In Hindsight: The UN Security Council and Climate Change
In recent years, few thematic issues addressed by the Security Council have aroused as much attention, or controversy, as climate change and security. While it is not a formal agenda item, climate change and security has increasingly become a focus of signature events spearheaded by Council presidents. More and more, the Council is also emphasising the need for risk assessments and risk management strategies for climate change and ecological changes, and other factors by the UN and host governments in resolutions, particularly in Africa but also in other regions. And there are discussions among members about pursuing a thematic resolution on climate and security, building on the 2011 presidential statement on this issue, which noted the importance of including conflict analysis and contextual information on the possible security implications of climate change in the Secretary-General’s reports in relevant cases.
In June 2021, Security Council Report (SCR) published its first research report on this issue, The UN Security Council and Climate Change, which traces the evolution of Council engagement on this topic. From the very first time the Council took up the matter, during an April 2007 open debate, to the present, it has spurred divisions among members. Addressing climate change does not fit into conventional notions of international peace and security; the evidence of direct linkages between climate change and conflict is contested. A number of member states emphasise that climate change is essentially a sustainable development issue that should be dealt with by other UN entities, which have the expertise to address the issue and are more broadly representative of the UN’s wider membership. As well, the concern has been expressed, especially by Russia, that climate change is often a distraction from the core work of the Council, as there are other more fundamental drivers of conflict in cases on the agenda.
At the same time, other members have made persuasive arguments in support of Council engagement. These countries often emphasise that factors such as drought, water scarcity, food insecurity, desertification, and displacement that are caused by or exacerbated by climate change are conflict “risk multipliers”. Rather than viewing the Security Council as a usurper of the authority of other UN organs, they believe that the different parts of the UN system, including the Security Council, need to work together to confront the security challenges of climate change. They frequently see this issue as part of the Council’s conflict prevention work, and in more recent years, in the context of its peacebuilding agenda. They also tend to view climate change as a “human security” issue, whereby the negative impacts on people’s livelihoods and human welfare can heighten the risk of future conflict.
At present, there are 12 members of the Security Council—Estonia, France, Ireland, Kenya, Mexico, Niger, Norway, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Tunisia, the UK, the US, and Viet Nam—that support the Council’s climate-security work with varying degrees of enthusiasm. Three members—China, India and Russia—have concerns about the Council’s engagement on the issue. The major change this year in Council dynamics is that the US is a supporter of a Council role on climate and security matters, whereas it was not during the previous presidential administration (January 2017 to January 2021).
Various institutional arrangements, which have been developed since 2018, support the UN’s work on climate change and security; particularly notable among these are the Climate-Security Mechanism (CSM), the Group of Friends on Climate and Security and the Informal Expert Group (IEG) of Members of the Security Council on Climate and Security. The Climate-Security Mechanism—which was formed jointly in 2018 by the UN Department of Political and Peacebuilding Affairs (DPPA), the UN Development Programme (UNDP) and the UN Environment Programme (UNEP)—is designed to harness information and analysis on the linkages between climate change and security, and to integrate this lens into the organisation’s prevention, peacebuilding and adaptation work. It is supported through voluntary funds, rather than assessed contributions, reflecting the political sensitivities around this issue.
In 2020, ten members of the Security Council (Belgium, the Dominican Republic, Estonia, France, Germany, Niger, Tunisia, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, the United Kingdom, and Viet Nam)—established the IEG of Members of the Security Council on Climate and Security, which is designed to help the Council to develop a more systematic approach to climate-related security risks. The current co-chairs of the IEG are Ireland and Niger.
Germany and Nauru are the co-founders and co-chairs of the Group of Friends on Climate and Security. Initially consisting of 27 UN member states, the Group has more than doubled in size since its establishment on 1 August 2018. As at 7 May 2021, it consisted of 57 member states—representing all five UN regional groups (the African Group, the Asia-Pacific Group, the Eastern European Group, the Western European and Others Group, and the Latin American and Caribbean Group)—and the EU. It has two standing agenda items: one on the work of the Climate-Security Mechanism, and a second on the work of and dynamics in the Security Council, including the activities of the Informal Expert Group of Members of the Security Council on Climate and Security.
In light of the Council’s significant engagement on climate-security matters, our report outlines ways in which the Council may choose to proceed on this issue in the future.
- Efforts are likely to continue by proponents of this issue to integrate climate-security language—for example, calls for risk assessments and risk management strategies on the impacts of climate change and other environmental factors—into Council outcomes (that is, resolutions and presidential statements) on specific countries and regions. This year climate change language has already been included for the first time in cases outside of Africa, including in resolution 2561 on Cyprus and resolution 2576 on Iraq. In negotiating outcomes, efforts to consult host governments regarding climate-related security tasks, as was done in the case of resolution 2576, are helpful in reinforcing the notion that the UN is working cooperatively with them on such matters.
- Some members may strive to incorporate climate-security language into the operative part of resolutions on peace operations with greater consistency, as such references are most frequently made in the preambular parts of resolutions. Field presences are likely to execute climate-related tasks if they are referenced in the operative section—that is, where mandates are outlined. In addition, including climate-security language in the operative sections could provide a stronger basis for allocating more resources to such tasks on the ground.
- Another option is for the Security Council to make greater use of the advisory role of the Peacebuilding Commission (PBC) by soliciting its input more frequently, including in country- or region-specific cases where climate change is a security concern. This could include briefings by officials from the Peacebuilding Support Office (or the PBC chair) that focus on how the Security Council can best work with other parts of the UN system to address the security effects of climate change in vulnerable and post-conflict settings. Such briefings, and other input from the UN’s peacebuilding architecture, could also include specific advice on how to craft mandates that are sensitive to the security impacts of climate change.
- The Informal Expert Group could be used as a forum to follow up on climate change-related provisions in Council outcomes to gauge how well they are being applied in country- and region-specific cases and to discuss avenues for improved implementation.
- The Council could pursue a thematic outcome of climate change and security. This could include the following elements: the request for a periodic Secretary-General’s report on climate change and security, the appointment of a Special Representative on Climate and Security, the call for climate advisors in UN peace operations, and the encouragement of UN field presences to consider the security effects of climate change in their assessments, analysis and activities. These were all elements of a 2020 thematic draft resolution that was never put to the vote due to resistance from the US, China and Russia. In such an outcome, the Security Council could also make a bold call to the international community of states to step up mitigation and adaptation efforts, while recognising the primary role of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) regarding such efforts.
For more information on SCR’s work on climate change and security, please see our stories on Energy, Climate, and Natural Resources.