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The Developing Focus of the UN Security Council on Climate Security

UN_security_council_2005By Charlotte Ku and Shirley V. Scott

Just as the volume, Climate Change and the UN Security Council (Shirley V. Scott and Charlotte Ku, eds. Edward Elgar: 2018) was put to press, the United Nations Security Council held another in a series of Arria-formula meetings on climate security. The meeting was chaired by Italy and co-hosted with Sweden, Morocco, the UK, the Netherlands, Peru, Japan, France, the Maldives and Germany. The meeting was titled, “Preparing for the Security Implications of Rising Temperatures.” A key focus was on how the UN system might develop the capabilities to foresee the threats posed by climate events and to prepare appropriate responses such as risk assessment and risk management. The discussion included consideration of creating an institutional home for climate and security within the UN system. Caitlin Werrell, Co-Founder and President of the Center for Climate and Security participated in the meeting to outline the elements of a Responsibility to Prepare Agenda.

This development is notable for the progress it represented on the debate as to whether and why the UN Security Council should act on issues related to climate change. Although climate change as a threat to international security has been recognized at least since the 1988 Toronto Conference that began intergovernmental cooperation on climate change, a role for the UN Security Council and even discussion of the climate issue by the UNSC has raised controversy. Global governance responses to climate change were centered on the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) with a view that the UNSC lacks the legitimacy, the wherewithal, and the expertise to take action in the climate change policy arena.

Certainly for those countries whose very existence is imperiled by the consequences of climate change, climate change poses a vital security issue and some of the UN Security’s Council first actions in this area addressed the existential loss of territory by the Small Island Developing States in 2011. The change in thinking with regard to the possible role of the UN Security Council comes also from the frequency and intensity of major climate events that are not only affecting populations and their food supplies and livelihoods, but also vital transport, water, and energy infrastructure. The social impact of such environmental shocks is perhaps better documented in the domestic sphere, but is well recognized by the World Bank.[1] The complex nature of climate change governance and management is such that it now features on the agendas of an ever-increasing array of international institutions. This heightened level of attention has caused the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to call for coordination in order to maximize institutional synergies.

The need for such institutional coordination is expected to increase as we move towards frequent and even overlapping events that will tax both national and international resources to respond as well as to rebuild. According to the American Security Project, over 71 percent of 110 countries have identified climate as a factor in their national security planning or strategies. In the United States, an impressive array of studies, including by the Department of Defense, has highlighted such issues as polar melting, sea level rise, adaptation and resilience. International security organizations are also paying increased attention to climate security. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) has demonstrated its concern about climate change as it would affect force and mission readiness in areas of NATO’s operation in the Middle East and North Africa, the Horn of Africa and Central Asia. The strategic implications of changes in the Arctic are potentially pitting NATO allies against each other (the USA and Canada among others) as well as against Russia for resources and access.

Climate security is a quintessentially global issue that engages all levels of government and both public and private sectors. When work on Climate Change and the UN Security Council started, a climate security role for the Council seemed a fringe endeavor. Debate about a climate change role for the UN Security Council has shifted from whether the Council should play a role to what role the Council should play. An initial premise of this project was that the Council was already responding to the effects of climate change even though it may not have used the language of climate security and that its more direct involvement was inevitable given the nature and scope of events related to climate change. The Council’s passing Resolution 2349 (2017) on the Lake Chad Basin region that specifically reference the effects of climate change as a factor in the stability of the region was a indication of this shift.

The wide-ranging contributions included in this book touching on sanctions, the creation of a climate change tribunal, climate migration, developing a responsibility to respond, climate change adaptation practices in peace missions, and the Security Council’s power to legislate each tackle what the UNSC can do in respect of climate policy and security. The purpose of assembling this expertise into a single volume was to offer a clear basis on which debates can take place on the specific initiatives that the Council can take both as ends in themselves and to lay the groundwork for a much larger climate governance role that may well be called for in the future.

[1] See

Charlotte Ku, Associate Dean for Global Programs and Graduate Studies, Texas A&M University, School of Law, US
Shirley V. Scott, Head of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences, UNSW Canberra, Australia 

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