Today, no nation can find lasting security without addressing the climate crisis. While climate change is rarely, if ever, the root cause of conflict, its cascading effects make it a systemic security risk.
The UN Security Council will increasingly be forced to respond to the security impacts of climate change. Our global stability, human development, and prosperity depend on our collective response to addressing climate change, and on our ability to make our climate action conflict sensitive and our peacebuilding efforts climate sensitive.
This blog post briefly presents the links that have been established between climate change and security and reflects on the current debate, how the UN Security Council has dealt with the issue of climate change and presents the priorities for Norway’s work on climate and security in the Council. The views presented are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
The risks that climate change impacts pose to international peace and security are real and present
Climate change is a growing priority for governments and communities around the world. The UN Secretary-General has called it the defining issue of our time. We already see impacts of climate change, e.g., increased temperatures, sea level rise and increased numbers of extreme weather events. Storms, droughts, floods, wildfires, are becoming more frequent and severe. These changes have impacts beyond the environmental realm and deeply affect human security as climate change converges with other global pressures.
The impacts of climate change are not evenly distributed – disproportionately affecting the poorest and most vulnerable populations, intersecting with environmental degradation to create new vulnerabilities, and exacerbating existing risks to economic prosperity, political stability, military readiness, food, water, health, and energy security. In already fragile contexts, especially where coping capacities tend to be low, these interactions can intensify security challenges. In the worst cases, climate changes can overwhelm states and societies, increasing the risks of violence, instability, and conflict.
Climate change has often been labeled as a threat multiplier. Increasingly the term threat is not being used and the most widely used term now is climate-related security risks. The link between climate change and security is indirect, non-linear, and multidimensional. Even though the links between climate change and security are still contested, there seems to be broad agreement that human insecurity increases the risk of violent conflict, and thus threatens international peace and security in the form of violent conflict.
Climate change is one factor causing human insecurity. The significance of and conditions under which these different risks manifest themselves remain debated. As stated in Adelphi’s 10 Insights Report: “Experts continue to debate the relative significance of different pathways, as they should. However, the critical shortfall lies not in our knowledge, but rather in our actions to address this known security challenge.”
The discourse on climate change and security has made tremendous development in recent years and there is increasing recognition that the risks climate change impacts pose to international peace and security are real and present. The International Crisis Group included climate change on its list of 10 conflicts to watch in 2021 – the first year that a transnational risk has made it onto the top conflicts list. The US Intelligence Community’s Annual Threat Assessment 2021 also states that “Ecological degradation and a changing climate will continue to fuel disease outbreaks, threaten food and water security, and exacerbate political instability and humanitarian crises.” We also see that the climate changes occur faster than most scientific models have predicted.
There is a growing awareness that the human security challenges created by climate change today, could become the hard security problems of tomorrow. But there are no hard security solutions when climate-related security risks are one of the conflict drivers. Our capacities to assess and address climate-related security risks are not keeping pace with the speed with which the ‘risk landscape’ is changing. For policymakers and operational actors, the key question to ask is no longer whether, but rather how, climate change interacts with conflict dynamics, and how to consider and mitigate potential and emerging security risks.
Climate change in the UN Security Council
The Council’s primary responsibility under Article 24 of the UN Charter is to maintain international peace and security. Climate change does not fit neatly into conventional notions of peace and security. It was first put on the agenda of the Council in 2007 when UK organized the first debate on relationship between energy, security, and climate. The Council adopted its’ first written product with language on climate change included in 2011. After an open debate initiated by Germany on 20 July 2011, a presidential statement (PRST) was adopted where the Security Council expressed “…its concern that possible adverse effects of climate change may, in the long run, aggravate certain existing threats to international peace and security.”
Since 2011, there have been several open debates, debates and Arria-meetings on climate and security-related issues. The last open debate on “Maintenance of international peace and security: Climate and security” was convened by the UK in February 2021. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson chaired the debate and stated in his introductory remarks that: “… it is absolutely clear that climate change is a threat to our collective security and the security of our nations. And I know there are people around the world who will say this is all kind of ‘green stuff’ from a bunch of tree-hugging tofu munchers and not suited to international diplomacy and international politics. I couldn’t disagree more profoundly.” Among the Security Council members, most stressed that climate change presents a collective security threat and acts as a risk multiplier. Many countries underlined the need to further operationalize the climate-security agenda.
The Council has recognized that climate change is a risk to international peace and security in about 44 written products, resolutions and PRSTs (author’s estimate). The first resolution with specific language on climate-related security risk was adopted in March 2017 (Resolution 2349), which addressed the negative security, humanitarian, and developmental dimensions of the Boko Haram crisis in the Lake Chad region. Until 2021, the language on climate change and security had only been integrated into outcomes dealing with African countries and regions, in addition to a small number of thematic outcomes. In January 2021, the Council renewed the mandate for the UN Peacekeeping Force in Cyprus and included a short reference to climate change. This was the first time the Council adopted a resolution that acknowledged climate-related security risks outside Africa.
Current Council dynamics
All current members of the Security Council recognize that climate change poses an existential threat to human civilization. They all share the view that the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) is the primary international mechanism for dealing with the mitigation and adaptation challenges of climate change and that international efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions must be significantly stepped up as a matter of urgency.
The main division among members is therefore not whether climate change exists or whether it has adverse socio-economic, developmental, or even security effects. The division is over what role, if any, the Security Council should play in addressing this risk multiplier, and whether the security impacts of climate change are clear enough in the specific country contexts to merit the Council’s attention.
Those with a more expansive view of the UN Charter tend to believe that the Council should address climate change as a threat to peace and security. Currently, 12 out of 15 members in the Council agree that climate change belongs on the Council agenda. Those with a more traditional view of the Charter generally disagree and have strong doubts about any role for the Council on this matter. Those member states have suggested that climate change belongs in “more representative forums”, in particular the UNFCCC, and warn against “securitization” of climate issues.
In the lead up to the July 2020 open debate, Germany, supported by nine other members, sought to pursue a thematic resolution on climate change and security. The draft invited the Secretary-General to consider the security implications of the effects of climate change in a wide array of activities, ranging from conflict prevention to peacebuilding support and humanitarian response (see concept note here). However, given the position of some of the permanent members on the Council, it was not possible to get support for the ambitious resolution.
What does Norway aim to do in the Security Council?
As outlined above, the Council has a relatively short track record on the issue of climate change even though the first debate was convened in 2007.
Given the current dynamics in the Council there is reason to believe that only incremental steps can be made, which also reflects the fact that the adverse impact of climate change is only one of many risk factors and root causes of conflicts. For Norway it is important to ensure that climate change will be integrated more systematically into the Council’s work.
This brings me to what Norway intends to do during our term in the Council.
First, we aim to bolster the Council’s ability to detect, address and prevent crises and conflicts before they become a reality, which is one of the most important tasks of the United Nations. We must enhance our ability to undertake climate security risk and foresight assessments and coordinate existing efforts. We need concrete recommendations for implementable action. Six of the ten countries that host the most peacekeepers are in areas ranked most exposed to climate change. We will continue our efforts to include climate-related risks and their implications for peace and security as a factor in all UN conflict prevention, peacekeeping, and peacebuilding activities. This means that we must also ensure that all relevant UN missions have the necessary capacity to assess and address the risks. The Climate Security Mechanism, established in 2018 to help the UN system address climate-related security risks more systematically, is a key partner in this.
Second, we will work towards regular reporting on climate-related security risks by the Secretary General to the Council and we will support efforts to appoint a Special Representative on Climate and Security. This will help provide data and analysis that can enable the Security Council to consider the climate-related security risks in specific country contexts and push the Council to continuously assess the potential impact of climate change in all aspects of its work. The Informal Expert Group by Members of the Security Council on Climate and Security, which Norway will co-chair in 2022, will be an important forum for dialogue and discussions, as well as sharing of experience from the ground.
We have also commissioned the Norwegian Institute for International Affairs (NUPI) and Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) to support our efforts by providing reliable, relevant, timely and actionable information on climate, peace and security risks for specific countries and regions on the Council’s agenda. A series of fact sheets will be prepared, so far for Somalia, South Sudan, the Sahel, and Mali (see here), and made available to all to further discussions. Global networking among researchers and policymakers will be stimulated through a series of cross-regional dialogues. A Nordic – Baltic Climate, Peace and Security Network will be established. This will complement the ongoing work of the Climate and Security Expert Network (CSEN), which is comprised of some 30 international experts based around the globe.
Third, existing references to climate change are most frequently in the preambular (PPs) parts of resolutions. Incorporating climate-security language into the operative part of resolutions (OPs) will make it more likely for peace operations to execute climate-related tasks — e.g., risk assessment and risk management strategies as well as supporting national efforts — if they are referenced in the operative section, that is, in the part of resolutions where mandates are outlined. Moving from PPs to OPs will be a key priority.
Fourth, we believe we should explore how efforts to address climate-related security risks could provide opportunities, not only risks or threats. Cooperation on environmental and transborder issues, e.g., water, and building climate resilience in communities, could be entry points for trust building, and in some cases, even mediation efforts. There is currently little focus on climate change and environmental issues in mediation efforts and there are few examples where climate change has been a factor in peace negotiations. Moving forward, we need to provide conflict resolution practitioners with the right tools and expertise to ensure that impacts of climate change are considered in the scoping of conflict prevention, as well as in conflict resolution and peacebuilding.
Fifth, there are several intersections between climate and security, women, peace and security and youth, peace and security. While women and youth are often disproportionately affected by climate-related security risks, they can also serve as key agents of change in climate change adaptation and mitigation. We will work to strengthen these connections.
Operationally, the focus will be on moving the debate from discussing general climate-related security risks to a focused discussion on specific links and pathways in actual country contexts. All members of the Council have expressed willingness to consider climate-related security risks in specific country contexts. This needs to be underpinned by reliable, relevant, timely and actionable information on climate, peace, and security risks.
Some final observations
Achieving the Paris targets are and will be our first line of defense. However, with mitigation efforts to date failing to curb global warming, it is also clear that climate change will become a greater risk factor for conflict in the future. It thus makes sense for the Security Council to play a role in addressing the threat before the security implications of climate change become even more dire.
We need to shift the debate from whether to how climate change interacts with conflict dynamics, and to how we can address the emerging risks. More research is needed on understanding the role of climate change in causal mechanisms related to conflict and to investigate pathways and intermediate factors. We urgently need more research and analytical studies to enhance our common understanding.
Even if the worst-case climate scenarios are avoided, the climate crisis is likely to get worse. Its consequences for human security will mount, and the likelihood of climate-related factors contributing to conflict is likely to increase in the not-too-distant future. In such a world, the Council will increasingly be forced to respond to the security impact of climate change. We also need to increase our efforts and support to climate adaptation, as called for by the UN Secretary-General. And finally, climate change knows no boundaries, respects no national borders, and cannot be addressed by any one nation on its own. Multilateral cooperation and action are the only answer, including in the UN Security Council.
- Hans Olav Ibrekk is Policy Director at the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs
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