Climate change is a security threat – so where is the UN Security Council?

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Climate change is one of the great security challenges of the 21st century. As the world warms, conflicts over water, food or energy will become more common and many people will be forced from their homes. Scientists, think-tanks, NGOs, militaries and even the White House (albeit under President Obama) all agree that climate change threatens human safety and well-being. Yet the organisation charged with global security has remained relatively silent.

The UN Security Council, responsible for maintaining international peace and security, is comprised of 15 countries. Five seats are reserved for permanent members with veto powers (China, France, Russia, the UK and the US) while the other ten members are elected to represent their region (“Africa”, “Asia-Pacific” etc) for two year terms.

The ten current elected members (Italy and the Netherlands split one two year term between them).
wiki, CC BY-SA

Together, this semi-rotating group of 15 takes binding decisions for all 193 UN members. This alone makes the Security Council a very powerful institution, but combined with its capacity to sanction, and intervene in the affairs of states it has an influence far exceeding that of any other international body. It is, in many respects, the executive of the international system.

For this reason the council has considered contemporary security challenges such as international terrorism, nuclear weapon proliferation, and transnational crime. Positive results include an international crackdown on the financing of terrorism, the sharing of information to tackle various criminal problems, stronger border controls for nuclear materials, and the global mobilisation of experts to address a health epidemic.

The fact the Security Council has helped combat these varied and largely unrelated challenges shows its potential to do good. Yet these interventions also pose the critical question of why it has yet to engage climate change in any meaningful way. Article 41 sanctions would be available to the council in the event of states not meeting their Paris Agreement obligations. Economic sanctions could also be placed upon corporations, that currently operate with relatively little international scrutiny. What the council brings is an ability to coerce – something that is currently lacking throughout international climate law.

Global challenge vs state sovereignty

The council hasn’t entirely ignored climate change, of course. In 2007 the first open debate on the matter took place, though this was based on the unofficial proviso that no binding output would follow. Similar discussions were held in 2011 and 2013 but again stark divides among the members prevented any meaningful outputs.

The Security Council, like the UN itself, was formed after World War II.
Golden Brown / shutterstock

What this represents is a lack of unity over whether climate change really belongs on the agenda. While most states now agree climate change is a priority – as exhibited by the success of the Paris conference in 2015 – there is no consensus on what role, if any, the Security Council should play.

From one perspective, countries like New Zealand and Germany view climate change as a security issue of immense proportions and worthy of the council’s attention. On the other hand, states such as China and South Africa argue that if the council engages with climate change it will undermine the sovereignty of states, fracturing the international system.

These positions are entrenched, reflecting vastly opposing ideologies in relation to both climate change and international relations, thus precluding any meaningful intervention. Yet this does not necessarily mean that the Security Council is frozen indefinitely.

Climate change slowly moving onto the agenda

The council has a history of taking tentative steps when moving into new territory, and climate change will not be an exception. In 2011 a statement made by then-president of the Security Council (a position that rotates between member states each month) loosely linked climate change and traditional security challenges. In 2017, the council unanimously adopted Resolution 2349, which hinted that climate change had contributed to conflict and instability around Lake Chad and the wider Sahel region. And in January 2018 a second presidential statement twice referenced climate change in the context of instability in the Sahel region.

These statements fall short of finding climate change an explicit security threat, but do they show the council is steadily becoming more comfortable with the subject. And without that degree of comfort we would likely not have seen the passing of Resolution 2408 on March 27, 2018.

This resolution, again adopted unanimously, extended the mandate of the UN mission in Somalia for another year and became the latest council resolution to include reference to climate change. The language remains speculative and the council is careful to only recall its 2011 statement instead of making a bolder standalone declaration on climate security.

However, inclusion of the expression “grave concern” in regard to the drought and famine engulfing Somalia is proof that the council is experiencing a change of perspective. It is beginning to make discursive links between environmental realities and security, using the language often reserved for terrorism or nuclear weapon proliferation.

The resolution fails to indict climate change as the cause of these problems yet it is nonetheless progress. After years of dispute council members are starting to agree on the inclusion of the words “climate change” in a resolution – a big step forward for the world’s most powerful but politically polarised body.

So where are we? The Security Council has access to the tools the world so desperately needs to enforce state and private action on climate change, and although it is taking its time there is some advancement. That does not mean climate change is about to be recognised as a security concern in its own right, but each step taken is valuable and the council is certainly on the right path to identifying climate change as the security threat it so clearly is.

The Conversation

Ashley Murphy receives funding from Keele University to conduct a PhD research project into international environmental governance through the Security Council.

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