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Gauging the Temperature: Climate Change in the UN Security Council

A farmer in South Darfur rides his cart while UNAMID troops arrive at the village as part of a routine patrol.

For the United Nations to fulfil its mandate of safeguarding peace and international security, it must align with the issues surrounding climate change. It has made great strides in this direction through the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and the Paris Climate Agreement. However, it has made less progress in addressing the risks of social and political instability, insecurity and conflict that arise from the interaction of climate change and social, economic, demographic, and political factors. Because the UN Security Council has a pre-eminent role concerning international peace and security, some responsibility for addressing the interlinkages between climate change and threats to international security inevitably lies within the Security Council. But what exactly should those responsibilities entail? Should they be purely reactive, or is there scope for preventive engagement?

Back in June, Germany was elected for a seat on the UN Security Council from January 2019 to December 2020. Its candidacy showed promise to push the climate security agenda at the Security Council, with Foreign Minister Heiko Maas co-initiating a Group of Friends on Climate and Security together with Nauru that was officially launched on 27 March 2018. During an earlier stint at the Security Council, the German Council presidency had, in July 2011, managed to negotiate what remains to date the only presidential statement on the issue – S/PRST/2011/15. How has the issue evolved, and what prospects does a renewed engagement on climate security risks offer?

The good news is that there has been a remarkable uptick in UNSC discussions on the issue and that the risks related to climate change have started entering regional UNSC resolutions –  particularly due to sustained European efforts. Italy hosted an Arria debate on the security implications of rising temperatures in December 2017, the Netherlands did a briefing on Lake Chad in March 2018, and Sweden held a Council debate in July 2018. These efforts have led to several UNSC resolutions emphasizing the adverse effects of climate change and, perhaps more importantly, the operationalization of this issue and the need for 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), Somalia (S/Res/2408), Mali (S/Res/2423), and Darfur (S/Res/2429).

This increase in references should, however, not be misunderstood to imply that all UN Security Council members were convinced. There are fewer countries today that reproach the Council for encroaching on the prerogatives of other UN entities than there were in 2011. However, several important UNSC members remain sceptical to further extending UNSC involvement into issues that are climate change-labelled – although there has not yet been any actual resistance to the idea of greater assessment of climate-related security risks. A notable and promising shift was noticed with China, whose intervention at the Swedish UNSC debate on climate-related security risks signalled a significant shift towards a more holistic approach to security in the UNSC. So, progress will remain an uphill struggle, but it is by no means a lost cause.

Undeniably, the Security Council does not have the expertise and resources to address climate change and security implications across the board. But it does not have to act alone. By requesting appropriate analysis and climate sensitivity from the UN peacebuilding community, it can play an essential role in building a broader awareness around these issues and, subsequently, in reducing adverse effects.

As the debate at the UNSC shifts towards the question of how to deal with the impacts of climate change, Germany will face two major challenges. The first one is to persuade those who remain reticent to the importance of including longer-term global security threats on the Council’s agenda, or showcase initiatives that seek to address their concerns better. The second one is to support the Council and the entire UN system in their efforts to go beyond awareness-raising to systematically integrate efforts at building resilience to climate security risks into their work. Neither challenge will be easy to overcome, but recent progress in the Council’s recognition of the links between climate change and international security offers reasons for optimism.