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

People wade through floods in central Mozambique on 14 February 2020. The country has been struggling with extreme weather, food insecurity, and an insurgency by Islamist militants in its northern provinces. (Keystone/EPA/Andre Catueira)

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is scheduled to preside over a Security Council meeting virtually on climate and security risks on 23 February. The British introduced the topic to the Council in 2007, but with Washington’s 180-degree turn toward climate change action now and certain new Security Council members that are climate-friendly, 2021 could be the year the theme becomes more prominent in the United Nations’ most important decision-making body. That focus includes appointing a special envoy on climate security to brief the Council regularly - if China and Russia do not get in the way.

As the science around climate and security becomes more precise and clear links are being drawn between the two, many Council members want the topic prioritised in their work. According to a new report by the International Committee of the Red Cross, 60 per cent of the most-vulnerable countries in the world are affected by armed conflict, such as the Central African Republic, Somalia, and Mali.  These places, already damaged in some cases by decades of conflict, are disproportionately hit by climate extremes.

“It's pretty clear how that works: you have a climate disaster that can trigger famine that can trigger conflict, and lo and behold, you've got a challenge to international peace and security,” Barbara Woodward, Britain’s ambassador to the UN said in an interview in January about the 23 February meeting.

From no engagement to “America is back”. In July 2020, Germany had its last monthly rotating presidency of its two-year term in the Council and needed to leave a strong legacy: a legally binding resolution to establish a UN envoy position on climate and security “to strengthen the coordination between relevant UN entities in addressing climate-related security risks” the 11-page resolution read.

Donald Trump was president of the United States then, and his possible re-election was fast approaching. Not only was his administration hostile towards the UN, but it had also withdrawn from the Paris agreement, a voluntary pact to forge a coordinated global agenda on mitigating carbon emissions. The US did not engage with the negotiations on the German draft resolution, so the delegation did not bring it to a vote in the Council, avoiding a potentially embarrassing veto from not only the US but also possibly China and Russia.

“You're fully aware of the work that was done by the like-minded Member States last year on the resolution, which is a very comprehensive, very substantive text. Unfortunately - I shouldn't use this word  - but the climate wasn't right,” John Gilroy, the climate and sustainable development expert at the Irish mission to the UN, said in a video interview. “If the dynamics improve sufficiently, then I think absolutely, it will be something that would be worth revisiting.” Ireland became an elected member of the Council in January, as Germany’s term ended.

Germany has since shared its draft resolution with other Council members and created an informal group among UN member states on climate and security to keep the effort going. Last year, the group was chaired by Niger, another elected Council member, and Germany. Ireland took over the role of Germany on the issue.

Other new Council members, such as Norway and Kenya, have also expressed interest in drawing a link between climate and international security and putting the issue on the Council’s agenda. France, having led the Paris Agreement negotiations, is committed to the topic as well.

“We have drafted a very substantial resolution in collaboration with nine other members of the Security Council, Christoph Heusgen, Germany’s ambassador to the UN, said. “There is a strong feeling in the UN, on and off the Security Council, that this is a good text. We are happy for other countries to build on it. If there is enough political will, the resolution could be adopted as is, or it could serve as the basis for further work.”

The US mission to the UN declined to provide comments for this article. However, in her confirmation hearing, the US nominee for UN ambassador, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, said on 27 January, “I will tell you that the President and Secretary Kerry [ the new US climate envoy] intend to host a climate conference probably as soon as April, so this will be something that we will focus on at the United Nations, but it's also something we will focus around the globe on.”

The US holds the Council presidency in March, and some diplomats say the US could also raise the climate change topic then.

Russia & China. If Washington’s approach toward addressing the links of climate change to conflict is a positive step in the eyes of many countries in the Council,  not all members agree. China and Russia, (P2) two permanent, veto-holding members of the Council, have repeatedly expressed their concern that the Council is not the right place for this discussion, based on procedural grounds. Russia, for example, thinks that climate change is best tackled through UN organisations like the UN Environment Programme, which has no legally binding power.

Cedric de Coning, a research professor at the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs, thinks one way of bridging the gap between China and Russia and the other members is to add specific language to topics and meetings instead of going for an all-encompassing resolution. “I see the topic refining and becoming richer,” he said. “In the beginning, there was an oversimplification in terms of the expectation of direct linear causes.” The institute has received a grant from Norway to brief the Security Council on climate and security issues.

During July’s Council meeting, Russia’s permanent representative, Vassily Nebenzia, couldn’t have made his country’s position clearer: “We strongly disagree that climate is a generic security issue,” he said.  More recently, a Russian diplomat reiterated to Geneva Solutions that Russia doesn’t support “generic issues like this on the UNSC agenda” when talking about creating an envoy post.

“The US was against it, that's no secret,” a former Security Council diplomat said. “The interesting development was in the aftermath of the resolution, when it was no longer on the table, but we were establishing the IEG [informal expert group], Russia and China put forward objections. They didn't object on substantive grounds, but much more on procedural grounds at the Security Council.”

Nevertheless, the two countries both sent observers to the expert group’s first meeting. China has also just made historical commitments to reducing carbon emissions, so it could be more open than Russia on the topic, leaving its ally in the Council isolated.

“I think we've got a real opportunity there to change the dynamic in the Security Council,” Woodward of Britain said. “China, I think, does want to explore the question of the security aspects, and let's not forget that the Chinese have made a commitment to net-zero by 2060. So they are already important climate contributors.”

Still, China remains conservative on bringing the topic into the Council. In July, its ambassador to the UN, Zhang Jun, said: “Climate change is, in essence, a development issue rather than a security issue, there is no direct linkage between the two. Solution of climate change rests on the sustainable development.”

Niger, a landlocked country in West Africa that has suffered dearly from climate-change effects, has taken the file to heart by stating clear links between global warming and security in many of its Council remarks, especially when talking about the simmering conflict back home in the Sahel region. In September, Niger’s president, Mahamadou Issoufou, chaired a meeting on the topic in the Council. “We’d rather have the Security Council understand this issue now and act in a preventative capacity than later on, coming when the issue is really at the forefront,“ said Karim Soumana, the alternate political coordinator and climate expert at the country’s UN mission.   “We had to be proactive rather than reactive. That's our goal.”

Niger will hold its last rotating presidency of its Council term in December and wants to lead with the issue.

“Covid has shown us that realities and perception change, and what was valid 75 years ago may not be valid anymore," Soumana said. "In the 75 years since the establishment of the Council, certain things weren't on the agenda. Nowadays, Covid has shown us that certain issues that are non-traditional issues also belong to the Council.”

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This article has been published in joint collaboration with PassBlue, an independent US-based journalism platform dedicated to UN news.