Climate Change and the UN Security Council: Bully Pulpit or Bull in a China Shop?

A view of the UN Security Council voting on a resolution.

In a recent article published in Global Environmental Change, “Climate Change and the UN Security council: Bully Pulpit or Bull in a China Shop?” authors Ken Conca, Joe Thwaites and Goueun Lee explore the potential for climate change to be addressed in an international security context within the UN Security Council. The securitization of climate change has in recent years become a hot topic for discussion among academics, activists and policy makers; however, as the article points out, the relationship between climate change and conflict is still uncertain and widely debated. The article critiques various sides of the debate and suggests ways in which the Council can be transformed to better suit the needs of all stakeholders. Overall, it provides a thorough synopsis of the scenario, a balanced analysis of all arguments and brief but foundational recommendations for future action by the Council.

The article points out that proponents of integrating climate change into international security considerations argue that it would draw attention to and spur global action around climate change, and these actors believe that the UN Security Council has the ability to make this happen. On the other hand, the article says, opponents’ worries range from fear of politicization to concerns about the Council’s poor history with conflict prevention. Two highlighted fears in the article include the lack of understanding of the actual links between climate change and conflict as well as the worry that securitization of climate change could potentially inhibit important sustainable and long-term development actions.

Drawing on interviews of UN Security Council members and analysis of other research, the article outlines the foremost proposals for how the UN Security Council should address climate change and determines how achievable they are given the current Council structure.

The six proposals presented include: incorporating climate understanding into Council operations; integrating climate variables into conflict early-warning systems; working on preventative measures rather than defaulting to reactive ones; addressing threats, especially those related to climate change, to small-island states; addressing climate refugees and how they relate to conflict; and developing climate-related international moral and legal responsibilities, especially concerning climate change. The article analyses each proposition and weighs all sides, backing up arguments with interview material from Council members or other research.

The article concludes that currently, the UN Security Council lacks the institutional capacity – though not the mandate - to handle the issue. Though this is perhaps set to change under Sweden’s presidency of the Council, when plans to create a Special Representative on Climate Change and Security and create an institutional home for the issue are already in discussion. The article also rightly notes that transforming climate change into a security issue can provide the framework and encouragement needed to reshape the Council into a more capable body.

The list of recommendations for future action that can help to reshape Council functions related to climate change and security are informed and pragmatic. These include: improving the Secretary-General’s reports to include climate-conflict context; formulating future initiatives that are supported by affected member states; drawing on past experience to evaluate the capacity of the United Nations to respond to climate-driven conflict; encouraging countries to address climate change in their campaigns for elected seats on the Council; and working for a symbolic gesture by the P5, such as an agreement for collaboration on tackling climate change.

The article commendably does not take sides in the clash between proponents and opponents of UN Security Council engagement on climate-security issues; it simply points out that both have the potential to be addressed through the restructuring of the Council. It notes that instead of focusing on the debate between groups, it is instead important to focus on creating a Council that can adequately address all issues and satisfy all states. While most current literature addresses the debate between groups or calls for actions correlating with one side of the debate, this article instead focuses on how the current debating can become a constructive tool to inform future actions. While restructuring the functions of the UN Security Council may seem like an ambitious goal, the article’s recommendations, though brief, provide a simple framework for how actors can begin to formulate plans for a better Council, beginning with addressing climate change.

Overall, this article provides a brief but informative introduction into the debate as well as suggestions for steps to take moving forward. The interviews from UN Security Council actors strengthen the claims made by the authors, as does the research the authors draw from. Ultimately, the article indicates there is great potential for climate change to spur a transformation of the UN Security Council into a body that is holistically more capable of addressing leading global issues.

Download the article "Climate Change and the UN Security Council: Bully Pulpit or Bull in a China Shop?" here.

Access here the authors' analysis of the original article.