What's In Blue

Posted Wed 22 Sep 2021

Climate and Security: High-level Open Debate

Tomorrow (23 September), the Security Council will hold a high-level open debate on the “Maintenance of International Peace and Security: Climate and Security”. Ireland’s Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Micheál Martin will chair the meeting. Secretary-General António Guterres and a civil society representative will brief. The meeting, which is one of Ireland’s signature events during its presidency, is being held during the General Assembly high-level week. Council members will be represented at heads of state or government level and will participate in person, while non-Council members will submit their statements in writing.

The concept note circulated by Ireland ahead of tomorrow’s meeting states that climate change is becoming “an ever-stronger and more destructive force” that affects international peace and security. While climate change is not the main driver of conflict globally, according to the concept note, there is increasing evidence that it is “a vector which increases the risk of violent conflict in many contexts”. This is particularly apparent in fragile contexts, where limited resources hinder local authorities’ ability to both address climate-induced crises and implement measures to help the population adapt to conditions created by climate change. The concept note therefore argues that climate change should be integral to the UN’s peacebuilding work, otherwise the organisation “risk[s] impairing [its] efforts to improve local, national and, ultimately, international security”.

In the past year, several Council members have convened signature events during their Council presidencies in which climate change and security was the primary (or a major) focus of the discussion, including Niger (September 2020), Saint Vincent and the Grenadines (November 2020) and the UK (February). The Security Council, the note explains, has on several occasions underscored the relevance of addressing climate and ecological changes, including in UN and host government risk assessments and risk management strategies, through its resolutions on such situations as the Lake Chad Basin, Somalia, Mali, Sudan, the Central African Republic (CAR), the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Iraq and Cyprus. In 2021, resolutions 2561 and 2587 on Cyprus and resolution 2576 on Iraq marked the first two cases in which the Council recognised the effects of climate change in non-African contexts. In addition, the concept note references the work of the Informal Expert Group of Members of the Security Council, which is currently co-chaired by Ireland and Niger and has convened on several occasions since 2020 to discuss the security implications of climate change in situations on the Council’s agenda.

The concept note also highlights the growing recognition among regional organisations— including the African Union (AU), the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the European Union (EU) and the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF)— that climate change presents security risks that should be addressed in order to promote peace and stability. In 2018, the PIF called climate change “the single greatest threat to the livelihoods, security and wellbeing of the peoples of the Pacific”.

The Council’s latest meeting on climate and security was held on 23 February, during the UK’s Council presidency. That open debate, which was titled “Addressing climate-related security risks to international peace and security through mitigation and resilience building”, was attended by heads of state and government. Briefing the meeting, Secretary-General António Guterres called the climate emergency “the defining issue of our time” and advocated for enhanced “preparations for the escalating implications of the climate crisis for international peace and security”. On 9 August, following the release of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) sixth assessment report, which offered the IPCC’s most dire warning about the potentially irreversible effects of climate change on the planet, Guterres said that its findings were a “code red for humanity”. He further emphasised 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”. Guterres is likely to underline these points at tomorrow’s meeting. He may also reiterate, and expand upon, his assessment that “climate change is contributing to instability”, a position expressed in his recent report titled “Our Common Agenda”.

According to Ireland’s concept note, the aim of tomorrow’s meeting is to “deepen substantive awareness of how climate security risks are relevant to the work of the Security Council”. The meeting will also provide a platform for discussion on possible tangible actions the Council can take to address this challenge. To that end, the concept note identifies three areas where the Council can better integrate climate security risks into its work:

  1. Peacekeeping, including by “systematically mandating UN peacekeeping operations to assess climate-related security risks and potential responses”.
  2. Conflict Mediation, including by calling on special political missions to integrate a climate perspective into mediation efforts and peace negotiations.
  3. Conflict Prevention, including by requesting the Secretary-General to “systematically consider climate-related risks and opportunities across UN early warning, assessment and planning processes” and in other UN conflict prevention tools, plans and strategies. To that end, the note calls on the UN to improve its “institutional capacity to assess and address climate-related security risks”.

The concept note proposes several guiding questions to explore how the UN can better include climate security risks into these three areas:

  • How can peacekeeping and peacebuilding activities most appropriately prepare for and address climate-related security risks?
  • How can the theme of climate and security relate to peace and mediation efforts?
  • How can climate and security considerations be incorporated into conflict prevention strategies?
  • What concrete actions can the UN Security Council take on this issue?

All current Council members recognise that climate change poses an existential threat to humanity. However, divisions remain over the Council’s role in addressing climate and security issues. Twelve members—Estonia, France, Ireland, Kenya, Mexico, Niger, Norway, Tunisia, Saint 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 emphasise that such factors as drought, water scarcity, food insecurity, and desertification, which are caused or exacerbated by climate change, increase the risk of violent conflict. 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.