On July 20, 2011, for only the second time, the UN Security Council officially debated the peace and security implications of climate change. In the first such debate in 2007, climate change was added to the agenda by the UK, then Council president. The agenda was, however, thwarted by the Chinese and other nations wary of the potential for UNSC “mission creep.” Roughly four years and billions of tons of CO2 emissions later, the Germans assumed the Council presidency, and decided to give it another go. The results were indeed better than last time, but not sufficient given the scale of the crisis.
Before the meeting – the German framework: In advance of the meeting, the German Presidency released a concept note outlining clear objectives for the debate. Wishing to avoid the 2007 perception of the UNSC’s encroachment on the agenda of other UN entities, Germany aimed to focus the discussion on peace and security issues as covered by the UNSC mandate, centering on the implications of sea-level rise and food security. There was also encouragement from small island states to appoint a special representative on climate and security. The small island state of Nauru, facing the very real threat of sea level rise, and led by their president Marcus Stephen, bolstered Germany’s objectives, hoping that this year’s debate would be more successful than the first.
The meeting begins – expectations lowered: As the debate began, expectations were swiftly lowered. Peter Wittig, the German Permanent Representative to the UN noted that “a good first step would be to acknowledge the realities of climate change and its inherent implications to international peace and security.” The drafting of a Presidential Statement would be a first step – a baby step. But for some states, it seemed that even such a baby step was a bridge too far.
Disagreement – the climate/security link and the role of the UNSC: While states generally agreed that climate change was a threat to sustainable development, establishing unanimity on the link between climate and security and the role the Security Council should play was more difficult. Interpretations of the Security Council’s mandate from states including China, India, and Egypt, ranged from noting that climate change was best left to other UN entities like the UNFCCC and the General Assembly, to Russia’s stance that there is a “lack of empirical evidence” on the link between climate change and security. Among the parties on the other end of the spectrum were the United States, the European Union and Australia, and many small island nations. These delegates all emphasized that climate change is a threat multiplier with clear peace and security implications, and well within the scope of the UNSC’s mandate. As the debate wore on, it began to appear that pleas from the small island nations and support from a host of states, including the Americans and Europeans, were not enough to hold back the tide of skepticism. Ambassador Susan Rice of the United States did not hide her disappointment with the situation:
In this Council we have discussed many emerging security issues and addressed them, from the links between development and security to HIV-AIDS. Yet this week, we have been unable to reach consensus on even a simple Presidential Statement that climate change has the potential to impact peace and security in the face of the manifest evidence that it does. We have dozens of countries in this body and in this very room whose very existence is threatened. They’ve asked this Council to demonstrate our understanding that their security is profoundly threatened. Instead, because of the refusal of a few to accept our responsibility, this Council is saying, by its silence, in effect, “Tough luck.” This is more than disappointing. It’s pathetic. It’s shortsighted, and frankly it’s a dereliction of duty.
Reactions – historic or hesitant? At the end of the day, a Presidential Statement, peppered with qualifying language, was issued. The statement expressed concern that “possible adverse effects of climate change may, in the long run, aggravate certain existing threats” to peace and security. The statement also calls on the Secretary-General to include the security implications of climate change in his reports to the Council. Climate change Pollyannas were pleased with the historic statement clarifying the link between the effects of climate change and international peace and security, hoping that it will provide some leverage for the Durban Climate Conference this fall, and will move the climate and security debate higher up the global agenda. Climate change Cassandras scoffed at the watered-down statement and remain skeptical of its potential influence.
Our view: The Presidential Statement was an important step in the evolution of the climate and security discourse, and we applaud Germany for bringing the issue clearly into the Security Council. While the statement represents progress in recognizing that the global political and scientific discourse on the potential security implications of climate change has evolved significantly since 2007, it is not evolving quickly enough to match the rapid rate of climate change and to adequately address the security risk it poses. There may come a time when states will look back on this moment with envy. Comfortably sitting around conference tables and discussing whether or not climate change is a security issue, and which UN agency should handle it, will no longer be an option as the risk becomes existential. By then, it will be too late to implement preventive measures. The agenda will be about responding to specific climate threats – putting out fires – literally, in some cases. While the Presidential Statement is a step in the right direction, and may heighten the sense of urgency before Durban, bolder and more concrete actions are needed. The appointment of a special representative on climate and security, for example, would have been an appropriate result, given the scale and scope of the security risk. Let’s hope the Security Council will debate the issue again soon, and turn that Presidential Statement into a plan of action.