UN Security Council considers the climate threat

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson hosting the UN Security Council's virtual meeting on climate change risks in London, 23 February 2021. (Keystone/Bloomberg EPA/Hollie Adams)

The UN Security Council held a rare high-level debate on climate security on Tuesday in a sign that the body could be ready to take up the issue. One after the other, countries took the virtual floor to address the climate emergency and the security risks it poses for the planet.

During the three-hour open meeting, states highlighted how climate change was threatening world security, with droughts, floods and resource scarcity fuelling violent conflicts, driving poverty and forcing people to flee their homes.

“Whether you like it or not, it is a matter of when, not if, your country and your people will have to deal with the security impacts of climate change,” said UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who led calls for the Council to act.

Climate change and its impacts on security and stability have remained outside the Council’s official agenda, until now. The UK introduced the issue in 2007 in a letter addressed to the Council, but failed to rally support from other core members. Since then, several debates have taken place on the theme of climate change, increasingly acknowledging the risk implications.

Read also: Could 2021 be the year of climate and security on the Security Council?

At Tuesday’s meeting, several states pointed out the overlapping of violent conflict and climate-related impacts, stressing that eight of the ten countries with the biggest peacekeeping operations were highly vulnerable to climate change.

French President Emmanuel Macron said that the link between climate change and security was “undeniable”, citing the example of Africa’s Sahel region, where France’s military troops have been battling against Islamist militias for the past eight years.

Many member states cited Africa as one of the most worrying regions. Rising temperatures, increasingly frequent extreme weather events and locust infestations have driven up competition for land, water and other resources. The effects of climate change have exacerbated existing tensions and contributed to violent conflict in countries such as South Sudan, Kenya and Somalia.

“Some 15 years ago, the first debates were about whether climate change should be discussed or not at the Security Council,” said Alexander Verbeek, an expert on climate security issues at the Geneva Centre for Security Policy and creator of the Planetary Security Initiative, speaking to Geneva Solutions.

“It is a positive sign that the vast majority of countries does by now recognise the negative impact of climate change on security and believes that this is a matter that should be discussed in the UN Security Council.”

The role of the Council. Certain member states have been  proponents of the Council having a strong mandate regarding climate security for quite some time.

Speaking during the debate, Germany unearthed its 2020 proposal for the Council to pass a resolution on climate security. The text had stopped short of being submitted to the Council last July to avoid a probable veto from Russia, China or the United States under the Trump administration.

The draft resolution required the secretary general to report regularly on the security implications of climate change and for a special envoy for climate and security to be appointed. It also asked for training for all relevant UN personnel on the impacts of climate change for peace and security, and more cooperation with local actors.

“Now is the moment to put a strong text back on the table, and to adopt it,” said Heiko Maas, Germany’s federal minister for foreign affairs. “A resolution would demonstrate to the world that the Security Council is showing leadership on what is one of the craziest threats to peace and security of our times.”

Germany’s proposal was also backed by statements made by other countries, including Norway, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, and France, who is one of the five permanent members of the UN body.

In a break from the position of the US under former President Trump, the newly appointed US special envoy for climate John Kerry signalled support for the inclusion of climate on the Council’s agenda. Kerry also told member states the US was open to hear from the Group of Friends on Climate and Security - an informal group established by Germany in 2018 to work on solutions for the impact of climate change on security policy, which has rallied over 50 countries and who is behind the existing draft resolution.

Russia, one of five permanent members of the Council, would also have to be on board for any resolution on climate security to get through. But despite recognising the need to tackle climate change, Russia showed resistance to giving it a place on the Council’s agenda.

“Considering climate as the root cause of security issues is a distraction from the true root causes, and this means it also leads us down the wrong path in looking for solutions to these problems,” said Russia’s representative Vasily Nebenzya, adding that other factors such as political and socio-economic conditions have a greater influence on security.

While not explicitly opposing the inclusion of the topic in the council’s agenda, China recalled that “any role the Security Council plays on climate change, needs to fall within the Council's purview”. China has recently stepped up its climate diplomacy, having pledge to become carbon neutral by 2060.

Some common ground. States did agree on one thing: other UN institutions have a key role to play, particularly the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

“We must leverage and build on the strengths of different stakeholders, including  this Council, the Peacebuilding Commission, international financial institutions, regional organisations, civil society, the private sector, academia and others,” said UN secretary general Antonio Guterres urged member states “to use their influence during this pivotal year to ensure the success of COP26” which is due to be held in Glasgow in November.

Echoing his remarks, the UK prime minister said: “Climate change is a geopolitical issue every bit as much as it is an environmental one, and if this council is going to succeed in maintaining peace and security worldwide then it’s got to galvanise the whole range of UN agencies and organisations into a swift and effective response.”

While discussions of a comprehensive resolution on climate security are still at early stages, Verbeek says that the issue being raised at the Council can already positively influence other actors. For example, think tanks could contribute to developing better predictions and analysis of the climate risks, or defence ministries could include climate change into their security policies.

“The Security Council is the most powerful decision-making body that the UN has; it is the only one that has the authority to issue binding resolutions on member states. It does make a difference when we see that climate change is increasingly mentioned in UNSC resolutions as a factor for instability and conflict,” Verbeek explained.

“This issue needs to be embraced at the highest coordinating level within the UN. It should result in better risk analysis and better strategies to deal with these risks while fully recognising that all the other UN family members should focus on it as well.”