16 February 2024

Debate at the UN Security Council: The impact of climate change and conflict on food security

On the 13th of February 2024, the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) convened under the initiative of Guyana to debate the interconnection between the global issue of climate change, the rising number of armed conflicts, and the worrying growth of food insecurity on the planet. The threat of food availability is of particular concern as its consequences are multifaceted and wide reaching for millions across the globe. As the UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres stated during his opening remarks, “in a house with no bread, everyone argues and nobody is right”. This Portuguese saying is useful to see the connection between hunger and conflict. Many regions of the world that are prone to food insecurity are or have just stopped being conflict areas. Syria, Sudan, Myanmar are all examples that highlight the detrimental effect that wars can have on food security. Out of all of these, Gaza is the most extreme example of this link, as “of the 700,000 hungriest people in the world, four in five inhabit that tiny strip of land”.

However, cooperation in this field is in fact still hindered not only by the absence of a common mindset on how to tackle the problem, but also by profound disagreements on the role that the UN Security Council could or should play in this matter. Jimena Leiva Roesch Director of Global Initiatives and Head of Peace, Climate and Sustainable Development of the International Peace Institute, called for the UN body to show that “the Security Council is serious about the smallest of nations”. On the other hand, permanent members of the UNSC such as China and Russia are generally reluctant to deal with these topics at the UN level, as they consider them national security issues and therefore prerogatives of the member states.

Simon Stiell, Executive Secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, highlighted as well the need for national adaptation plans identifying food security as a top priority. Extreme events such as floods and droughts happen relatively often in many parts of the world, and their frequency is likely to increase. These environmental catastrophes destroy crops and impact the livelihood of entire populations. For this reason, he argues, it is imperative for the international community to help affected countries invest in early warning systems and improve access to climate adaptation funds. It is true that these issues have traditionally fallen under the domain of national authorities, but this should not inhibit the UN from reneging on its responsibility to protect marginalized and vulnerable groups.

The relationship between climate change, conflict and food insecurity is complex, context-specific and multidimensional, and responses to food insecurity will need an equivalent level of creativity if they are to succeed. Economic measures, such as the establishment of new investment tools, would tackle the financial side of the problem. In parallel, changes in the UN structure and agenda, such as the introduction of a provisional body with a mandate to work on this specific interconnection, would help raise awareness and galvanize support among the international community. In the end, the choice of which measures are going to be implemented depends on agreements achieved among member states, but one thing remains certain: the UN has the legitimacy and structural power to tackle this issue. How it will do this, and the eventual role of the UNSC, is still to be determined.

Partial recordings of the meeting and a short summary of the speeches can be found via the link here.

Photo credit: Russ Allison Loar/Flickr