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Russian Veto Blocks UN Security Council Action on Climate

The sitting president of the United Nations Security Council was left “stabbing at a broken panic button” yesterday after Russia’s veto threat prevented the council from recognizing the climate crisis as a global security risk, Politico Europe reports.

“Tuesday saw the highest-profile discussion of climate change in the UN’s central body for promoting global peace,” writes Politico reporter and former Climate Home News editor Karl Mathiesen. “But Russia, which holds a veto as a permanent member of the council, warned against any move to recognize warming as a threat to global security.”

The net result is that, “when it comes to climate change, bombs don’t work, so the United Nations Security Council prefers words to action,” he adds.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who currently occupies the rotating chair of the council, told members it is “absolutely clear that climate change is a threat to our collective security and the security of our nations.” Representatives of many other countries “spoke of the droughts, floods, deserts, storms, and rising seas eating away at the foundations of peace,” Mathiesen writes. “They conjured up a future of regional collapse and millions of climate refugees looking for safe harbour.”

Ahead of the meeting, U.S. climate envoy John Kerry declared Monday that “the climate crisis is indisputably a Security Council issue,” a threat “so massive, so multifaceted” that “we bury our heads in the sand at our own peril.”

But Russian UN representative Vasily Nebenzya said climate discussions should be left to other UN agencies, “where this is dealt with by professionals.” While the council recognized the connection between climate change and instability in several parts of Africa, “Nebenzya said the link between climate change and conflicts was specific to certain countries and there was ‘no justification’ for making that connection globally,” Mathiesen says. “That ‘would even be dangerous,’ he said, because ‘considering the climate the root cause of security issues is a distraction from the true root causes’.”

Chinese climate envoy Xie Zhenhua lent his support for Johnson’s “core sentiment”, Mathiesen adds, leaving Russia isolated among the council’s five permanent members. “Climate change has become a pressing and serious threat to the survival, development, and security of humankind,” Xie said. But even so, “any role the Security Council plays on climate change needs to fall within the council’s purview.”

India Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar maintained there is no “acceptable methodology” pinpointing climate change as a cause of conflicts. But Mathiesen notes that the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has frequently cited studies that make the link. “Aspects related to the threat to global peace have long been recognized,” said French scientist and IPCC working group co-chair Valérie Masson-Delmotte.

Last week, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg “put climate change firmly on the alliance’s agenda” as a “serious crisis multiplier,” Politico says.

The outcome wasn’t entirely surprising, with an advance report by Agence France-Presse previewing “divergent opinions” among the 15 countries represented on the council. “We should watch how the Chinese position themselves with the Americans,” one UN ambassador told the news agency, but “you know that the Russians and the Chinese will immediately say (climate change has) ‘nothing to do’ with the council’s issues.”

A second ambassador observed that, while non-permanent security council members like Kenya and Niger are concerned about climate impacts on national security, others were less inclined to “turn the Security Council into another organ which is looking just at the issues more broadly around finance, adaptation, mitigation, and negotiations,” AFP said.

“China and Russia think that it can become intrusive, that it is not about peace and security,” added a third ambassador, while ruled out any hope of the council adopting a joint statement on the climate crisis. “They don’t want the Security Council to do decision-making about economic choices. Even [though] they understand that climate change has implications for conflict drivers.”

Janani Vivekananda, a climate diplomacy and security expert at Germany’s Adelphi think tank, told Politico the Security Council is traditionally more comfortable imposing sanctions or deploying military force. But it does have a history of responding to “soft” security threats like the HIV/AIDS epidemic, Ebola, or COVID-19.

In that light, the paralysis brought on by the threat of a Russian veto “does highlight some of the shortcomings” in the way the council operates, she said. “How it’s quite toothless on, I would say, unarguably the security risk of the 21st century.”