Climate Security at the UN Security Council - A Short History
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Whereas these issues touch the mandates of many UN organs and agencies, the UN Charter assigns the UN Security Council a pre-eminent role with respect to safeguarding international peace and security. As climate change is becoming an increasingly stronger force in disrupting human, national and international security, the Security Council is facing rising demands to address these security risks.
How has the UN Security Council engaged on climate-related security risks so far?
The Security Council is increasingly recognising that international peace and security depend on comprehensive engagement with the core drivers of conflict. These core drivers include economic, social and environmental issues, in particular grievances related to marginalisation and loss of livelihoods. Although there has not yet been a dedicated UNSC resolution on climate change per se, the Council's position has slowly evolved: it now acknowledges security risks related to climate change and calls for appropriate risk assessment and management in specific geographic contexts.
In April 2007, the Security Council first discussed the interlinkages between energy, climate, and security under the Presidency of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland (S/PV.5663).
In June 2007, it held a meeting on Natural Resources and Conflict under the monthly presidency of Belgium.
Two years later, in June 2009, the UN General Assembly passed resolution A/RES/63/281, proposed by the Pacific Small Island Developing States (Federated States of Micronesia, Fiji, Kiribati, Nauru, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Republic of the Marshall Islands, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tuvalu, Tonga and Vanuatu), which asked the UN Secretary-General to produce a comprehensive report on climate change and its possible security implications.
Published in September 2009, the report (A/64/350) highlighted climate change as a ‘threat multiplier’ with the potential to exacerbate existing threats to international peace and security.
In July 2011, the German Presidency of the Security Council took the initiative to consolidate the topic within the UN framework by calling an Open Debate on climate change's impact on the maintenance of international peace and security. The main objectives of this Open Debate were to strengthen the profile of climate change on the foreign policy agenda and to form and strengthen international alliances to drive the necessary processes to address the issue.
In the context of this debate, the Council agreed on a presidential statement (S/PRST/2011/15), in which it recognises that “the possible adverse effects of climate change may, in the long run, aggravate certain existing threats to international peace and security”, and calls for conflict analysis and contextual information.
In February 2013, UK and Pakistan held an Arria Formula debate on the Security Dimensions of Climate Change.
In June 2013, the UK led an Open Debate on Conflict Prevention and Natural Resources.
In June 2015, Spain and Malaysia held an Arria Formula debate on Climate Change as a Threat Multiplier.
In July 2015, New Zealand held an Arria Formula debate on Peace and Security Challenges Facing Small Island Developing States.
In November 2015, Angola and Lithuania held an Arria Formula debate on Illicit Arms Transfers and Poaching in Africa.
In April 2016, Senegal held an Arria Formula debate on Water, Peace and Security.
In May 2016, Spain and Egypt held a Briefing on The Sahel: Impact of Climate Change and Desertification.
In November 2016, Senegal held an Open Debate debate on Water, Peace and Security.
In June 2017, Bolivia held a Briefing on Preventive Diplomacy and Transboundary Waters.
In December 2017, France, Italy, Japan, Sweden, the UK, the Netherlands, Peru, Germany, the Maldives and Morocco held an Arria Formula debate on Climate Change. Also, Japan held an Open Debate debate on Addressing Complex Contemporary Challenges to International Peace and Security.
In 2018, the Netherlands initiated a UNSC briefing on climate-fragility risks in the Lake Chad region.
A UNSC debate then took place in July 2018 under the Swedish Security Council presidency, reflecting on progress and on further needs for the Council to more effectively assess and address security risks related to climate change.
In October 2018, Bolivia held a Briefing on The Role of Natural Resources as a Root Cause of Conflict. Also an Arria Formula debate on Water, Peace and Security was led by Bolivia, Ivory Coast, the Netherlands, Belgium, the Dominican Republic, Germany, Indonesia and Italy.
In November 2018, Kuwait held an Arria Formula debate on Protection of the Environment during Armed Conflict.
In January 2019, the Dominican Republic initiated an Open Debate on The Impacts of Climate-Related Disasters on International Peace and Security, which saw an unprecedented number of Member States take the floor, many at ministerial level.
During its Security Council presidency in July 2020, Germany together with Belgium, the Dominican Republic, Estonia, France, Niger, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Tunisia, the United Kingdom and Viet Nam organised a High-level Debate on Climate and Security. German Federal Minister of Foreign Affairs Heiko Maas announced the creation of an Informal Expert Group on climate-related risks to peace and security and called for a Special Representative on Climate and Security. Many ministerial colleagues echoed the importance of the issue, drawing attention to a number of affected UN missions.
The inaugural meeting of the Informal Expert Group in November 2020 saw the participation of 19 countries, i.e. all current and 4 out of the 5 incoming UNSC members, underlining the support for the newly created body. The meeting provided Council members with an opportunity to discuss operational responses to climate-related security risks, focusing on Somalia. The local UN mission is the first to appoint an Environmental Security Advisor.
In February 2021, the UNSC convened for a High-level Open Debate on Maintenance of international peace and security: Climate and security held under the UK’s presidency. Several heads of state and government (e.g. Niger, France, Norway) and foreign ministers (e.g. Mexico, Ireland) participated in the debate. Most speakers stressed that climate change presents a collective security threat and acts as a risk multiplier. Many countries underlined the need to further operationalise the climate-security agenda.
In March 2021, the members of the Security Council held an Open Debate on Conflict and Food Security, organised by the United States. The debate underlined that the UNSC is increasingly concerned with less “traditional” security issues such as food insecurity and famine. Those interested in the complex interactions between climate, food and conflict, can learn more here. Also in March, the United States government informed the Permanent Representatives on the UNSC of its desire to join the Group of Friends on Climate and Security.
Under Ireland’s presidency, the Security Council held a High-level Open Debate on the Maintenance of international peace and security: climate and security in September 2021. During the debate, several Council Members requested a thematic resolution on climate and security and the Irish Taoiseach (Prime Minister) announced that work on the draft resolution was progressing.
In December 2021, a thematic resolution on systematically integrating climate-related security risks into the UN’s conflict prevention, conflict management and peacebuilding work was put to a vote in the UNSC. Tabled by Council President Niger and Ireland, the draft was co-sponsored by 113 UN Member States. However, in a recorded vote of 12 in favour to 2 against (India, Russian Federation) with 1 abstention (China), the Council rejected the draft owing to the negative vote by a permanent member of the Council. After the vote, many members deplored that the use of the veto had blocked what could have been a “ground-breaking” resolution and announced continued efforts towards addressing the security risks posed by climate change.
Niger and Ireland share the presidency of the Informal Expert Group in 2021, which has since met to discuss climate security challenges facing the Sahel. The Council terms of the Republics of Ireland and Kenya, as well as the Kingdom of Norway promise to continue the engagement with climate change as a foreign policy and security issue throughout 2021 and 2022. These three of the five incoming non-permanent members have promised to deepen the climate security-related work previous Council members engaged in and spoke at the Berlin Climate and Security Conference 2020. Watch the statements of Kenya and Norway here (during the panel debate) and Ireland's statement here.
UNSC resolutions on specific regions
The discussions on climate-related security risks in the UNSC have led to several resolutions on specific regions that emphasise the adverse effects of climate change and - more importantly - request the operationalization of this issue through adequate risk assessments and risk management strategies. These references have entered into resolutions and presidential statements on:
- Lake Chad (S/RES/2349)
- West Africa and the Sahel (S/PRST/2018/3) (S/PRST/2019/7) (S/PRST/2020/7)
- Somalia (S/RES/2408) (S/RES/2431) (S/RES/2461) (S/RES/2472) (S/RES/2520) (S/RES/2540) (S/RES/2568)
- Mali (S/RES/2423) (S/RES/2480) (S/RES/2531) (S/RES/2584)
- Sudan (S/RES/2429) (S/RES/2524) (S/RES/2579)
- Central African Republic (S/RES/2448) (S/RES/2499) (S/RES/2552)
- Democratic Republic of the Congo (S/RES/2502) (S/RES/2556)
- The "Silencing the Guns in Africa" initiative (S/RES/2457)
- Women, Peace and Security (S/RES/2242)
- Iraq (S/RES/2576)
- Cyprus (S/RES/2587)
These resolutions underscore the need for adequate risk assessments and risk management strategies and, in the case of Darfur, requested that the Secretary-General “provide information on such assessments in mandated reporting as appropriate”. The UNSC Presidential Statement of 7 August 2019 on the issue of peace consolidation in West Africa concluded that regional tensions were driven by “competition for natural resources, rapid population growth, weak governance, and pressures related to climate and ecological factors”. It also invited the Secretary General to present to the Council recommendations and observations on the effects of climate change on security, among other issues. In the same Presidential Statement, the Council recognised “the adverse effects of climate change, ecological changes and natural disasters, including through drought, desertification, land degradation and food insecurity among other factors on the stability of West Africa and the Sahel region” and again emphasised “the need for long-term strategies, based on risk assessments, by governments and the United Nations, to support stabilisation and build resilience”. It also encouraged UNOWAS to continue to integrate this information in its activities.
Podcast: The UNSC's role in addressing climate related security risk
In this episode of the Climate Diplomacy Podcast, CSEN member Oli Brown discusses some of the challenges that the UN Security Council has had in tackling climate change and outlines the prospects for action in the future.