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Climate change as a security risk: How Germany should address climate change at the UNSC

United Nations Security Council (UNSC) debate on climtate-related security risks, held in January 2019.

In the wake of Germany’s United Nations Security Council (UNSC) presidency for the month of July 2020, its role in addressing climate change in the body gains even greater importance. A look into selected UNSC members that are also pushing the climate issue reveals: health and economic risks are key entry-points.

How can Germany address climate change as a global security risk and make it a top priority of the UNSC? This is the question that researchers from the Willy Brandt School of Public Policy in Erfurt investigated over a four-month long research partnership in cooperation with adelphi.

Building on an understanding that to achieve its goal, Germany will need the support of other UNSC members, our research focused on the Dominican Republic, Viet Nam, and South Africa – three states that are also UNSC members in 2020. What we found is that overall, the economic risk and the health risk posed by climate change are widely understood and acknowledged by all three states. Reduced agricultural activity stemming from water scarcity and the resultant impact on people’s livelihood are matters of deep concern for all states. The Dominican Republic is also concerned about reduced tourist influx due to extreme weather events and loss of infrastructure in the island.

From a health perspective, it is interesting to see the overlaps and the unique distinctions between the Dominican Republic, Viet Nam, and South Africa. The Dominican Republic is most worried about climate change’s potential to cause a regional spillover of disease, especially from neighbouring Haiti, which has weak governance and public health systems in place. South Africa is also concerned about the health risk of climate change but has a more inward-looking perspective. Worsening air quality and the spread of vector- and water-borne diseases among vulnerable populations are what South Africa is worried about. Similar to South Africa, Viet Nam is also concerned about the potential spread of epidemics that can be triggered by the worsening impacts of climate change.

What lessons can Germany draw from these findings and how can it garner support at the UNSC to elevate climate as a security threat? To start with, our research suggests that using economic and health narratives to talk about climate change will likely find most traction among other states. Germany should, therefore, talk about the potential negative economic impacts of climate change and resultant social disharmony and unrest; or alternately, build on the existing public health concerns of climate change and subsequent pressure on public health systems. Couching its message within these themes is likely to be most effective in furthering Germany’s objective of advancing the nexus between climate and security.

The fact that the health and economic risks of climate change are widely acknowledged in three countries as geographically, economically, socially and governmentally diverse as the Dominican Republic, South Africa and Viet Nam, can have implications for Germany’s approach to other ‘states at risk’. The Dominican Republic, South Africa and Viet Nam are considered to be ‘states at risk’ due to their limited adaptive capacity and therefore increased vulnerability to the security risks of climate change. While further research will be needed to fully validate this hypothesis, our initial research findings are promising in this regard.

Besides the two themes (economic risk and health risk) which should guide Germany’s climate-security narrative, our research also found two ‘phenomenological perspectives’ of the states at risk on the nature of climate change. First, all three states were of the view that climate change poses risks which must be faced collectively through multilateral action, with states emphasising a ‘common but differentiated responsibilities’ approach. Second, all states were in favour of an approach that maintains synergy between economic development and climate change mitigation and adaptation. While the Dominican Republic views climate change mitigation and adaptation as a necessary complement to economic development, South Africa views it as secondary to economic development. Despite these differences, our research findings overwhelmingly support the idea that ‘states at risk’, which are usually low-middle income countries, are not enthusiastic about climate change mitigation if it compromises their economic potential.

These phenomenological perspectives have certain important implications for Germany. This provides an indication that states at risk are more likely to support efforts to address the impacts of climate change on the global stage, provided such efforts do not compromise economic growth. On the other hand, states will be willing to make the necessary financial commitments to a UNSC action regarding climate-security issues if their economic growth is not stifled. Moreover, a multilateral approach to climate change, which acknowledges the different capabilities as well as the differing responsibilities of individual countries, is more likely to find favour.

Our findings with respect to the themes and the phenomenological perspectives provide Germany a strong basis for identifying entry points to advocate for the inclusion of climate-security nexus issues at the UNSC. It shows that even states that do not explicitly emphasise the security risk posed by climate change, such as South Africa, are concerned about the economic risks of climate change which demonstrably pose a risk to national and global security. The findings regarding the salience of climate change-induced health risks is especially pertinent in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic that the world is currently grappling with. The only historic precedent for the inclusion of non-traditional security issues at the UNSC was the Ebola outbreak, when the UNSC mobilised action to thwart the impacts. Since climate change is a threat multiplier - meaning that it exacerbates issues such as disease - by weakening the resilience of systems, inclusive of natural, societal, and built systems, there is certainly a case that Germany can make for establishing the climate-security nexus at the UNSC.