UN Security Council to Discuss Climate-Related Conflict, But What Role Should It Play?

A flooded street in the town of Pibor, South Sudan, following heavy rainfall. (UN Photo/Francesca Mold)

Last month, the United Nations (UN) Secretary-General called the latest assessment report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) a “code red for humanity,” noting that the evidence is irrefutable: global heating is affecting every region on Earth, with many of the changes becoming irreversible. His message is one that all countries are now recognizing: climate change is not a future risk. It is already affecting every aspect of our collective lives, including our ability to sustain international peace and security.

Last year was the hottest year on record, and even that statement is a soberingly familiar refrain. Heat waves, wildfires, and floods affected the lives of millions, regardless of whether they lived in developed or developing countries. More intense and frequent extreme weather events are contributing to greater food and water insecurity, and according to the World Food Program, up to 270 million people are now acutely food insecure. The double burden of climate shocks and violent conflict is driving an alarming trend in areas that are already food insecure, and the COVID-19 crisis has exacerbated this trajectory. As pointed out by Professor Yu Hongyuan, managing and resolving the world’s energy-water-food nexus will require significant global cooperation.

The increasing incidence of extreme weather is also exacerbating unprecedented levels of migration and displacement. In 2020, weather-related disasters forced 30 million people to flee their homes. According to the World Bank, climate impacts are expected to contribute to the movement of more than 216 million people by 2050.

The effects of climate change are evident in many of the countries that are on the agenda of the UN Security Council. In some areas of Africa and the Middle East, climate change is escalating the risk of violent conflict. Our review of research on climate-related peace and security risks has found that climate change is undermining livelihoods in the Horn of Africa and the Sahel, and that in places like South Sudan, competition over resources is fueling ongoing conflicts. In Mali and Somalia, the negative effects of climate change on livelihoods have also facilitated recruitment to armed groups. This illustrates that climate- and conflict-affected countries are trapped in a negative spiral where climate change undermines the ability to cope with conflict, and conflict undermines the resilience to cope with climate change.

As the security implications of climate change become clearer, it is perhaps not surprising that climate change is increasingly shaping security narratives. Consequently, as Professor Dhanasree Jayaram has found in India and elsewhere, militaries are emerging as important actors in climate change mitigation and adaptation.

These developments are also echoed in Africa, where the African Union’s Peace and Security Council met at the head-of-state level in March 2021 to address the impact of climate change on peace, security, and stability. Ahead of the UN Security Council High-Level Open Debate on September 23, Ireland, as President of the Council, distributed a concept note highlighting that several regional organizations—including the African Union, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the European Union and the Pacific Islands Forum—have recognized the implications of climate-related security risks. It specifically mentions the 2018 Pacific Islands Forum declaration, calling climate change “the single greatest threat to the livelihoods, security and wellbeing of the peoples of the Pacific.”

Nevertheless, some countries maintain that climate change should not be on the Security Council’s agenda on the grounds that it is an environmental and development issue that should be dealt with by the UN General Assembly. Some experts have suggested that other forums, such as the Peacebuilding Commission, may be better suited for member state discussions on climate-related security risks. The General Assembly, and other UN entities like the UNFCCC, do have important roles to play in the fight against climate change, but the Security Council has a responsibility to deal with those aspects of climate change that concern the maintenance of international peace and security.

The Security Council should ensure that UN peace operations and UN-led mediation efforts develop skills and capacities for assessing and analyzing the ways in which climate change influences peace and security in the countries on its agenda. Where this is found to be the case, UN personnel should have the know-how and capabilities to support national governments or, in extreme cases, to take direct action to prevent conflict and protect civilians. This also means that relevant UN personnel in headquarters, regional offices, and special political missions and peacekeeping operations, should be equipped with knowledge and skills for integrating ecological and environmental factors into assessments, analysis, planning, operations, programming, and performance assessments. The Council should at the same time ensure that the UN itself takes the necessary steps to reduce its own impacts on the environment, including in its peace operations.

In addition to factoring climate change into conflict prevention and peacekeeping efforts, conflict sensitivity should also be integrated into climate mitigation and adaptation, disaster risk reduction, and development efforts. For example, both climate change and conflict have an outsized effect on women and girls. As women are at the frontline of climate change, they often lead or have considerable influence on local adaptation efforts. Similarly, women play important roles in peace processes, and women’s expertise and leadership are key to successful, inclusive, and sustainable adaptation and mitigation solutions.

Though climate change is undermining human security and influencing the dynamics of violent conflict, there are no hard security solutions to climate change. Climate change is a challenge that cuts across borders and silos. The Sustainable Development Goals can provide a shared framework for such a holistic and trans-disciplinary approach. As Adriana Erthal Abdenur has pointed out, addressing the complex links between climate and security will be an essential part of the challenge in making the UN fit for purpose in the Anthropocene.

As temperatures continue to climb, the most effective action against the worst effects of climate change remains the reduction of carbon emissions. The outcomes of this year’s UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow will thus reverberate in current and future trajectories, including in the area of international peace and security.

Cedric de Coning and Elisabeth Lio Rosvold are researchers with the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs (NUPI). Kyungmee Kim and Kheira Tarif are researchers with the Climate Change and Risk program at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI). NUPI and SIPRI jointly manage the Climate-related Peace and Security Risks (CPSR) project.