At the outset of the Security Council’s 23 February 2021 open debate on climate and security, world-renowned naturalist David Attenborough delivered a video message urging global cooperation to tackle the climate crisis. “If we continue on our current path, we will face the collapse of everything that gives us our security—food production; access to fresh water; habitable, ambient temperatures; and ocean food chains”, he said. Later, he added, “Please make no mistake. Climate change is the biggest threat to security that humans have ever faced.” Such warnings have become common.
And while the magnitude of this challenge is widely accepted, it is not clear if the global community, in particular the major carbon-emitting states, will show the level of commitment needed to reduce carbon emissions enough to stave off the more dire predictions of climate modellers.
While climate mitigation and adaptation measures are within the purview of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and contributions to such measures are outlined in the Paris Agreement, many Security Council members view climate change as a security threat worthy of the Council’s attention.
Other members do not. One of the difficulties in considering whether or not the Council should play a role (and a theme of this report) is that there are different interpretations of what is appropriate for the Security Council to do in discharging its Charter-given mandate to maintain international peace and security.
Notwithstanding these tensions, the issue has gained traction in the Council in recent years. An increasing number of Council members are choosing to hold signature events on climate change and security, during their monthly Council presidencies, to support the integration of climate change language into formal Council outcomes (that is, resolutions and presidential statements), and more broadly, to approach peace and security issues with greater sensitivity to the harmful effects of climate change.
In open debates and Arria-formula meetings, Council members and other member states have also increasingly framed this risk in more holistic terms, linking climate change and security to other thematic issues on the Council’s agenda. For example, they often discuss the impacts of climate change on women and youth—and the role that these groups can play in responding to climate-security risks— and they explore how climate change, pandemics, hunger, and conflict interact to compound security risks in conflict-affected and other vulnerable settings. Council members have often seen efforts to tackle climate-security threats as an element of the UN system’s conflict prevention work, and in more recent years, many of them have also viewed addressing climate change as an important part of the UN’s peacekeeping, peacebuilding and sustaining peace efforts.
A further focus of this report is the significant institutional architecture that has been established just since 2018, both within and outside the UN system, to help undergird the efforts of the Security Council and the broader UN family on this issue. This has included the establishment of an Informal Expert Group of Members of the Security Council on Climate and Security and a Group of Friends on Climate and Security, among other initiatives. These developments have largely reflected the initiative of Council members and other member states to foster a better understanding of climate-security risks and consistent and meaningful responses to them.
Efforts within UN peace operations to develop responses to climate-related security threats continue to make progress, but are uneven and lack sufficient resources. The Council can enhance its focus on climaterelated security matters, but in order for climate risks to be assuaged in relevant situations on the Council’s agenda, the rest of the UN system will need to continue to build its capacity and expertise on this issue.
The report explores the above-mentioned themes in the following sections:
• The first section briefly analyses whether the Council is an appropriate venue to address climate-security matters.
• The second section looks to the UN Charter and Security Council and General Assembly practice for guidance on Council involvement on climate change and security matters.
• The third section outlines the ways in which the Council has engaged on this issue in meetings and in formal outcomes.
It also describes the institutional mechanisms that have been established to help the Council and the UN more broadly to address climate-related security threats in a more consistent and impactful manner.
• The fourth section discusses Security Council dynamics on climate change and security.
• The fifth section offers some observations on the Council’s approach to climate and security matters and presents options for the way forward.
The report concludes with annexes summarising climate change language in Security Council outcomes, and listing other relevant documents.