The UN Security Council held a meeting this week under the heading, “Understanding and Addressing Climate‑related Security Risks.” It was just the third time the body has officially debated climate change as a security concern, but with Trump making headlines overseas, few noticed. (Climate change itself saw practically no major network coverage in the United States this month, despite record-breaking heat waves across the country.)
The council’s previous debates on the topic, in 2007 and 2011, were marked by disagreement over whether the Security Council is an appropriate forum for climate questions at all. There are other bodies at the UN that cover the environment and development, goes one argument against it. Another suggests that climate might be used as a pretext for politically motivated interventions, or securitization of climate issues might unfairly target poor nations that still depend on a high-emissions economy. Veto-wielding states like China and Russia have routinely opposed anything that would expand the council’s peace-keeping powers.
Despite those objections, over the past seven years Security Council members have voted for multiple resolutions that acknowledge the links between climate-related displacement and conflict, including in regions like Somalia and around Lake Chad (which is now less than 10 percent of its 1960s size).
Since the issue first came on the council’s agenda 11 years ago, many other states have also begun to experience the direct and indirect effects of climate change. The devastation in Syria, and its impact on migration (and politics) across Europe and the globe, were partly precipitated by drought. The Arab Spring has been linked to a 2010 drought that destroyed Russia’s wheat harvest and led to sky-rocketing food prices across North Africa.
The July 11 meeting may be a harbinger of more sustained interest in treating climate as an international security concern. Baron Waqa, the president of Nauru and chair of the Pacific Small Island Developing States, called for a new UN special representative on climate and security. Swedish Foreign Minister Margot Wallström, who presided over the debate, announced the creation of a climate security “knowledge hub” in Stockholm, with a focus on evidence-based analysis. “It is time for the Security Council to catch up with the changing reality on the ground,” Wallstrom said.
But other states remain unmoved. The Russian deputy UN ambassador described the inclusion of climate on the council’s agenda as “an illusion.” While supporting the council’s attention to natural disasters, the United States barely acknowledged the main agenda topic, referring to climate change only once, and at arm’s length. “We have heard from our friends in the Pacific that they consider climate change to be an existential threat to their populations, and we understand the priority they place on the UN system and the international community supporting their unique needs,” said the US deputy representative, Jonathan Cohen.
The bar is still set low. Wallström acknowledged at a press conference before the meeting that it was “not realistic” to expect any immediate concrete outcomes, and that “it’s a success to be able to place it on the agenda.” With more resource- and climate-related conflict likely on the horizon, it’s difficult to know whether the Security Council taking on climate change is a hopeful sign, or just another indication that the world is marching steadily toward a future in which climate change poses a dangerous and unavoidable security threat.
“Very soon we will see more climate refugees, and it will affect all of us,” Wallström said. “So their destiny is also our destiny.”
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