When the United Nations put out emergency appeals for modest amounts of money to help Syria with the drought that preceded its civil war, they were dramatically underfunded—member states only provided a quarter of the amount requested in 2008, and a third in 2009. The United States did not contribute.
Scholars believe the displaced were among those who ultimately joined the protests and revolution that the Syrian government violently suppressed. While early intervention on its own may not have prevented the conflict in Syria, suppose small investments in drought preparedness and response could help us avoid such catastrophes in the future. Would that not be money well spent?
We live in an age of “actorless threats”—where challenges to peace and security come not only from agents intentionally trying to do us harm, but also from climate change and pandemics whose impacts are no less severe.
Climate change poses escalating risks to stability and security, with potentially far-reaching consequences, from the risks to fragile states from more volatile weather to the combined effects of rising sea levels and storm surge on the survival of island nations and coastal populations.
United States President Joseph Biden has said climate change is an “existential threat” to national security. He appointed former US Secretary of State John Kerry as special presidential envoy for climate, with a seat on the country’s National Security Council. Biden has already issued a series of executive orders directing the country’s intelligence agencies to assess the risks and for other parts of government to examine the links between climate change and migration.
While these are important actions, the security risks of climate change, like the broader problem itself, cannot be addressed by the US alone—nor are the solutions solely or even primarily military ones. Ultimately, the US will need partners.
Historic Opportunity to Highlight Climate Security
In March, the US will serve as the rotating president of the UN Security Council for one month. The Security Council is the right place to start, given its key role in managing peace and security in the international system. The Biden administration’s new team at the United Nations has an historic opportunity to raise the profile of climate security concerns, but it needs a strategy.
In the past few years, the Security Council has paid more attention to climate security concerns. Prompted by Sweden, the UN created a small Climate Security Mechanism in 2018 to help the United Nations more systematically address climate-related security risks and devise prevention and management strategies. The Security Council also recognized the role of climate change in complicating peace operations in African conflicts, including those in Mali, Sudan, and Somalia.
In July 2020, Germany led a high-level debate on climate change and security at the Security Council and proposed several new measures to raise the profile of climate and security concerns, including creating the post of a special representative, developing an enhanced early warning system, and incorporating climate security in all peace operation mandates. However, the administration of former US president Donald Trump quashed any hopes of a joint Security Council resolution.
Beyond Mitigation to Prevention
President Biden has an opportunity with elected members Security Council members like Ireland, Kenya, and Norway to propose new policies that would bring visibility and build capacity to address these gathering risks. These could include reviving the German proposal but going beyond them.
For example, the Security Council thus far has been reluctant to talk about the risks posed by climate change to low-lying island countries. The US could seek to bring that issue to the fore. Moreover, we know that climate change and wider environmental damage are increasing the risks of disease transmission from animals to humans. The United States could spur on conversation on ecological security and how to protect the basic life-sustaining functions of the planet.
To date, the Security Council has primarily focused on ongoing conflicts and how climate change might have had a role in causing or extending them. Prevention of climate-related security risks has received relatively little attention. The US should initiate a dialogue on what capacities are needed to prevent climate-related conflicts, building on the recently released strategy for the 2019 Global Fragility Act which is intended to identify problems early and diminish the risks of escalation.
While Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the US ambassador to the UN, may be chairing the Security Council’s work this month, success will require building support and overcoming skepticism from Russia and China that the Council is the right place to discuss climate change at all.
Joshua Busby is an associate professor at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin. Morgan Bazilian is director of the Payne Institute for Public Policy and a professor at Colorado School of Mines. Florian Krampe is senior researcher and director of the Climate Change and Risk program at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.