22 June 2020
  • UN
  • climate security
  • climate change

Will climate change security risk be a topic for the UN Security Council?

This summary was first published by the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP) in June 2020. 

The German government has announced it will make security policy implications from climate change once more a topic for the United Nations (UN) Security Council. The next meeting hosted by Germany is to take place in July 2020 while Germany holds a nonpermanent seat on the body (2019/2020). The impacts from climate change have increased dramatically in recent years. Small island developing states (SIDS) such as Nauru, the Marshall Islands, the Maldives, and Vanuatu claim that security policy and the UN Security Council should be dealing with climate impacts. In their opinion, the negotiations under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) have so far paid too little attention to the “loss and damage” caused by climate change. The European countries Germany, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Belgium, Sweden, and France are supporting the SIDS in the attempt to continuously address the issue at the UN Security Council. However, expectations of an active role for the Council and its scope for action diverge widely. Also, there are other UN institutions that deal with climate impacts.

A closer look at the claims made by the SIDS also reveals contradictions. If the island states lose their territories due to rising sea levels, this is an existential threat, but not a risk to international security per se. Over the past 10 years, the Security Council has debated climate risks with increasing frequency. Resolutions on crisis situations in Africa have included references to the significance of climate change.

There is little supporting evidence so far about direct causalities between climate risks and violence which the Security Council could focus on. For the majority of experts in conflict research, climate change contributes only very indirectly to outbreaks of violence compared with other conflict risks. However, climate impacts can interact strongly with these risks and are therefore regarded as a threat multiplier. The potential of climate change as an indirect driver of conflict needs to be further explored in order to identify specific situations and examples for a causal relationship. So far, there has also been a lack of knowledge about why violent conflicts do not occur in particular regions hit by extreme climate-related events.

So what could be the role of the UN Security Council in dealing with climate change risks? In the short to medium term, the Council can generate more attention for international climate policy. In several resolutions, it has already pointed out the risks that climate change poses to human security. If the Security Council emphasises the preventive nature of efforts to protect the climate, this can generate pressure on the UNFCCC negotiators. Moreover, the Council can bring into focus more narrowly defined security-related climate impacts, such as a deterioration of the security situation in crisis areas. It can also highlight preventive approaches that are important for security policy, above all development aid and the implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and its 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Read the full summary and the research paper here.

Read also the PSI policy brief about SIDS bringing climate-security to the UN Security Council, and our coverage of the latest UNSC debate on the security risks posed by climate change and their link to Covid-19. 



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