A New Agenda for Peace and the Climate Emergency

Secretary-General António Guterres observes the haze due to smoke from Canadian wildfires from his office at UN Headquarters, June 7, 2023. (UN Photo/Mark Garten)

Perhaps more than any other world leader, United Nations (UN) Secretary-General António Guterres has consistently integrated climate change into his assessments and response strategies. His New Agenda for Peace policy brief, published in July, adds to this output, recognizing that climate change, biodiversity loss, and environmental degradation are producing disastrous consequences. Six of the nine planetary boundaries–processes and systems that maintain planetary stability–have already been crossed, and some of these changes are irreversible. As an input for the 2024 Summit of the Future, the New Agenda serves as a stark warning that the damage being done now will have significant implications for humanity’s future wellbeing, safety, and stability.

The policy brief points out that climate change is also generating social dynamics that will increase social tensions with greater risk of insecurity. The Secretary-General argues that “the uneven suffering created by the effects of climate change ranks among the greatest injustices of this world. The most vulnerable communities…the least developed countries, and those affected by conflict, bear the brunt of a crisis that they did not create.”

The brief notes that rising sea levels and coastal erosion are a risk to coastal communities—including many of the world’s most populous cities—and an existential threat to some small island developing states. The New Agenda warns that such changes can also lead to “new or resurgent disputes related to territorial and maritime claims.” It also acknowledges the impacts of climate change on increasing natural resource competition, which exacerbates social tensions and erodes social cohesion. These are hard- and human-security risks that climate change and related environmental degradation pose to humanity.

The New Agenda also warns that steps taken to mitigate against, and adapt to, the effects of climate change can cause harm if not managed properly. There is a risk that projects aimed at reducing emissions and the negative effects of climate change can, despite their good intentions, have destabilizing effects if they are not sufficiently conflict-sensitive and deny communities and societies the agency to chart their own futures.

The good news is that there is a large and ever-expanding body of knowledge about these complexities and risks, including information on how climate change is increasing the scope and frequency of extreme weather events. Similarly, there is a growing understanding of how this exposure to extreme weather variability is negatively affecting livelihoods, especially the food, land, and water security of communities and societies dependent on rain-fed agriculture. The research summarized in the reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) also shows that climate and weather-related stressors contribute to increased conflict risk, and that conflict is a major factor of climate change vulnerability.

The New Agenda for Peace sets out what needs to be done to prevent violence and manage these risks. To tackle the environmental challenges posed by climate change and the inequalities it causes, the Secretary-General calls for ambitious mitigation and adaptation bolstered by adequate climate finance including the implementation of the loss and damage agenda, and emphasizes the need for climate action that promotes social cohesion and sustainability grounded in human rights.

Recommendations to Address Climate, Peace, and Security

To prevent violence and manage the risk of civil and state conflict, the Secretary-General argues for a renewed focus on multilateral diplomacy, a new commitment to prioritizing prevention, and investment in mechanisms that manage disputes and improve trust. This will require strong partnerships and a new global peace and security architecture in which regional frameworks and organizations play a more prominent role in a new era of networked multilateralism. The New Agenda includes several specific recommendations for how to achieve these goals, while also warning that, in a rapidly warming world, a business-as-usual approach will fail. The Secretary-General calls for innovative solutions to address the climate crisis, including ones that focus on the differentiated impacts on women and youth and protect the most vulnerable.

The first recommendation is the need to recognize climate, peace, and security as a political priority, and for the UN Security Council to systematically address the peace and security implications of climate change in the mandates of special political missions, peace operations, and other situations on its agenda. The UN Security Council has adopted over 70 resolutions and presidential statements that address aspects of climate-related peace and security implications, and UN political and peacekeeping missions are acting on this direction from the Council and increasing their analysis, reporting, and activities in this area. However, a few member states still strongly oppose adding climate change to the Security Council agenda despite unprecedented broad support among UN member states. In the run-up to the Summit of the Future, a renewed effort is needed to bridge these differences in the Council and among UN member states.

One way forward could be a genuine effort to identify places where UN member states would likely agree, and to find a nomenclature for climate, peace, and security that is acceptable to all. Last year’s initiative by the COP27 Egyptian Presidency to introduce the concept of climate responses to sustaining peace and the initiative by Norway and Kenya to broaden the climate security concept by including peace have already started this process of re-thinking how this agenda is framed. The COP28 United Arab Emirates presidency is holding consultations on solutions to accelerate climate action and finance in fragile and conflict-affected states, and considering a package of access, capacity strengthening, and programming initiatives to prevent the fallout from climate change on stability, peace, and the resilience of local communities. This will be formally launched on “Health, Relief, Recovery and Peace” day at COP28.

These international conference (COP) processes to address climate change validate the importance of the issues that the climate, peace, and security agenda is working to address, and the benefits of extensive consultations. Paying attention to the way the COP presidencies have framed the topic may point to narratives that most states are comfortable with. At this stage, there seems to be wide support for addressing the negative effects of climate change on a broad range of human security and societal safety issues with a combination of development and peacebuilding instruments.

The second recommendation is increased cooperation between multilateral bodies to ensure that climate action and peacebuilding reinforce each other. When it hosted COP26 in 2021, the United Kingdom arranged a Security Council open debate on the topic, and currently elected Council member United Arab Emirates (UAE) has taken similar steps to brief the Council in preparation for hosting COP28. In the future, the Security Council should consider inviting the UNFCCC executive secretary and COP president, perhaps together with the presidents of the General Assembly, Peacebuilding Commission, Human Rights Commission, and ECOSOC, to jointly reflect on how these UN bodies can cooperate and coordinate better, each in its own domain but also in a collaborative effort to accelerate an international UN and multilateral system campaign to address the climate emergency.

Similarly, the Secretary-General’s third recommendation is for the IPCC to establish a dedicated expert group on climate action, resilience, and peacebuilding in order to develop recommendations on integrated approaches to climate, peace, and security. This expertise would support stronger evidence-based engagement at the Security Council and the Peacebuilding Commission, where the expert group can advise, in writing and in briefings, on specific country situations or thematic issues on the agendas of these bodies.

The Secretary-General also recommends that there should be a new funding window within the Peacebuilding Fund for more risk-tolerant climate finance investments. As this is the Secretary-General’s fund, this recommendation does not require member-state approval, nor does it have to be considered at the Summit of the Future. Guterres can, in consultation with his Advisory Group for the Peacebuilding Fund (PBF), opt to act on it without delay. The Secretary-General should also be guided by the recently concluded thematic review of climate-security and peacebuilding that took stock of the climate-security projects funded by the PBF.

Finally, the Secretary-General used the New Agenda brief to recommend the establishment of regional and sub-regional hubs on climate, peace, and security that can help the UN system to connect national and regional experiences, provide technical advice, and help accelerate responses. Such hubs are already in the process of being established in the Horn of Africa and elsewhere, and can be supported by regional UN offices and special political missions to facilitate better information-sharing and direct engagement with UN member states and Security Council members.

What the Policy Brief Missed

Three elements were missing from the New Agenda for Peace’s treatment of the climate emergency. First, the UN system and other international and regional multilateral forums need to engage much more systematically with research communities in the Global North and South. The research gathered and assessed by the IPCC shows that there is a vast body of relevant evidence that can help inform policy and practice, but there is still a need for support to localized evidence generation to promote quality and inclusive research on the relationship between climate, peace, and security, and promote the localization of work across the humanitarian-development-peace nexus. This will help to ensure that policy and practice are grounded in evidence that also captures the lived realities of climate, peace, and security.

However, the UN and other multilateral bodies and their bureaucracies seem to struggle to make policy sense of the evidence, especially when it is presented with the nuance, complexity, and rigor found in high-quality research. Active engagement with relevant researchers and research institutions globally will help policymakers and practitioners to make sense of, and align their frameworks and actions with, the available evidence. It will also help researchers develop a better understanding of the needs of the policy and practitioner community. One bridge for these kinds of relationships can be engagement with research networks such as the Environmental Peacebuilding Association.

Second, member states, the UN system, and other international and regional multilateral forums can invest in better preparing their diplomats and officials to respond to the climate emergency by becoming more climate literate. They can do so by supporting capacity-building for diplomats and officials to better understand the challenge and what can be done about it. The UN’s Climate Security Mechanism, in partnership with the UN System Staff College and other training centers such as the Cairo International Center for Conflict Resolution, Peacekeeping and Peacebuilding (CCCPA), is offering a range of learning opportunities to improve contextualized and operational knowledge on climate change, peace, and security. This effort needs to be significantly scaled up to match the seriousness of the climate emergency.

Finally, the UN system and other international and regional multilateral bodies can cooperate more systematically with research institutions and other specialized organizations and networks that are actively accompanying, advising, and helping member states, communities, and institutions to develop, implement, and evaluate conflict-sensitive and peace positive climate mitigation, adaptation, and environmental peacebuilding projects and initiatives. Current cooperation is limited by the lack of coordination mechanisms and collaborative frameworks. The transaction costs involved can be significantly reduced with a more systematic effort to facilitate and encourage cross-disciplinary and multi-stakeholder collaborative platforms. This is broadly what “A New Agenda for Peace” calls for, and would be a practical example of what the Secretary-General means when he talks about a new era of networked multilateralism.

Cedric de Coning is a research professor with the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs (NUPI) and a senior advisor to the African Center for the Constructive Resolution of Disputes (ACCORD). Gracsious Maviza is a Research Scientist, the Regional Lead for Southern Africa within the CGIAR FOCUS Climate Security Team and the Alliance of Biodiversity International and CIAT, and a Research Associate with the University of Johannesburg. Kheira Tarif is a researcher in the Climate Change and Risk Programme of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI).

This article is part of a series reflecting on the July 2023 publication of the UN Secretary-General’s policy brief, “A New Agenda for Peace.”