14 July 2018

A new forthcoming book on Climate Change and the UN Security Council

In just over a decade, the issue of a climate change role for the UN Security Council has gone from being a tangential interest of a few to being a debated possibility. The question at the leading edge of the debate is no longer whether the Security Council should play a role, but just what role it could most usefully play.

A recently-published volume edited by Shirley Scott and Charlotte Ku takes as its point of departure the virtual inevitability of the Council becoming more engaged in the global response to climate change. If current approaches to mitigating climate change prove inadequate, we will face global warming above the benchmark two degrees. This will, in turn, lead to increased frequency and intensity of daily temperature extremes and the intensification of daily precipitation extremes and increased extreme weather events. It will also directly threaten the existence of small island states and pose a fundamental security concern for those affected (see also the PSI policy brief on the SIDS bring climate to the UNSC).

Environmental tipping points may be accompanied by social, and possibly also governance, tipping points. Historically it has been the case that, even in democracies, security crises have been accompanied by an increased preparedness to accept more authoritarian governance approaches. The `go to’ institution at an international level when top-down processes are likely to be regarded as acceptable is the United Nations Security Council.

This raises the question as to just what the UN Security Council could do in such a crisis situation, bearing in mind that the multiple synchronous disasters may not present themselves as `climate change’ per se, but as tornadoes, economic shocks, disease outbreak, social stresses and/or conflict. At first glance, the traditional repertoire of Council tools would seem inappropriate. Take economic sanctions, for example, or even intervention.

It is likely that for the very reason that climate change might become an excuse for intervention motivated by other political factors there has been ongoing resistance to the idea of Council involvement in climate governance. But, just because the Council has such a tool at its ultimate disposal should it wish to use it does not mean that the Council could and should not consider other approaches as well.

In Climate Change and the UN Security Council, a series of experts have explored whether existing Council tools including peacekeeping, so-called `legislation’ and/or the creation of international tribunals, could have a useful role to play in responding to climate change threats. The conclusions reinforce that there are no easy answers but that yes, there may well be scope for these tools to be creatively adapted to a new context and new issue. In this case, it may not be an international criminal tribunal, for example, but one applying other bodies of law – for example, settling disputes as to where those displaced by climate-related events including rising sea-levels, may be able to resettle. Another example may be in the responsibility of states to ensure the preservation of life in the face of severe weather events like cyclones, hurricanes, wildfire, and tornadoes. Where states may be unable to respond, the international community may have a responsibility to respond on the basis of a UN Security Council mandate.

In her chapter, Charlotte Ku demonstrates that an important role that the Council could play is that of coordinating the work of the multiple players in climate security, or to develop an early warning system to protect life and to lower the impact of a climate event. Ensuring that protection of life takes into account vulnerable populations and respects the human rights of all those who are affected is another area where the UN Security Council could underscore the importance of these principles.

Where states are no longer able to discharge their primary responsibility to protect and to safeguard their populations, the UN Security Council has acted until this responsibility could be returned to a stable authority. The effects of climate change can be expected to create conditions where states will find themselves unable to meet these obligations more frequently with the potential for large-scale disruptions brought about by shifting populations, food scarcity, economic disruption, and other stresses on resources. The potential for civil unrest and conflict created by these conditions lead to security concerns that may further intensify as displacement and scarcity continue unabated.

The security effects of climate events can, therefore, be profound when the existence of a state is threatened. They can be widespread as they affect the personal security of a large number of individuals who may already be vulnerable or economically disadvantaged. Studies of vulnerable populations in the U.S. show that recovery for the economically disadvantaged is slower and does not reach pre-climate event levels at the same time that more prosperous populations recover and even exceed pre-climate event levels. These inequities create cause for concern as potential seeds for civil unrest. In the international arena, such inequities could sow the seeds for conflict and fall squarely within the traditional ambit of the UN Security Council.

Domestic experience further tells us that each dollar of prevention would require five dollars to rebuild something destroyed by a disaster. It, therefore, seems clear that efforts to reduce the impact of climate events would be useful to reduce the potential for conflict that might result from them. Information is available on where populations are vulnerable and exposed to climate events. Making states aware of their responsibilities to these populations, technical assistance on reducing the impact of climate events on these populations, and securing the resources for this work would all likely go a long way to reducing the potential for conflict and therefore fall appropriately within the purview of the UN Security Council.

In light of recently adopted UNSC resolutions in which climate change is included as root cause of conflict and the ongoing debate on creating an institutional home for climate-security at the UN, this volume is very timely and a must read for those willing to learn more about how the UNSC could step up its contribution to this field.