State of the Planet

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Meeting at UN Security Council Discusses Climate Change and Conflict

halbe zijlstra at un security council
The Dutch Foreign Minister, Halbe Zijlstra, thanks Sebastiano Cardi, the Italian ambassador to the UN, for his efforts at the Security Council. Photo: Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs

Recent research has documented the association between climate change and conflict. Some studies examine large datasets about war and violence. These are complemented by studies of individual cases of conflict, such as a recent paper which examines the relation of climate change to the exceptional 2007-2010 drought in Syria, which was a critical precursor to the onset of conflict there in 2011. The United Nations Security Council (UNSC), which first considered this association 10 years ago, recently held a meeting to discuss the security implications of the changing climate.

The theme of the December 13th meeting was “Preparing for security implications of rising temperatures.” It provided a forum for UNSC members and other UN member states to express their views on the still-unresolved question of the Security Council’s engagement with climate change. Though the UN as a whole has been committed for many years to addressing climate change as a fundamental issue, some members see climate change as closely linked to the UNSC’s mandate to support peace and security, while others suggest that its proper home within the UN lies with other bodies, particularly the General Assembly and the Economic and Social Council. A concept note circulated before the meeting emphasized the general relevance of climate change to the UNSC, and cited several precedents for action, including a key statement by the president of the UNSC in 2011 about security implications of climate change, but did not make any specific recommendations for action.

The Background to the Meeting

This meeting served as an occasion for 13 of the 15 UNSC members to speak directly on this question (Bolivia and the United States were the two exceptions), and for a number of other countries to offer their views as well. Though the large majority support UNSC engagement with this issue, two permanent members, China and the Russian Federation, disagreed. In the discussions, glaciers were mentioned a number of times. Glacier retreat was presented not only as clear evidence of climate change or as impacting water resources and economic development, but also as a cause of migration and social problems.

This meeting followed closely on two other meetings, both in Europe, in the same week. The One Planet Summit, held in Paris on December 12, was attended by the UN Secretary General, the president of the World Bank and the president of France, as well as many other heads of state. It marked the second anniversary of the Paris Agreement at COP21. This conference led to a number of pledges to advance climate finance, and the notable statement by the World Bank that it “will no longer finance upstream oil and gas.”

Overlapping with this meeting, the Planetary Security Conference 2017, held in The Hague on December 12 and 13, produced the Hague Declaration on Planetary Security. This document describes climate change as a threat to world peace and lays out a six-point plan of action, including creating an institutional home for climate security, responding to migration and urban resilience issues, and addressing three climate hotspots.

Moreover, the timing in December is important for the Security Council. This month marks the close of the terms for five of the UNSC members, including Italy, which convened the event. It also offers an opportunity for the six new members who will begin their terms in January to participate in meetings. (Five of these members were elected, while the sixth, the Netherlands, will start a one-year term, replacing Italy under the agreement in which these two countries split a single two-year term.) This event was held under the Arria Formula, a mechanism for informal gatherings of the Security Council members, designed to promote an open exchange of ideas.

Ambassadors, staff and other delegates assembled in the Economic and Social Council Chamber, one of the most prominent rooms of the UN Headquarters, along with representatives of some major international NGOs. In the minutes before the start, several staff members commented on the large number of UN officials who were present, and on the attendance by senior ministers from major countries. They took this a sign of the importance of the issue of the Security Council’s engagement with climate change.

The Convener and the First Speakers Urge Security Council Engagement with the Climate-Conflict Nexus

Sebastiano Cardi, the permanent representative of Italy at the UN, opened the meeting, in one of the last acts of his term. He spoke of 2017 as a year marked by extreme events and large flows of migrants driven by climate change. He stated “When the United Nations was founded, it was too early to realize that environmental degradation could act a socio-economic stress factor, likely to hamper development and growth and induce conflict in fragile contexts.” He cited two important precedents, an open debate in the UNSC in 2007 on the relationship between energy, security and climate, and UNSC Resolution 2349, adopted last March, which recognized the direct impacts of climate change on reducing the stability of the Lake Chad region. He concluded by signaling “the need for adequate risk assessments and risk management strategies [and] for early warning mechanisms [for] the assessment of new security risks generated by climate change.” He also called for “an institutional home for climate change and security within the UN system, [which] could provide the needed locus for leadership, cooperation and joint action.”

Caitlin Werrell at UN security council
Caitlin Werrell of the Center for Climate and Security, speaking at the Security Council on climate and security. Photo: screen capture from UN webcast

As one of the staff members had explained to me, this language references a key provision of the UN Charter, which entered into force in 1945. According to Article 39, “The Security Council shall determine the existence of any threat to the peace, breach of the peace, or act of aggression and shall make recommendations, or decide what measures shall be taken… to maintain or restore international peace and security.”

Cardi was followed by two speakers. Halbe Zijlstra, the Minister of Foreign Relations of the Netherlands, spoke of the recent meetings in Paris and the Hague. He underscored the significance of climate as a threat to global security, and called for the “creation of an institutional home for climate security.” He stated that his country will press for this step when it takes its seat on the Security Council in January.

The next speaker was Caitlin Werrell, the president of an NGO, the Center for Climate and Security. She was the only member of a civil society organization to speak. She discussed the arrival of the Anthropocene, with its “unprecedented changes.” Melting glaciers were the first of the changes she listed, followed by the loss of polar ice caps, sea level rise, and ocean acidification. She presented her organization’s proposal, the Responsibility to Prepare Agenda. She outlined six principles for “climate-proofing security,” which include forming a “climate security crisis watch center.” These principles closely overlap with the Hague Declaration on Climate Security and the points which Cardi offered.

Cardi then invited comments from other officials. The first two were Margot Wallström, the Foreign Minister of Sweden, and Mark Field, the UK Minister of State for Asia and the Pacific, who offered their strong support of the points made by the first speakers. Their countries are also Security Council members and co-sponsors of the meeting. They were followed by the permanent representatives of other UNSC members who were co-sponsors. The French representative spoke of the importance of “preventive action” and the need to create as “climate-risk early warning system.”

Challenges from Russia and China, and Expressions of Support from 21 Other Countries

At this point, Cardi invited comments from other Security Council members who were not co-sponsors. The first to speak was Dilyara Ravilova-Borovik, a senior counselor at the Russian Federation’s Permanent Delegation to the UN and head of its economic section. Talking at length, she emphasized that her country studies climate change seriously, and that it is an active participant in all international fora on the topic. “We have never avoided discussing these issues,” she said, “even as we become increasingly convinced that the Security Council is not the appropriate platform for this issue.” Disagreeing with the previous speakers, she stated that “recent events show that the world has sufficient hotpots which need immediate attention” of the UNSC, thus fully absorbing the body’s capacity to engage with problems. To address climate change, she said, we have “effective recipes” which include climate-friendly technologies and assistance to developing countries. Work on combating climate change is already being done under the UNFCCC, the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction, the UN General Assembly and the UN Economic and Social Council. Ravilova-Borovik closed with a call for UNSC members to “concentrate our efforts on implementing immediate tasks of security” and to “refrain from interfering with mandates of other [UN] units” such as the General Assembly.

In one of his few remarks to the meeting after the opening, Cardi commented that the Security Council was not proposing to fight climate change, but rather to decide “how to assess the security challenge posed by climate change.” He then called on the representative of Ethiopia, who stated that climate change is “a reality in Africa.” He spoke of the need “to take coordinated efforts to avoid conflict,” but then spoke primarily about the need for international climate financing and technology transfer to support efforts of countries to develop resilient economies. He was followed by the representatives of Uruguay, Kazakhstan, Senegal and Egypt, who presented the impacts of climate change on their countries, and agreed on the importance of addressing conflict issues. The Kazakh representative mentioned the severe water shortages caused by glacier retreat, while the Senegalese representative emphasized the challenge of desertification, which makes many people more vulnerable to “recruiters for terrorism, who dangle a kind of hope in front of desperate people who are easy prey.”

Dilyara Ravilova-Borovik at UN Security Council
Dilyara Ravilova-Borovik of the Russian Federation, speaking at the Security Council on climate and security. Photo: screen capture from UN webcast

The permanent representative of China, who emphasized his country’s commitment to a low carbon economy and to the Paris Agreement, spoke more slowly and in more measured tones than the Russian representative, but also underscored the inappropriateness of climate change as an issue for the Security Council. He stated that the UNSC does not have “expertise on climate change,” nor the “necessary means or resources to address developing countries’ needs to deal with climate change.” Like the Russian representative, he emphasized that other UN organs represented “the main channels through which the parties can work together” to address climate change.

The last UNSC member, from Ukraine, spoke in favor of the Council’s engagement with the climate-conflict nexus. He was followed by other co-sponsors of the meeting who were not Security Council members, including Morocco, Germany and the Maldives, the only small island state representative to speak.

The permanent representative of Peru, which will join the UNSC next month, emphasized the impacts of climate which Peru has faced, including coastal flooding. He mentioned that the melting of glaciers has led to drying of pastures in high mountain areas and to outmigration, causing social challenges. He referenced Article 39 of the UN charter and Article 99 as well, under which “The Secretary-General may bring to the attention of the Security Council any matter which in his opinion may threaten the maintenance of international peace and security.” He underscored the importance of preventing and managing the security risks which climate change creates.

The final phase of the meeting consisted of short addresses by other countries which were neither UNSC members nor co-sponsors of the meeting. All of these—Norway, Ireland, Algeria, Switzerland, Belgium, Estonia, Indonesia, Canada, Romania, Australia and the Dominican Republic—spoke in favor of Security Council engagement with the potential of climate change to cause or exacerbate conflict.

Ravilova-Borovik, the representative of the Russian Federation, requested the floor a second time. The only representative other than Cardi to speak more than once, she said, “There have been comments made on our statement.” She reiterated her country’s recognition of the reality of climate change and its effects, but stated that the Security Council can participate in climate issues “only in the case of individual country issues” of already ongoing conflict. She mentioned that that was reason that the Russian Federation had supported UNSC Resolution 2349 linking climate change and conflict in the Lake Chad Basin. Later commentary noted that Russia’s comments at this event “seemed to signal an evolving approach” to the issue.

The Close of the Meeting

With time running out, there was no opportunity for comments by representatives of the NGOs, like the International Union for the Conservation of Nature or the International Red Cross/Red Crescent Federation, who were in the room. Cardi closed the meeting and thanked all the participants, singling out Russia because of the need to “exchange views.” He called for scientific research and policy analysis, presumably on the link of climate and conflict, because “without data, we can’t do work.” He noted the presence of “some dissident voices.” He closed with a reference to “threats that couldn’t be seen 70 years ago when the UN was founded.” Ziljstra, the first of the briefers, had already left the meeting, so Weddell offered a brief comment on the importance of prevention of climate-related conflict. The meeting was adjourned at 5:50 p.m. The participants chatted briefly in the conference hall and the nearby corridors, and then headed back to their offices or out into the snowy night. These conversations will surely continue next year, drawing on the specific proposals highlighted at the start of the meeting, with at least two new Security Council members, the Netherlands and Peru, having shown their commitment to this issue.

A version of this post was originally published on GlacierHub.

Ben Orlove is an anthropologist and professor of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University, and a member of the Earth Institute faculty. His research and teaching on adaptation to climate change in high mountain regions has led him to serve as a lead author on the IPCC Special Report on Oceans and the Cryosphere. He also edits GlacierHub, a website which discusses the scientific research, policy initiatives, community adaptations, and cultural expressions linked to glacier retreat. He was invited to the Security Council meeting as a way to advance discussions with member countries about climate issues.

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