The U.N. Security Council Finally Considers Weighing In on Climate Security
The U.N. Security Council Finally Considers Weighing In on Climate Security
Op-Ed / Global 4 minutes

The U.N. Security Council Finally Considers Weighing In on Climate Security

The United Nations Security Council may be about to pass its first-ever resolution on the implications of climate change for peace and security. The council has talked about climate security since 2007, and it has acknowledged that environmental challenges such as droughts and degradation of farming land can fuel conflicts in regions like the Sahel and the Horn of Africa. But it has not laid out a systematic approach to assessing these risks or responding to them.

This could be about to change, as Niger and Ireland—two elected members of the council—plan to table a resolution on climate security this week. The draft asks U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres to prepare a global study of climate security risks. It also encourages U.N. peace operations to pay more attention to these threats. These are quite tentative steps, but they would put the U.N.’s treatment of climate security on a sounder footing.

Coming after the underwhelming outcome of last month’s Glasgow summit on climate change, a Security Council resolution on the topic would also offer an encouraging signal about multilateral institutions’ capacity to respond to global warming. Yet the resolution could still fall victim to major power tensions at the U.N., as China and Russia may block it.

The proposed resolution enjoys widespread support among council members. Germany convened talks on a similar text last year, but shelved it when the climate-skeptical Trump administration promised to veto it. This year, the Biden administration indicated it would support a resolution. This encouraged Ireland and Niger to lead discussions on a new draft, with help from Norway and Kenya. Twelve of the 15 council members back the resolution.

Council members say that it is important that their African colleagues have led the charge on the resolution. Nigerien and Kenyan officials have been clear that they see climate change as threatening their national security, making it hard for its opponents to say it is unnecessary.

A chorus of other states inside and outside the council have flagged their support. Small island states have been vocal about the threat of rising seas to their existence, and Vietnam organized an informal council discussion of sea level rise last month ahead of the Glasgow summit.

Yet the resolution has had powerful opponents. China and Russia have voiced doubts about the proposal. India, an elected member of the council, has also been dismissive. The three skeptics say that there is still not enough evidence of the links between climate change and conflict to warrant a Security Council resolution. They also argue that the council risks trespassing on topics that other multilateral bodies, such as the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, or UNFCC, should handle.

Some other major non-Western economies have flagged similar concerns, perhaps because they worry that the Security Council could one day start interfering in their industrial policies, even if the current resolution does nothing to lay the groundwork for such a move. Indonesia and South Africa, which held council seats in 2019 and 2020, refused to back Germany’s initial effort to develop a resolution. Brazil, which will join the body in January, has indicated that it doesn’t consider the current draft resolution a priority.

Niger holds the rotating presidency of the council in December and wants agreement on a resolution before a high-level council meeting on Dec. 9, which the country’s president will chair. Backers of the resolution argue that China’s position will be crucial. Diplomats note that their Chinese counterparts have couched their criticisms of the initiative in quite moderate terms. They suspect that Beijing is worried about the reputational damage of blocking a resolution that enjoys broad international backing.

China gained credit in Glasgow by agreeing to a joint statement with the U.S. on the two powers’ continued commitment to cooperation in containing global warming. Beijing could see similar advantages in acquiescing to the Security Council resolution, especially as it enjoys U.S. support. If China backs the text or abstains on it, rather than vetoing it, Russia might also let it pass, to avoid a rupture with its main ally at the U.N. If neither Beijing nor Moscow is willing to use its veto, India will not be able to stop the resolution from passing.

Without an overall framework to guide its work and generate momentum, the council’s engagement on climate matters will remain haphazard and advance more slowly.

How important is this resolution? If either China or Russia does choose to block the initiative, those council members that worry about climate security will not give up on the topic. They can continue trying to insert references to climate-related threats into the texts of the mandates of individual U.N. peacekeeping missions and political offices. Germany and Niger launched an informal council working group on climate security last year to discuss such issues. Yet without an overall framework to guide its work and generate momentum, the council’s engagement on climate matters will remain haphazard and advance more slowly.

If, on the other hand, the resolution passes, it could spur efforts inside and outside the U.N. to come to grips with the challenges of climate security. As a point of comparison, Security Council Resolution 1325 on women, peace and security—passed in 2000—has acted as the basis for policy debates about gender and conflict for over two decades. The U.N., other multilateral organizations and concerned governments have a lot of work to do to grasp how processes associated with climate change, such as desertification and forced migration, will influence future conflicts.

If the Security Council can spark more thinking on these themes, the resolution will be worthwhile. In the short term, it could also make the Security Council look a little more relevant to international debates about the climate crisis. All too often, the council seems to be trapped in sterile and unproductive debates about conflicts, like the war in Syria, that it is unable to solve. A climate security resolution would not resolve those arguments. But it would be an opportunity for the council to show that it can adapt to evolving global threats.


UN Director
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Pyotr Kurzin
Former Crisis Group UN Assistant

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