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Climate and Security: High-level Open Videoconference Debate

On Tuesday (23 February), there will be a high-level videoconference (VTC) open debate on climate and security. Prior to the meeting, naturalist David Attenborough will deliver a brief pre-recorded video message. UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson is expected to preside, representing the first time a UK prime minister has chaired a Security Council meeting since John Major in January 1992. Secretary-General António Guterres and a youth climate activist are expected to brief. Several heads of state and of government have confirmed their attendance.

A number of participants will take part in the meeting under rule 37 of the Council’s provisional rules of procedure—which allows non-Council members to participate in the organ’s meetings, without a vote, when their interests are “specially affected”. These include: Prime Minister Gaston Browne of Antigua and Barbuda on behalf of the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS), President Lazarus Chakwera of Malawi on behalf of the Least Developed Countries Group (LDCs), and Foreign Minister Heiko Maas of Germany on behalf of the Group of Friends on Climate and Security.

While briefers, Council members and member states participating under rule 37 will deliver their interventions live, other member states will be able to submit their statements in writing or via a videorecording that will be posted on the Security Council’s website.

The UK has circulated a concept note in advance of the debate. The concept note states that the objective of the meeting is to discuss the role of the Council, the UN and the organisation’s member states in confronting the future threats of climate change to international peace and security, “including through sustained and systematic consideration of related conflict risk, peacebuilding approaches and support for adaptation and resilience in climate-vulnerable settings”. It asserts that climate change is a “threat multiplier” that contributes to crop failure, displacement, and pastoralist movements that can contribute to the risk of conflict. It further recognises the importance of effective adaptation and resilience in dealing with the detrimental security effects of climate change and observes that climate factors are already more frequently being incorporated in conflict risk assessments.

The concept note poses a series of questions to help guide member state interventions:

Climate change as a security threat has gained considerable traction in the Security Council in recent years. In 2020 alone, language on climate change was integrated into Council outcomes on the Central African Republic, Darfur, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Mali, Somalia, and West Africa. Frequently, this language has emphasised the need for adequate risk assessments and risk management strategies to cope with the adverse security effects of climate change and other environmental factors in particular situations.

Climate change has also been addressed directly or indirectly in several signature events pursued by Council presidents since mid-2020. These include: the 24 July 2020 open videoconference (VTC) during the German presidency on the “Maintenance of international peace and security: Climate and security”; the 17 September 2020 open VTC during the Nigerien presidency on the “Maintenance of international peace and security: Humanitarian effects of environmental degradation and peace and security”; and the 3 November 2020 open VTC during the presidency of St. Vincent and the Grenadines on “Peacebuilding and sustaining peace: Contemporary Drivers of Conflict and Insecurity”.  The UK—which hosted the Council’s first formal meeting on climate change in 2007 and will be hosting the 26th UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow in November in partnership with Italy—is continuing this trend with tomorrow’s open debate.

Notwithstanding the momentum that climate and security has gained in the Council, its members remain divided over the organ’s role in addressing this issue. Those supportive of a Council role emphasise that factors such as drought, water scarcity, food insecurity, and desertification that are caused or exacerbated by climate change are conflict “risk multipliers”. They have encouraged a more systematic integration of climate-related security risks into the Council’s work. Others (for example, China and Russia) are wary of Council engagement on this issue. 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.

The dynamics on climate-security issues are likely to shift in the Council in 2021. The new US administration has made the issue a high priority and will be represented in tomorrow’s meeting by Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry. Four of the five new members—Ireland, Mexico, Norway, and Kenya—are supportive of Council engagement on this issue, while India has historically been critical of the Council’s role. Overall, in 2021 up to 12 Council members are expected to be keen to see consistent Council engagement on this issue.

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