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Will India shift its stance on climate security in the UNSC?

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India will join the UNSC as a non-permanent member for a two-year term, starting in January 2021. The elections for five non-permanent members were held by the UN General Assembly (UNGA) on 17 June 2020; as the only endorsed candidate from the Asia-Pacific group, India’s place in the UNSC was guaranteed. In this light, the Indian Government also released a campaign brochure presenting its priorities at the UNSC.

Unlike some of the other contenders, such as Norway and Kenya, India did not mention “climate change” overtly as a priority in its campaign. Its focus largely lay on issues such as countering international terrorism, promoting UN reforms and streamlining UN peacekeeping operations. However, India remains committed to “addressing climate change”, as India’s External Affairs Minister Jaishankar pointed out during the brochure launch on 5 June 2020.

India’s positions on climate security discussions in the UNSC

Since 2007, India’s position has been one of either opposing or cautioning against discussing climate security in the UNSC on several grounds. As a case in point, when in 2019 the Dominican Republic convened an open debate on the impacts of climate-related disasters on international peace and security, the Indian representative to the UN Syed Akbaruddin pointed out that the “security approach” to climate change could hinder “the global collective effort” to tackle climate challenges. He further said that it was not the appropriate governance mechanism to tackle a “global challenge” like climate change.

India’s argument has been that securitisation carries significant downsides and risks bringing about “militarised solutions” to problems that inherently require “non-military responses.” Therefore, climate change should be discussed in forums such as the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), UNGA, Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) and other organs and conventions of the UN that are more representative and participatory in comparison to the UNSC, which also houses five veto-wielding countries. Finally, India’s position has highlighted that issues such as climate change need a “broader approach, anchored in development, adaptive capacity, risk assessment and institutional build-up,” rather than a sanctions-based one.

Winds of change in India’s approach to climate security

At the same time, several indicators of recognition of the security implications of climate change have emerged nationally in recent years. Notable among them is the inclusion of climate security (and other related issues such as food security, water security, agricultural stress etc.) in India’s National Security: Annual Reviews – a compilation of essays and analyses by Indian academic, security and policy experts, some also members of government agencies such as the National Security Advisory Board and the Prime Minister’s Council on Climate Change (PMCCC).

In one of the articles of a series on Policy Challenges 2019-2024, brought out by The Print (an Indian newspaper) and Centre for Policy Research (a leading Indian think tank) in 2019, former Prime Minister’s Envoy on Climate Change (during 2008-2010) Shyam Saran, called for integrating issues such as climate change into future security frameworks as they directly impinge on military, economic, social and political security. Not only did he highlight the “consequences of the melting of glaciers on the deployment of troops at high-altitude locations on India’s mountainous borders,” but also “large-scale migration of populations from low-lying coastal plains towards higher ground,” which “may lead to social disruptions and economic distress, undermining domestic security.” India does not have a formal national security strategy (NSS) yet, but he stressed that discussion on issues such as climate change, among others, could make the NSS more citizen-centric, once it is drawn up.

Similarly, Chandrasekhar Dasgupta, an ex-member of the PMCCC, former diplomat and India’s lead negotiator at several climate summits, also labelled climate change as a “threat multiplier” that requires “substantial global cooperation not only for mitigation of climate change but also to adapt to the impact of climate change.” So discussions on climate security are happening nationally to a certain extent. Yet, India has to date refrained from linking them with the UNSC agenda. This perhaps reflects India’s traditional approach of not linking domestic action on climate change to international climate action (as seen in its stance in the climate change negotiations, particularly before the 2011 Durban Summit).

India’s future goals

Jaishankar’s speech at the launch of India’s UNSC campaign brochure reveals a few directions in which India may take multilateral action on climate change going forward. First, India has committed to “multilateralism, rule of law and a fair and equitable international system.” These are also key to India’s 5-S approach – Samman (Respect), Samvad (Dialogue), Sahyog (Cooperation), Shanti (Peace) and Samriddhi (Prosperity).

The government has, moreover, recognised the emergence of “new and complicated challenges” that require a “coherent, pragmatic, nimble and effective platform for collaboration to ensure sustainable peace.” India’s recent experience of dealing with COVID-19, the cyclones Amphan and Nisarga, a locust attack and extreme heat, among others, have, in a way, underscored the interconnected nature of several risks that have implications for governance and security.

By focussing on non-traditional security challenges and India’s positive role in the international system, India is thus carving out a space for itself to bring forth the ideas of climate action and justice. These ideas remain an indispensable part of the Indian government’s multilateral agenda, which is simultaneously embedded in the development and poverty reduction needs of the country.

India also realises the geopolitical implications of addressing climate change from different perspectives than those of its regional neighbours. Most countries in South Asia advocate for adopting a climate security lens to discuss solutions to climate-related challenges. India’s push for a permanent seat in the UNSC and its attempts at fostering broader regional cooperation could be reinvigorated by greater flexibility on climate security.

India has shown that it can be well positioned to promote dialogue with developing countries on their key concerns, of which the security-related implications of climate change is clearly one. Jaishankar also highlighted the relevance of the principles of fairness, effectiveness, representation and transparency in India’s multilateral approach to global governance. These principles can be effectively used to advance the global agenda on sustainable development, including climate change action, as a means of achieving international peace and security.

Dr. Dhanasree Jayaram is Co-Coordinator at the Centre for Climate Studies and Assistant Professor at the Department of Geopolitics and International Relations, Manipal Academy of Higher Education (MAHE), Karnataka, India.

[The views expressed in this article are personal.]