28 September 2021

‘Our window of opportunity is rapidly closing’: UNSC open debate on climate security

On 23rd September 2021, the UN Security Council held a high-level open debate on climate and security under the Chairmanship of Ireland. The provisional agenda for the 8864th meeting of the Security Council focused on the maintenance of international peace and security: Climate and security. The UN Security Council has held several previous sessions on climate security; most recently an (informal) Arria formula meeting in April 2020 and a high-level UN Security Council debate in February 2021. In June 2021, the so-called Security Council Report, with support of UN countries being part of the ‘Group of Friends on Climate and Security’, published a  report on the centrality and action of the UN Security Council. Despite the apparent progress, the climate security agenda is still developing at a slow pace in the Security Council and giant strides need to be taken. 

Differences emerged in the open debate on Thursday, as member states quarrelled about the role of the UN Security Council in addressing climate-related security risks. Though the majority of the member states recognized the increasing impacts of climate change, few member states contested the link between climate change impacts and worsening international security situations. The session was opened by UN Secretary-General António Guterres who referred to last month’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Sixth Assessment Report as “a code red for humanity”. Guterres was forceful in sounding the alarm for bolder commitments ahead of COP26, by suggesting that our window of opportunity to prevent the worst climate impacts is rapidly closing. 

“The effects of climate change are particularly profound when they overlap with fragility and pasts or current conflicts. Coping capacities are limited and there is high dependence on shrinking natural resources where grievances and tensions can explode, complicating efforts to prevent conflicts and sustain peace”, António Guterres, UN Secretary-General.

The briefing by civil society representative and Chief Operating Officer of the non‑governmental organization, Elman Peace and Human Rights Centre – Ilwad Elman, said that maintaining international peace and security will become even harder over time. Elman termed the previous thematic discussions on climate and security in the Council as ‘welcomed progress’, but also 'painfully too slow’ for the vulnerable communities facing climate-related security risks in their everyday lives. 

“For front-line activists at the cusp of climate and security, there is little support available to effectively assist them and furthering climate resilience on local and regional levels. Very few investments are being made into the technical capacity building and knowledge management in grassroots civil society organizations”, Ilwad Elman, Civil Society Representative. 

Speaking in his national capacity, Irish Taoiseach Micheál Martin expressed support for discussions on climate security to continue under the purview of the Security Council by recounting that, “a concerted multilateral response to climate change involving all the organs of the United Nations is urgently needed”. Furthermore, he argued that peacekeepers and civilian staff are already dealing with climate-related security risks in their activities, therefore if they are to succeed, member states need to integrate climate risks into conflict-prevention, peacekeeping, conflict resolution and post-conflict stabilization mandates. 

“This Council can and must do more. It has demanded and it has the tools. A failure to use them is an abdication of our responsibility”, Micheál Martin, Prime Minister of Ireland.

Moving forward, both Vietnam and Estonia were eager to suggest that the Council should undertake greater responsibility by establishing systemic mechanisms that ‘collect data and coordinate policy’ for early assessment, forecast and warning of climate-related security risks.  

United States Secretary of State, Anthony Blinken called upon member states to increase ambition at COP26. Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Cooperation of Niger, Hassoumi Massaoudou referred to the fact that climate change is depleting natural resources and hampering efforts to build peace in Niger – where agriculture sustains 80% of the population. Notably, Niger is also co-host with the Republic of Ireland at the Informal Expert Group of Members of the Security Council which aims to push for a greater focus on climate security in the Council. 

Moving forward, French Foreign Minister, Jean-Yves Le Drain was quick to suggest, “we need to help our most vulnerable partners to anticipate the risks linked to climate change by improving the mapping of people vulnerable to risks; to come up with emergency plans that include pre-established financing”. Mexico, Norway, Kenya, Tunisia, UK and Saint Vincent and the Grenadines all further echoed the remarks made by most statesmen advocating for the Council to adopt focused resolutions that include climate-related security risks in all relevant mandates of the United Nations. 

However, while all member states recognized the increasing salience of the climate crisis, few, namely, India, Russia and China pushed back from the idea of climate risks needing to be dealt with by the UNSC. India, for example, raised questions concerning the nexus between climate and security, while Russia claimed that enshrining a climate security agenda in the Council could impede the work of other UN bodies. To this end, the Russian envoy alluded to the proverb, “too many cooks spoil the broth”. China echoed India and Russia by expressing concerns over the ability of UNSC to appropriately dealing with the issue of climate-related security risks.  

Use the following link to watch the debate of the UN Security Council: Maintenance of International Peace and security: Climate and Security  

Read our previous coverage of the UNSC open debate on climate and security: Our last chance to get this right: UNSC debate on climate-security

Photo credit: Paul Kagame/Flickr