropriate forum to discuss climate change were again on display among the 15 Council members and the 47 non-Council members participating. While several countries supported Council discussion of the issue, China and Russia—as well as countries such as Argentina (on behalf of the G77), Egypt (on behalf of the NAM), and India—reiterated their concerns about encroachment on the prerogatives of other UN entities they perceived as more appropriate to address the issue.

One interesting element of both the 2007 and 2011 debates was the view of the Pacific Islands small island developing states. While most of these states are G77 members, they did not share the same level of concern about encroachment as other G77 members. Countries making statements on behalf of this group emphasised that rising sea levels induced by climate change threaten their very existence. For example, in the 2011 debate, while expressing understanding and concern about encroachment, President Marcus Stephen of Nauru said, “we are more concerned about the physical encroachment of the rising seas on our island nations.” He proposed that the Council should request the appointment of a Special Representative on climate and security, and “an assessment of the capacity of the United Nations system to respond to such impacts [of climate change] so that vulnerable countries can be assured that it is up to the task.” The Council has pursued neither measure.

The divisions among Council members on this issue were highlighted by Germany’s efforts to negotiate a presidential statement in the lead-up to the July 2011 debate. Negotiations continued during the meeting in an effort to adopt the statement for the occasion, an outcome that was not clear for much of the debate. Early in the meeting, the Ambassador Susan Rice (US) complained about the inability of the Council “to reach consensus on even a simple draft presidential statement that climate change has the potential to impact peace and security in the face of the manifest evidence that it does.” Rice added that the Council’s failure to reach agreement “is pathetic, short-sighted and…a dereliction of duty.”

Ultimately, agreement was reached by the end of the proceedings (S/PRST/2011/15). The statement reaffirmed that the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change “is the key instrument for addressing climate change”. At the same time, it expressed concern that possible adverse effects of climate change may in the long run aggravate certain existing threats to international peace and security. The statement further noted the importance of including conflict analysis and contextual information on the possible security implications of climate change in the Secretary-General’s reports, “when such issues are drivers of conflict, represent a challenge to the implementation of Council mandates or endanger the process of consolidation of peace”. 

The difficult nature of the July 2011 debate and negotiations was instructive to members who wanted to address climate change in the Council. This was the last time the Council held a formal meeting specifically on climate change. Since then, one common strategy has been to hold briefings or debates focusing broadly on non-traditional threats to peace and security, including climate change and other issues. For example, on 23 November 2011, Portugal convened a high-level briefing on a number of inter-related issues constituting “New challenges to international peace and security and conflict prevention”, including HIV/AIDS, climate change, and transnational organised crime (S/PV.6668). Likewise, on 30 July 2015, New Zealand held an open debate on “peace and security challenges facing small island developing states”, during which climate change, transnational organised crime, drug and human trafficking, and piracy were among the issues raised (S/PV.7499). And on 22 November 2016, Senegal chaired an open debate on “water, peace and security” (S/PV.7818) which explored such issues as the relationship between climate change and water scarcity, the management of transboundary waters, and the harmful impact that conflict can have on access to clean water. 

Another way in which Council members have addressed climate change is through Arria-formula meetings. Since these are not formal meetings of the Council, the political tensions about discussing the issue are dampened, allowing members to hear the views of a diverse and informed group of stakeholders in an informal setting. On 15 February 2013, the UK and Pakistan co-hosted an Arria-formula meeting on the “security dimensions of climate change” that included the participation of civil society as well as member states from outside the Council. Ban, who championed efforts to combat climate change during his two terms, was one of the briefers, particularly noteworthy since it is highly unusual for a Secretary-General to brief in this format. Similarly, Spain and Malaysia co-hosted an Arria-formula meeting on 30 June 2015 on the role of climate change as a threat multiplier for global security. Most recently, an Arria-formula meeting organised by Ukraine on “Security Implications of Climate Change: Sea Level Rise,” with cooperation from Germany in preparing the session, was held on 10 April 2017.

The future of the Council’s engagement with climate change is uncertain. Political divisions persist and may be magnified by the position of the current US administration, which recently announced its decision to withdraw from the Paris Agreement on climate change. However, there are indications of a growing willingness in the Council to recognise the security implications of climate change. For example, resolution 2349 on the Lake Chad Basin, adopted shortly after the Council’s visiting mission to the region in early March, included a paragraph recognising the negative impact of climate change, as well as other factors, on stability in the region. The US was the only member that expressed discomfort with the paragraph, but it agreed to accept it with some modification.

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