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After UNSC disappointment, African Union picks up the climate-security baton

Many were disappointed last week when Russia vetoed an historic United Nations Security Council (UNSC) resolution that would have formally recognised climate change as a threat to peace and security at the global level. On the same day, however, the African Union’s (AU) own Peace and Security Council (PSC) released a communique on the theme of climate change, peace and security, which highlighted how climate impacts can aggravate conflict and called for an “informed climate-security-development nexus”. The statement from the AU PSC demonstrates that although the UNSC resolution was overturned, action will continue on this issue, driven by actors most affected by climate security risks.

Disappointment at the UNSC

The UNSC resolution, drafted by Ireland and Niger and co-sponsored by 113 member states, would have formalized discussions about climate security in the UN’s most powerful body. It called for regular reports on how climate change could exacerbate conflict risks in regions on the Council’s agenda, for the inclusion of climate change impacts in security analysis, and for peacekeeping operations to pay more attention to these risks.

Russia (which as a permanent member has veto power on the Council) struck down the resolution on the grounds that it would politicise the issue of climate change, for which there already exist dedicated UN bodies like the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). India voted with Russia; China abstained. UN Ambassador to Ireland, Geraldine Byrne Nelson, said Ireland and Niger were “extremely disappointed” that the “historic and important” resolution did not pass. With Brazil’s climate-sceptic administration among those taking a seat at the UNSC next year, another attempt at a climate security resolution seems unlikely in the near term.

Communique from the African Union

Commentators noted the symbolism that on the same day the resolution was vetoed, the AU PSC released a Communique on “the need for an informed climate-security-development nexus for Africa”. The document makes clear the AU’s stance on the link between climate change and peace. They characterise climate change as a “threat multiplier to the peace and security landscape of the continent” with the potential to aggravate “existing vulnerabilities, tensions and conflicts”.

Three elements of the Communique deserve highlighting. First, the AU emphasise the need to build capacity among member states on the nexus between climate, security and development. This means equipping member states with tools to analyse climate risks, and how they could undermine security risks or reverse development gains. The document highlights Africa-based research institutes which can play a role in this, including the Institute of Water, Energy and Climate Change (PAUWES) in Tlemcen (Algeria) and the Cairo International Centre for Conflict Resolution, Peacekeeping and Peacebuilding (CCCPA).

Second, the Communique reiterates the need to include the climate dimension in national and continental early warning activities. Early warning activities play a critical role in conflict prevention strategies, providing information and analysis on events that undermine human security and could increase the risk of conflict. Mainstreaming a climate dimension into this analysis would mean AU member states are better equipped to prevent conflicts that could emerge as a result of climate impacts, such as severe weather events, droughts, or floods.

Third, the statement acknowledges that the climate crisis is likely to impact the ability of communities to rebuild in the wake of conflict. The Communique contains new language from the AU on the importance of adopting a “climate-sensitive planning dimension in peacekeeping and post-conflict reconstruction and development efforts to prevent any relapse to armed conflicts in fragile communities”. Forward-looking action to include climate impacts in post-conflict reconstruction is a novel approach to peacekeeping, which could help to build resilience in the face of multiple risks.

The AU’s leadership on Climate Security

The message from the AU shows that even if progress on a climate security UNSC resolution has stalled for now, momentum continues in other fora. As Amani Africa – a think tank – tweeted, “the veto will only delay but not slow down action on the subject”. 

The AU’s Communique also shows that, in the absence of leadership from UNSC level, regional and country actors will fill the gap, to drive forward the agenda on climate security in 2022. This is a role the AU has played for some time. In March 2021, the AU PSC issued an “unprecedentedcommunique on the effects of climate change on peace, security, and stability in Africa, which called for a “Continental framework to proactively respond to the security threats posed by climate change”. This set an Africa-wide agenda for climate security that was advanced by Niger and Kenya, who used their 2021 UNSC presidencies to promote the issue.

What’s next?

With the 27th UNFCCC COP due to be hosted in Egypt in 2022, we can expect climate security, and particularly its implications across Africa, to remain on the international agenda. Egypt was the country which spearheaded the recent AU PSC session on climate security as chair of the PSC. In the meantime, we will continue to see discussion and analysis on how to respond to the threat of climate security from countries, like those in the AU, threatened by these risks, as well as from think tanks and NGOs focused on this issue around the globe. Donor countries that have been bringing political leadership to climate security will continue to push in other fora. Multilateral initiatives such as Weathering Risk are already building the knowledge base and assessment tools that can inform the elements of the AU PSC Communique highlighted above. Climate security remains an urgent issue, and progress in multiple areas could mean that before long, the UNSC, permanent members included, has no choice but to catch up with the consensus.