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Agenda 2021: Prospects for Climate Security and Other Strategic Risks at the UN Security Council

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By Evan Barnard, Center for Climate and Security intern, with contributions from Andrea Rezzonico and William Beaver

The 2021 United Nations Security Council (UNSC) agenda promises to take on a range of issues central to the Council on Strategic Risks mission. This blog post provides recommendations for action by the UNSC, as well as an overview of the key topics we expect to see on the agenda. Key recommendations for the UNSC include:

  • Climate: Establish a robust institutional home for climate and security at the UN – a Climate Security Crisis Watch Center.
  • Bio: Invest in next-generation genome sequencing to guard against infectious diseases and biological warfare.
  • Nukes: Aim to reduce nuclear weapon arsenals and increase openness for negotiation between nuclear nations.
  • Intersection of risks: Rather than separating these risk factors into silos, consider their global security implications jointly over a range of timescales.

Climate Security: Front and Center

As the United Kingdom (UK) takes the helm of the UNSC this month, it is putting climate security front and center, planning to host a high-level open debate on the topic, chaired by Prime Minister Boris Johnson. The UK is likely to find support for this effort among the five new non-permanent UNSC members – India, Ireland, Kenya, Mexico, and Norway – who have called for the reprioritization of climate security by the body in 2021. Given the US elevation of climate change as a core national security issue under the Biden Administration, this effort is likely to find support from the United States as well. Only during the 21st century (see here, here, and here) has the UNSC considered climate change a significant matter of security, reflecting the growing understanding that the security risks of climate change must be considered alongside nuclear, biological, and chemical risks. 

The new member states’ interests in climate security align with their risks and ambitions. India is simultaneously one of the world’s largest greenhouse gas emitters and renewable energy investors. Norway is heavily incentivizing electric vehicles, but the country remains a major exporter of oil and gas. The Nordic country also lies in the rapidly warming Arctic Circle. 

The five returning non-permanent members of the UNSC are likely to be receptive to the climate security discussion as well. The island nation of St. Vincent and the Grenadines suffers from Atlantic tropical cyclones, and the World Bank determined the country needed assistance for resilience and disaster preparedness. Vietnam’s southern coast has already begun sea level rise adaptation efforts. In Tunisia, climate change-augmented drought is a significant challenge for agriculture. It is likely, however, that China and Russia will continue to oppose efforts to advance acknowledgment of environmental security threats at the UNSC, unless it is wrapped into an existing agenda item (as in the 2017 Lake Chad resolution).

Significant intensifying effects of climate change in these countries and many others may have cascading, adverse security complications. Substantial sea level rise in some regions like Bangladesh’s population-dense and sea-level coast will result in mass population displacement. Similarly, where climate change-intensified droughts are severe enough to prevent successful harvests, populations also migrate away from famine. As with the Syrian Civil War, climate-exacerbated population displacement and resource scarcity can contribute to instability and even violent conflict. The majority of countries at the most significant risk from climate-related effects are also experiencing conflicts.

In this context, a climate security agenda at the UNSC should include efforts to enhance the capacity of the international community to anticipate climate security risks. One pathway to meet this goal, as first outlined in our Responsibility to Prepare framework in 2017, and then in our Climate Security Plan for America, would be the establishment of a robust institutional home for climate and security at the UN – a Climate Security Crisis Watch Center – to be led by a proposed UN Special Envoy on Climate Security. The Climate Security Crisis Watch Center should be staffed by expert analysts watching for climate and security hotspots and issuing regular recommendations for action to the UN Security Council and the broader UN system. 

COVID-19 and Lessons for the Bioweapons Threat

Addressing the COVID-19 pandemic will remain a key concern for the UNSC in 2021. While the UNSC prioritized addressing the direct and indirect effects of COVID-19 in 2021, its efforts have met with mixed success. As UN Secretary-General António Guterres remarked in comments on September 24, 2020, “The pandemic is a clear test of international cooperation – a test we have essentially failed.” A neglected and high-potential mode of improving international cooperation that the UNSC could lead is a renewed focus on pushing for coordinated, global tracking and detection of the virus. As broadly reported by media and CSR, the virus is mutating, complicating vaccine development efforts and disease containment. Decisive action to scale-up and coordinate viral surveillance efforts at the international level could quickly bring results. The UK, for instance, began coordinating sequencing efforts early in the pandemic, eventually leading to the earlier discovery in the UK of the new, rapidly spreading strain of SARS-CoV-2, B.1.1.7.   

While the virus’s immediate global effects remain severe, there are longer-term effects that deserve the UNSC’s attention as well. As CSR CEO Christine Parthemore and Senior Fellow Andy Weber wrote in the Los Angeles Times last year, the social, economic, public health, and even military effects of the pandemic might cause countries to view biological weapons as a cheap and effective alternative to nuclear weapons. One projected method to deter this behavior and reduce bioweapons risks would be an international push to create an early detection system based on advances in next-generation sequencing (NGS). This versatile early-detection tool could identify both previously unknown infectious diseases and also bioweapons engineered to evade today’s methods of detection. An added benefit of NGS is that it could eventually help spot ecological tipping points. Ubiquitous sequencing of genomes throughout the environment, for example in waterways, could both flag the presence of biothreats and also track loss of organisms essential to the ecosystem, allowing for targeted interventions for both biothreats and environmental risks.  

Nuclear Threats Remain

This year, nuclear risk reduction will also remain high on the UNSC’s list of priorities. Following heightening tensions between Washington and Tehran, the Biden administration has signaled its interest in returning to the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) mandates – as long as Iran adheres to the Agreement’s strict enrichment control. This renewed interest will likely garner approval by the international community, which was near-to unanimous in condemning US withdrawal from the treaty. 

In 2021, The UNSC will review the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, or NPT. There was agreement among UNSC members in 2020 to focus on Iran and North Korea but less consensus on the treaty’s way forward. The primary source of disagreement is the 2017 Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, which nuclear weapon states do not support. However, a path to further reductions in nuclear weapons arsenals exists. U.S. President Joe Biden has expressed support for a nuclear posture where nuclear weapons have a sole purpose: deterring against coercion or attack by other nuclear weapons. A more limited role for nuclear weapons in U.S. planning would widen the path towards a world with fewer nuclear weapons and possibly ease negotiations with UNSC members Russia and China.

Intersecting Security Risks: The Nuclear-Climate Nexus

Finally, the UNSC should also address the growing intersections of a range of security issues, including how climate change and nuclear developments are increasingly converging worldwide. India, a new non-permanent UNSC member, was ranked by CSR’s Working Group of Climate, Nuclear, & Security Affairs as one of the most concerning cases for this nexus of risks. One of the pathways this nuclear weapons-possessing state is likely to grapple with is domestic or regional climate impacts and other security stressors combining in a way that further strains stability and potentially, if conflicts arise, tilts them further towards nuclear weapons use – especially considering its nuclear-armed geopolitical rivals China and Pakistan. Tensions between China and India culminated in a deadly confrontation along their disputed eastern Himalayan border in the spring of 2020. Over 100,000 soldiers remain stationed along the 872 km Line of Actual Control in hazardous winter conditions. The UNSC should monitor the convergences mentioned above and shape its agenda to account for these growing contours that threaten global security.

Conditions of climate change, the current pandemic, and escalating nuclear tensions urge strong consideration of environmental, biological, and nuclear risks at the highest diplomatic levels. This UNSC session has the potential to categorize these strategic risks as significant transnational security threats. The inclusion of non-conventional security threats on the 2021 UNSC agenda is a commendable start, with institutional and systemic change a more fulfilling goal that will prove increasingly critical on the global scale.

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