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The UN Security Council’s Lack of Consensus on Climate and Security

By Dr. Marc Kodack

While climate change and its implications for security have been acknowledged many times by international military leaders (see here for example), as well as by senior leaders in the U.S. Department of Defense (here), the United National Security Council (UNSC) has only addressed the issue in fits and starts thus far, despite the institution’s global charge to maintain international peace and security (here). One reason for this is the individualized lens that each member country uses to assess climate change and its effect on their own security, as well as others. This creates a barrier to a consensus on what the UNSC’s general agenda should be on climate change despite individual resolutions that single out specific areas or states where climate change and its effects on security, e.g., food insecurity, are mentioned and addressed (see here and here). Other U.N. organizations have readily embraced climate change and security within their programs (here).

To begin to understand the views of the current 15 member countries of the UNSC on climate change and security, the University of Hamburg (UH) completed a research study to gather, analyze and increase the visibility of the positions and approaches of each UNSC member state. For each member state, the UH gathered data for the years 2007-to-April 2020 on how the military views climate change, how other national government entities/agencies view climate change and security, whether climate change is viewed as an existential threat to humanity and its’ security, and what the member’s position is on climate change in the context of the UNSC’s agenda.

The results of the research found that 12 member states either mentioned and/or addressed climate change within their military or other national entities and organizations. For existential threats, 13 member states addressed it in one or more ways. For the UNSC’s role in climate and security, some states, particularly Russia, China and the U.S., express skepticism on what the UNSC should do about climate and security. This prevents any consensus from forming and thus, any significant collective actions being taken.

Within the U.S. case study, despite the change from the Obama to the Trump administration, there are areas of continuity within the UH’s four areas of interest. For example, the military continues to view climate change as an important consideration when assessing security (here). Other federal agencies, such as the Department of Homeland Security and the U.S. Agency for International Development, may not explicitly use the term climate change, but programs within both mention the concept of security when referencing their efforts in natural disaster response and assistance. For the existential threat from climate change, two joint statements were issued in 2014 and 2016 between the U.S. and China on climate change, whereas there is only a passing reference from the U.S. at a 2018 meeting of the UNSC that focused on understanding and addressing climate-related security risks—“We have heard from our friends in the Pacific that they consider climate change to be an existential threat to their populations and we understand the priority they place on the United Nations system and the international community supporting their unique needs.” (page 29). The most significant difference between the two administrations is the Trump’s administration’s non-support of the UNSC’s role in addressing climate change and security.

As mentioned in the UH’s report, for some states, particularly the U.S., there is a discontinuity between what actions are being taken by domestic government organizations and the reluctance of the same government to find common ground within the UNSC so that it can officially embrace policies and actions on climate and security.

Read the full report here.

Dr. Marc Kodack is Senior Fellow at the Center for Climate and Security and former Sustainability and Water Program Manager in the Office of the Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Army for Energy and Sustainability.

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