The United Nations Security Council may be getting closer to taking a meaningful position on climate change, with an open debate this Friday set to focus on climate disasters and their impact on international peace and security.
“Global warming’s link to the peace and security issues that are the council’s bread and butter are complex,” E&E News reports. “So, too, are the politics of the 15-nation body, which is dominated by five powerful permanent representatives. The United Kingdom and France support an expanded role on climate change, while China and the United States have varied. Russia has been consistently opposed.”
But bit by bit, “we are slowly moving toward forming consensus on the issue. It will take time,” said Maldives UN Ambassador Ali Naseer Mohamed, more than a decade after the council’s first-ever meeting on climate change in 2007.
Connecting the dots makes sense, because “the nexus between the council’s work on peace and stability and the stresses wrought by natural disasters is clear,” E&E notes. “According to the UN Environment Programme, all but one of the on-the-ground missions it has authorized over its seven-decade history have been concurrent with a natural disaster—though some, like earthquakes, have been unrelated to warming.”
The 37-member Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS) is already calling on the Security Council to take more of a preventive role in response to climate crises. In a presentation on behalf of the alliance last July, Naseer “called on the council to build the capacity and expertise needed to track and understand the destabilizing impacts of extreme weather, sea level rise, erosion, and resource scarcity,” E&E recalls. “For states like the Maldives, which is made up of 1,000 coral islands threatened by bleaching and sea level rise, that would mean anticipating displacement and dispossession, not just war.”
“We have to try to expand the concept of security to cover these issues,” Naseer said. “The emerging issues. Issues that may not necessarily be driven by traditional notions of conflict where there are two warring parties or multiple warring parties, in the new definition of security. The council has to move toward examining these kinds of phenomena” and how they can be overcome.
In contrast to the security council, where all but five countries lack a permanent voice, Naseer said lead responsibility for the UN’s response to the climate crisis should remain with the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), where all 195 countries theoretically have an equal voice. “The permanent members of the Security Council wield broad power over its decisions and agenda, and effectively have a veto.” That dynamic has shown up in the United States’ variable response to the climate crisis, China’s “softening” of its historical opposition, and Russia’s contention last July “that the case had not been made for warming as a security threat, and that the work of dealing with it should be left to the UNFCCC and to countries themselves,” E&E states.
“Our international organization should adhere strictly to the principle of the division of labour in its work and in the understanding that each of the main United Nations organs should operate within its area of responsibility,” Russian representative Dmitry Polyanskiy said at the time. “The basis for introducing climate issues in the Security Council is frequently the premise that climate change is a so-called threat multiplier and a catalyst for acts of violence.”
American University international relations professor Ken Conca told E&E there’s still growing agreement that the Security Council secretariat should become more conversant with the impacts of climate change in the fragile, unstable states where it tries to operate. “Countries are more comfortable with the council doing its own business if climate change relates to that business,” he said. “Something about the council dealing with climate change refugees, something about the council dealing with the challenge facing small island states, something about the council dealing with the new geopolitical competition for resources in the Arctic—that starts to become much more controversial.”
Conca, who has studied the council’s proper role on climate change, said it’s “troubling” that it’s not yet prepared to incorporate climate knowledge in its work. “If the council doesn’t start to arm itself informationally, arm itself politically with the ability to be smart on this issue, it’s nonetheless going to have to deal with it, and that could be quite problematic.”