Climate Change and Security
Expected Council Action
In September, Ireland plans to host an open debate on climate change and security. Secretary-General António Guterres is expected to brief. A civil society representative may brief as well.
Key Recent Developments
The Security Council’s focus on the adverse effects of climate change on various country- and region-specific agenda items has continued in 2021. So far this year, climate change has been referenced in resolutions on Cyprus, West Africa, South Sudan, Somalia, Iraq, Sudan, and Mali. Resolutions 2561 and 2587 on Cyprus and 2576 on Iraq marked the first case in which the Council recognised the effects of climate change in non-African contexts.
On 23 February, under the presidency of the UK, the Council held an open debate on “Addressing climate-related security risks to international peace and security through mitigation and resilience building”. Renowned British naturalist David Attenborough told the Council that climate change was “the biggest threat to security that modern humans have ever faced” and that “unparalleled levels of global cooperation” would be required to address it. During the meeting, which was attended by heads of state and government, several Council members, including Kenya and Niger, underlined the link between climate change and conflict while others, including Russia and China, questioned this view, arguing that political and economic factors are the key drivers of tension and conflict.
At the meeting, Guterres called the climate emergency “the defining issue of our time”. Advocating for enhanced “preparations for the escalating implications of the climate crisis for international peace and security”, he highlighted four priorities to address the crisis: cutting greenhouse gas emissions; increasing investment to help countries and communities adapt and develop resilience; encouraging a concept of security that “puts people at its centre”, whereby “[p]reventing and addressing the poverty, food insecurity and displacement caused by climate disruption contribute to sustaining peace and reducing the risk of conflict”; and calling for a collaborative approach between actors within and outside the UN system to help tackle the climate crisis.
The Informal Expert Group of Members of the Security Council on Climate and Security (IEG) has held two meetings to date in 2021 to discuss the security implications of climate change in situations on the Council’s agenda. The first meeting, held on 12 March, focused on the area covered by the UN Office for West Africa and the Sahel (UNOWAS). A senior UNOWAS official briefed the IEG on the impact that climate change is having in the region and highlighted the challenges and opportunities for UNOWAS in addressing climate change-related security risks. During this year’s second meeting of the IEG, held on 30 April, the group met with the deputy head of the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS), Guang Cong. The discussion centred on what the mission is doing to integrate climate change-related security risks into its work in light of the adoption of resolution 2567 on 12 March, which included new language on climate change in the mission’s mandate.
On 9 August, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the UN body that assesses climate change-related science, released its sixth assessment report, issuing its most dire warning about the potentially irreversible impacts of climate change on the planet. While the report did not address climate change and security, it painted a sobering picture of the negative effects of climate change on all societies, especially the most vulnerable ones. Guterres called the report a “code red for humanity”, emphasising that “there is a clear moral and economic imperative to protect the lives and livelihoods of those on the front lines of the climate crisis”.
Key Issues and Options
Several key issues are relevant to the Security Council’s involvement on climate change and security. These include:
- determining the best way to garner information on climate change-related security risks from the UN system and elsewhere and use this information to inform concrete strategies to address these risks;
- developing the capacity of UN peace operations to assess and manage climate-security risks; and
- developing synergies among states, regional and sub-regional organisations, grass-roots actors, and the UN system in managing and mitigating climate change-related security risks.
One option for the Council is to invite a civil society representative to the debate to brief on the adverse effects of climate change in her region.
Another option would be for members to discuss how the Council can engage more effectively on climate change and security matters in cases on its agenda.
All Council members share the view that the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) is the primary international mechanism for dealing with the mitigation and adaptation challenges of climate change and that international efforts to reduce carbon emissions must be significantly stepped up as a matter of urgency. One hundred and ninety-one countries (including all Council members) are parties to the Paris Agreement, which was negotiated under UNFCCC auspices.
While all current members of the Council recognise that climate change poses an existential threat to human civilisation, divisions remain over the Council’s role in addressing climate and security issues. Twelve members—Estonia, France, Ireland, Kenya, Mexico, Niger, Norway, Tunisia, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, the UK, the US, and Viet Nam—are supportive of a more systematic integration of climate-related security risks into the Council’s work, with varying degrees of commitment. Several of these members tend to emphasise that factors such as drought, water scarcity, food insecurity, and desertification that are caused or exacerbated by climate change increase the risk of violent conflict. In the past year, Niger (September 2020), Saint Vincent and the Grenadines (November 2020) and the UK (February 2021) convened signature events during their Council presidencies in which climate change and security was the primary (or a major) focus of the discussion.
China and Russia, joined in 2021 by India, are sceptical about Council engagement on this issue, especially at the thematic level. They believe that climate change is fundamentally a sustainable-development issue that is more appropriately addressed by other parts of the UN system, including the General Assembly and ECOSOC. A key development in terms of Council dynamics in 2021 is that the US supports a Council role on climate and security matters, whereas it had not during the previous presidential administration (January 2017 to January 2021).
The UK, which has long been a proponent of Council engagement on climate and security matters, will host the 26th UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow from 1 to 12 November in partnership with Italy. Although it will not explicitly address the nexus between climate change and security, COP26 could add new impetus for Council action on the issue.
Niger and Ireland are the co-chairs of the Informal Expert Group in 2021.
UN DOCUMENTS ON CLIMATE AND SECURITY
|Security Council Presidential Statements|
|20 July 2011S/PRST/2011/15||This was a presidential statement on climate change.|
|Security Council Letters|
|25 February 2021S/2021/198||This was a VTC meeting under the agenda item of Maintenance of international peace and security: Climate and security|
|5 November 2020S/2020/1090||This letter transmitted the statements from a virtual, high-level open debate on “contemporary drivers of conflict and insecurity”, under the Peacebuilding and Sustaining Peace agenda.|
|21 September 2020S/2020/929||This letter contained the briefings and statements by member states from the open VTC on the humanitarian effects of environmental degradation and peace and security.|