How Can the Security Council Engage on Climate Change, Peace, and Security?

A July 2018 Security Council meeting on understanding and addressing climate-related security risks. (UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe)

There are no shortages of statistics and data on the increasing rapidity with which our climate is changing, or on its effects. While rising sea levels, shrinking glaciers, and extremes in temperature are well-chronicled, the cascading impacts that a transformed climate will have on global peace and security are less clearly understood. This is all the more important since the Paris Agreement and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development provide frameworks for addressing climate change for the international community, yet stop short of including peace and security. In light of its mandate, the extent to which the United Nations Security Council can or should take steps on climate-related peace and security issues is an increasingly urgent question.

Since the Security Council first considered climate-related security risks in 2007, more linkages between the effects of climate change and threats to international peace and security have been recognized. As the 2019 open debate on addressing the impact of climate-related disasters on international peace and security demonstrated, all member states and communities are affected by climate change, but experience varying forms and intensity of climate-related security risks, including displacement and potential instability from extreme weather-related disasters.

In fragile and conflict situations, the consequences of climate change can become a magnifier of existing tensions and are often termed “risk multipliers” that may make conflict “more likely, more intense and longer-lasting.” While the direct causality between conflict and climate is debated, climate impacts—including drought, desertification, and water scarcity—exacerbate existing vulnerabilities and risk, including “persistent poverty, weak institutions for resource management and conflict resolution, fault lines and a history of mistrust between communities and nations, and inadequate access to information or resources.”

These dynamics result in a wide range of climate-related security risks. One of the most well-known is the threat of rising sea-levels on the territorial integrity of small island nations and inhabitability of coastal areas. Another example is the Boko Haram-affected areas of the Lake Chad Basin, where inter-related political exclusion, breakdown in the social contract, and environmental stress have fueled insecure livelihoods, competition over scarce resources, violent extremism, and displacement. In many parts of the world, women’s livelihoods and security are also at heightened risk from the impact of climate change in conflict-affected settings due to their connections with agriculture and the collection and management of natural resources.

Given these circumstances and the concern UN member states have expressed, what has the Security Council done, and what can or should it do? The Council adopted its only outcome specifically on climate change during an open debate on the issue in July 2011, which expressed concern that possible adverse effects of climate change may, in the long run, aggravate certain existing threats to international peace and security. Following that debate, one strategy has been to hold briefings or debates focusing broadly on non-traditional threats to peace and security in conjunction with other issues, including climate change. Another strategy has been to discuss climate change in the context of particular countries and regions.

Arria-formula meetings have also been a vehicle for Council members to discuss various climate-related threats to international peace and security. 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. Examples are a February 2013 meeting Pakistan and the United Kingdom co-hosted on the security dimensions of climate change and a June 2015 meeting co-hosted by Malaysia and Spain on the role of climate change as a threat multiplier for global security.

The Security Council has made progress in integrating language on climate-related security risks into Council outcomes despite reservations in some quarters. Since the reference in resolution 2349 on the Lake Chad Basin in March 2017, the adverse effects of climate change on stability—and, increasingly, the need for improved assessment of climate-related security risks—have been noted in the context of Somalia, West Africa and the Sahel, Mali, and Darfur.

Despite this progress, the question of whether the Security Council is the appropriate body to discuss climate change has been raised since April 2007. There is strong support among several permanent and elected members in the Council pursuing climate change as a security matter. There is also support for Security Council engagement from small island developing states. Among the wider membership, many member states view the role of the Security Council with more caution, arguing that it lacks the requisite expertise or tools to effectively respond to climate-related security risks, or view it as essentially a sustainable development issue. Moreover, several delegations argue that the Council lacks legitimacy on this topic, where the largest greenhouse gas emitters sit as permanent members. At least one permanent member argues that Security Council engagement encroaches on the prerogatives of other UN entities.

Other bodies within the UN system also have essential roles in addressing risks and vulnerabilities impacted by climate change, which Council engagement may complement. For example, the General Assembly recognized the possible security implications of climate change in 2009 in resolution 63/281, which also noted the respective responsibilities of the principal organs of the UN, including that of the Security Council for peace and security, and of the General Assembly and Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) for sustainable development issues, including climate change.

In an example of constructive engagement across different UN organs, ECOSOC and the Peacebuilding Commission held a joint meeting on the linkage between climate change and sustaining peace in the Sahel. A new joint initiative on climate and security by the Department of Political and Peacebuilding Affairs (DPPA), the UN Development Programme, and the UN Environment Programme is an effort to develop the capacity necessary to respond to Security Council requests to include analysis on how climate-related risks affect conflict, and to better integrate response mechanisms. Other initiatives include the establishment of a Group of Friends on climate and security.

Increasingly, member states recognize that addressing climate-related risks requires a holistic approach that includes both nearer-term political, humanitarian, and security responses, together with longer term economic development and governance solutions. It has been argued, for example, that climate-related security risks are a “hard security problem with no hard security solutions” that require diplomatic, developmental, humanitarian, and security tools to address and mitigate these challenges. They also require a better understanding of the trade-offs between environmental integrity and economic growth.

Addressing climate change is a system-wide priority for Secretary-General António Guterres. In the current period of UN reform, however, climate-related security risks have no clear institutional home within the UN’s peace and security architecture. Although climate action cuts across multiple UN organs and bodies, the climate architecture is highly decentralized, with few connecting threads among them. Climate change as a global challenge is still mostly viewed through the lens of development and the environment. The security, or prevention and sustaining peace, angle should be elevated to become an integral part of the broader climate change narrative.

Given current dynamics among its members, the efforts the Security Council can or should take to address the peace and security implications of climate change need to be better understood. With the UN’s focus on prevention and sustaining peace, climate change needs to be more systematically taken into account to prevent conflicts and strengthen resilience and adaptation measures. The linkage between peace and security and sustainable development also needs to be more carefully considered, while recognizing the limits of Security Council action.

Jake Sherman is Director of the Brian Urquhart Center for Peace Operations at the International Peace Institute (IPI).