The UN Security Council and Climate Change

Whether the UN Security Council should address climate change is a highly politicized issue. But a more fundamental question has been lost in this debate—what exactly could the Council do about climate change?

Given growing concerns about the links between climate change, instability and conflict, it is no surprise that the issue has spilled over into the UN Security Council. Since 2007, the Council has conducted two formal and several informal (“Arria-formula”) sessions on the topic. Bringing the climate issue into the Council has been contentious: proponents, including several European member-states, small island developing states, and other vulnerable developing countries, have sought to use the Council’s agenda-setting power and inject a sense of urgency into global climate politics, particularly at moments when global progress on climate action seems stalled.

Opponents have raised a range of concerns, including longstanding objections to the Council’s composition and procedures; fears of stretching the Council’s mandate beyond recognition, such that anything could be regarded as a security issue; and concerns about negatively impacting the “legitimate” forum for climate discussions, the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and the Paris Agreement. These objections almost blocked a 2011 thematic debate on the issue, leading the Obama administration to rebuke reluctant Council members for “dereliction of duty”. Only informal sessions have been held since then. At the most recent, in May of this year, several member-states urged that the Council revisit the issue in formal session.

Too often lost in such political maneuvering is a fundamental question: what might the Council actually do on climate, peace and global security? Surveying the record, one finds a range of different ideas that have been floated by academics, advocates, and some individual member-states. These include relatively modest add-ons, such as keeping the Council apprised of how climate change affects current peacekeeping operations or developing better early-warning capabilities. Bolder roles have also been floated: engaging the Council in proactive, preventive diplomacy on emergent challenges such as competition for Arctic resources or water in international river basins, or even creating a climate analogue to the Responsibility to Protect. There have also been calls to inject the Council into complex political challenges for which no obvious institutional home exists within the UN system, such as the existential plight facing several small-island states and the challenge of climate-driven displacement and refugees.

There are real questions about whether the Council, as currently constituted, can play such roles productively. One basic challenge is how the Council manages information. Conceptually, early warning fits well with current Council efforts around issues such as famine and human rights emergencies. But in practice, past efforts to extend the gaze of early warning into new issue areas, such as conflict-related sexual violence, have met with opposition, narrow framing, and poor follow-through. There are also many practical challenges yet to be resolved, including how to effectively incorporate environmental variables into conflict-assessment tools, or even deciding which variables matter and by what mechanisms they operate. For an early-warning mechanism to have foreseen the role of drought in the Syrian conflict (a causal role about which there remains no consensus among scholars), it would have had to be able to see not just rainfall or run-off data, but also the water-policy choices of the Syrian regime and the impacts of declining rural subsidies on smallholder farmers.

Challenges facing the Security Council on climate change

Even the seemingly straightforward exercise of informing the Council about aspects of climate change directly relevant to its ongoing activities around peacekeeping and fragile states has been challenging. The contentious 2011 session yielded a compromise that called on the Secretary-General to use his reporting function to keep the Council apprised about relevant “contextual information” on climate-conflict links. A review my colleagues and I conducted of 446 subsequent Secretary-General reports to the Council (through January 2016) found only 12 references linking climate change to some aspect of conflict or security (with 11 focused on Africa). Most of the content was highly generalized, noting general contextual trends such as urbanization, land tenure conflicts, or farmer-pastoralist tensions that might bear a climate signature. Even the handful of instances of specific reporting lacked the fine-grained subnational and temporal detail necessary for it to be of any operational or decision-making use. Climate-related references were also highly sporadic, with only one in 2012 and none in 2013.

A second challenge resides in the Council’s largely reactive nature (when it can agree to react at all). Conflict prevention falls squarely within the Council’s mandate, and the high monetary cost of peacekeeping operations creates a strong incentive for prevention. The concept notes circulated by Council chairs for the 2007 and 2011 thematic debates (the UK and Germany, respectively) stressed conflict prevention as a key rationale for conflict engagement on climate. But for interstate preventive diplomacy, such as might be needed in shared river basins, the Secretary-General’s office has generally been a more effective tool than the Council. And on intrastate conflict, the Council has historically been reluctant to take preventive action. Efforts beginning in 2016 to implement a ‘horizon scan’ briefing from the Secretariat, focused on instability and emergent conflict, revealed the great reluctance of many member-states to appear on the Council agenda as ‘fragile’.

A third problem is the tricky challenge of managing the political division of labor with the UNFCCC. Proponents of Council climate action have used past debates to try to jump-start sluggish climate diplomacy, even as opponents have warned about encroachment on or perturbation of the institutionalized process of global climate negotiations. Initial optimism around the Paris Agreement cooled such polarization, but was blunted by the Trump administration’s recent withdrawal from the accord. The deeper problem is that the Paris process seems to be half-heartedly engaging some of the critical challenges that would most resonate within the Council: blocking space for the Council while failing to really address the issues. On the looming problem of sea-level rise and the existential threat to small-island nations, the Paris Agreement’s provisions on loss and damage explicitly created an opening to address several relevant challenges, including early warning, emergency preparedness, slow-onset events, risk management, and the resilience of communities, livelihoods, and ecosystems (Article 8.4). This may limit political space for the Council on the issue of small-island statelessness, even as the weakness of the UNFCCC process on “liability and compensation” makes it a poor vehicle for serious movement on the problem. A similar dynamic of blunting political momentum through half-hearted response may be shaping up on climate-induced displacement; the UNFCCC’s 21st Conference of the Parties authorized a task force to develop recommendations on how to address the issue, scheduled to make a preliminary report in 2018.

What can be done?

Given such challenges, it may be that the relevant question is not “What climate role for the Council?” but rather “How can climate be part of the process of transforming the Council into a more effective body for sustainable security?” A first step in that direction would be to improve the Secretary-General’s reporting function, as agreed to during the 2011 debate. The most useful information for the Council is probably neither localized crisis briefings nor long-range climate-change scenarios, but rather regional-scale, medium-term assessments. Working on those spatial and temporal scales is most likely to yield forward-looking initiatives that can be supported by those member-states that find themselves most directly affected or vulnerable, as in the case of the Integrated Strategy for the Sahel. The strategy stressed building long-term resilience as one of its three pillars, along with inclusive governance and managing cross-border threats. A Security Council briefing in this context, on links among climate trends, migration, and conflict across the region, was well-received for both its specificity and the backing it had from member states in the region.

A second step would be to challenge countries seeking a seat on the Council to articulate a specific vision of how the Council should move forward on the issue. Several aspirants for an elected seat have raised the issue in recent campaigns, but the question is also pertinent for those countries aspiring to a permanent seat on an expanded, reformed Council—notably, Japan, Germany, Brazil, and India. How, precisely, do they see the climate issue in relation to the Council’s mandate, with particular reference to preventive diplomacy, disaster vulnerability and displacement?

Finally, while it may seem challenging in the current political moment, a symbolic gesture from the five permanent members (P5) would acknowledge member-states’ multiple roles across the UN system. Done properly, this could help legitimize an active (but not overreaching) Council role as part of a system-wide response. During the 2011 debate, Nigeria noted the P5’s dual role: “Seated around the table are those who could encourage developed countries to implement their commitments to reducing emissions and supporting developing countries with the requisite technological and financial assistance to address climate change effectively.” Imagine the legitimizing value that would have resulted if the US-China climate deal of 2014 had identified conflict prevention as part of its rationale for cutting emissions. Going forward, such commitments could be incorporated into the Nationally Determined Contributions that states offer under the Paris Agreement, and as action on the Sustainable Development Goals.

The purpose of such measures is to begin to use climate engagements as a vehicle to transform the Council—into a body that is more capable of legitimate action, more proactive in peacebuilding and conflict prevention, and better able to take the long view of risks and responses.

Ken Conca is a Professor of International Relations at American University in Washington, DC. His most recent book is An Unfinished Foundation: The United Nations and Global Environmental Governance (Oxford University Press). A more detailed version of the arguments here may be found there, and also in Ken Conca, Joe Thwaites, and Goueun Lee, “Climate Change and the UN Security Council: Bully Pulpit or Bull in a China Shop?” Global Environmental Politics 17/2: 1-20. Conca has been a member of the Scientific Steering Committee on Global Environmental Change and Human Security (GECHS) and is a founding member of the UN Environment Programme’s Expert Advisory Group on Conflict and Peacebuilding. He is, with collaborator Geoffrey Dabelko, the 2017 recipient of the Al-Moumin Environmental Peacebuilding Award.