Climate and security – time for the UN Security Council to take the next step

Author: Johanna Nyman

Leading up to IEEP’s Think 2030 conference, experts express their views on Europe’s most pressing sustainability issues in the Think 2030 blog series, Pathways to 2030. 

The second edition of Pathways to 2030 features Johanna Nyman, Policy Analyst for IEEP, who discusses climate change and ecosystem degradation as urgent security risks to international peace and security. 

Climate change and ecosystem degradation are significant security threats and it is now time for the UN Security Council to take the next steps to limit this threat to international peace and security. 

In July 2018 the UN Security Council had a discussion on ‘Preparing for the security implications of rising temperatures’. The question is, what role could and will the Security Council play in helping to secure stronger climate change mitigation, and action to adapt to a world where climate change is already a reality? Will one of the most powerful groupings in the world, the P5 (China, UK, Russia, France and the USA), together with the non-permanent members of the Council, step up to the challenge and the responsibility installed on them through the UN Charter, which calls on the UN “to take effective collective measures for the prevention and removal of threats to the peace”?

Discussing the possible security implications of climate change as well as ecosystem degradation is not something new for the Security Council. It had its first debate on the inter-relationship between energy, climate and security in 2007 and since then there have been a number of informal discussions on climate change as a threat multiplier on water, peace and security, and on the security dimensions of climate change. 

In 2017 the Council broke new ground by recognising, in resolution 2349, the adverse effects climate change and ecological changes had on stability in the Lake Chad Basin. The resolution also emphasized the need for adequate risk assessments and risk management strategies by governments and the UN relating to water scarcity, drought, desertification, land degradation, and food insecurity. 

The Lake Chad Basin is one of the locations where climate change has had devastating impacts, exacerbating existing inequalities, poverty and political instability, and leading to conflict and population displacement. Climate change, together with inadequate water use and ecosystem degradation, are contributing factors to the shrinking of Lake Chad by more than 90% in the last 40 years. This has resulted in an acute water scarcity and food insecurity in the region. Late in 2017 there were more than 7 million people suffering from severe food insecurity and this in turn has created a breeding ground for violence and a number of terrorist groups, such as ‘Boko Haram’ and ‘Islamic State West Africa’. At the same time there were more than 2 million people displaced by the regional conflict, leading to further instability.

This year in March the Security Council took another important step when it approved resolution 2408, which identified similar climate factors affecting the stability of Somalia and calling for similar action as in Lake Chad Basin.

 As the Deputy Secretary General of the UN, Amina J. Mohammed, said during the UNSC discussion on Preparing for the security implications of rising temperatures’ in July 2018:

“We must understand climate change as one issue in a web of factors that can lead to conflict, can exacerbate conflict. Within this web climate change acts as a treat multiplier, applying additional stress on prevailing political, social and economic pressure points.”

The Lake Chad Basin and Somalia are not the only places where climate change and ecosystem degradation is exacerbating conflict and creating insecurity. The paths to instability can vary, and climate change impacts can broadly be divided into slow and fast onset climate change. 

Fast onset climate change includes sharp increase in extreme weather events such as storms, floods, landslides resulting from heavy rains, giant tides and heatwaves, often leading to destruction of livelihoods, infrastructure and housing. This can lead to increased conflict over scarce resources and migration, which in turn can put pressure on the communities where climate migrants move. 

Slow onset climate change is a gradual change in climate, such as rising sea levels, increasing temperatures and drought, melting permafrost and glaciers and erosion. Slow onset climate change includes gradual impacts which limit resource availability, or cause food insecurity, and might force people to migrate; all factors that can lead to conflict and insecurity. 

 In addition to the changing climate, pollution, overexploitation of natural resources such as water and soil, and the loss of biodiversity and degradation of ecosystems and their natural functions pose risks to human security across the world. The effects of climate change often intertwine with these factors, further adding to the vulnerability of communities and regions. 

As a result of all the above, a fragile situation is exacerbated, made more precarious and might push people into terrorism, fuel existing tensions or create new conflicts, especially around water. A fragile situation can be defined as one where there are existing tensions, scarce resources, political instability or other destabilizing factors. Both slow and fast onset climate change and ecosystem degradation can also lead to increased migration, usually happening within national borders (and with identifiable impacts on stability), but there has also been increased international migration caused by climate change. 

Global climate change mitigation efforts must be rapidly scaled in order to address these climate and security concerns.

At the same time, it is also vital to speed up local, regional and national adaptation work. There needs to be comprehensive mapping of risks – climate and broader – for water scarcity and food insecurity, and coordinated investment efforts into increasing resilience and preventing the impacts of climate change deteriorating already fragile situations. All of this would also need to be coupled with increased disaster preparedness and disaster risk management, across the globe. 

The debate on where climate change fits within the UN system seems both outdated and counterproductive. Climate change is something that cannot be boxed away within the walls of a single institution, but cooperation and maximum efforts and resources are needed across the spectrum. While the mainstreaming of climate change is happening globally, the coordination and cooperation needs to be strong and firm. Stemming from political momentum, funds and mandate, the UNFCCC is and should be that overall coordinating body, but there seems to be a lack of a focal point for tackling climate and security issues within the UN system.  

The UN Security Council is the organ within the UN system with responsibility to take action on threats to international peace and security and the decisions by the Council are binding. The UN Security Council has a vital role to play in galvanising action on climate security. Having recognised climate change as one background factor to conflicts, and having held the debate in July this year, are both important steps forward. But the essential question is in what way an institution with rapid reactions, an uneven power balance and an extremely broad mandate can be a part of the global work to limit climate change. 

How can the Security Council help ensure climate change does not exacerbate conflicts and suffering?

A first step would be to strengthen the Security Council’s ability to identify and manage climate-related security threats. This would include climate security risk assessment and reporting from local, national and regional levels that should feed into a system for early warnings.  In line with article 39 of the UN Charter, the Security Council “shall determine the existence of any threat to peace, breach of the peace, or act of aggression and shall make recommendations, or decide what measures shall be taken in accordance with Articles 41 and 42, to maintain or restore international peace and security”, meaning that the actions can go beyond mapping and understanding the situation, to concrete action. The Council could recognise climate change as a threat to collective security and follow that with strong action. The Council could call on member states to take action on adaptation and mitigation or even impose Article 41 sanctions on member states not complying with agreed climate targets. The Security Council could be a force to further mainstream climate change mitigation and adaptation across the UN system and make sure climate change is not seen as a marginal sectoral issue and gets the weight and recognition that reality requires. 

Concrete next steps could be to create an institutional home for climate and security within the UN system. As Margot Wallström, Swedish Minister for Foreign Affairs, suggested during the debate in July, creating this institutional home for climate and security might happen under the leadership of a special representative on climate change and security, with responsibility for bringing together information from all relevant UN agencies. In addition, the UN Security Council should integrate climate and environmental risk assessments into its everyday work, and encourage significant investment into early warning systems and improved understanding of the potential vulnerabilities posed by climate change. 

When addressing the question of climate security the broader discussion about environmental security should not be ignored. 

Environmental and ecosystem degradation is horizontally contributing to an environmental security threat and climate security cannot be advanced without taking the broader environmental perspective into account. In other words, successfully addressing climate change related risks to security requires addressing several underlying causes to ecosystem degradation. These causes are the results of unsustainable sectoral activities – such as agriculture, forestry, energy, trade – and addressing them requires solutions that go beyond the immediate realm of climate related policy.

Today the Swedish Government launched the Stockholm Climate Security Hub to support risk assessment and risk management strategies for managing climate-related security risks. This is a very welcome investment in building the collective knowledge about the security threats posed by climate change and hopefully this initiative is a step towards a global, more coordinated action to address these threats. 

Climate change is rapidly altering ecosystems, landscapes and societies and we cannot ignore the bigger system changes caused by a changing climate. The role and action taken by the UN Security Council has constantly evolved. The reality in front of us requires a further evolution. The Security Council needs to act rapidly, to acknowledge not just the existence but also the extent of the security threats posed by climate change, and to take concrete steps to alleviate climate threats to international peace and security. 

The Global Military Adivisory Council on Climate Change and IEEP will present a policy paper on environmental security at Think 2030. Find out more here:

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