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Climate Change in the Security Council: What New Council Members Can Achieve in 2023

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Picture: REUTERS/Mohamed Abd El Ghany – COP27 President Sameh Shoukry delivering a statement during the closing plenary at the COP27 climate summit in Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, November 20, 2022.

By Adam Day

2023 could be a good year for advancing climate-related issues in the United Nations Security Council. The two-year terms of elected Council members like India, which have been outspoken opponents of including climate change on the Council’s agenda, have ended, and Brazil’s newly elected government is likely to be a bit more open to discussing some specific impacts of climate change. And while strong climate, peace and security advocates like Kenya, Ireland, and Norway have rotated out, the incoming elected members include some likely supporters such as Switzerland, Malta, Ecuador, and Japan.[1] Even the newly elected Mozambique, which historically has strong energy ties with Russia, has recently stressed the links between climatic factors and the rise of armed groups designated as terrorist in its territory, and now co-chairs the Informal Expert Group on climate security in the Council (together with the United Arab Emirates and Switzerland).

Of course, there are headwinds. Efforts to include “climate, peace and security” on the regular agenda of the Council in recent years have failed, and deep polarization within the Council over the war in Ukraine means the scope of agreement on new issues may be very narrow. Indeed, even the term “climate and security” is fraught, given the indirect links between climatic factors and the risks of violent conflict. It is very possible that the coming year could witness even deeper entrenchment, bringing prospects for advancing climate-related issues down with it. But given the accelerating impacts of climate change around the world, and increasing recognition that climatic factors are indeed affecting a wide range of areas that can drive security risks, the issue is becoming increasingly unavoidable.

If the ten elected members of the Council (E10) wish to advance the climate issue in 2023, they could consider the following six approaches.

Don’t get dragged under the omnibus

Since climate change and security was first put on the Security Council’s agenda 15 years ago, the relationship between the two has only been narrowly recognized by the UN body. Early attempts to make broad claims about the impacts of climate change on security risks were qualified as “possible” adverse effects that “may, in the long run, aggravate” threats to peace and security. Instead of agreeing on so-called thematic resolutions that would acknowledge a categorical relationship between climate change and security, the Council has moved forward incrementally through resolutions on the Lake Chad Basin, Mali, Darfur, and West Africa, recognizing only country/region-specific impacts.

Recent efforts to pass an omnibus resolution that would recognize a general relationship between climate change and security—and importantly place climate change more consistently on the Council’s agenda—have failed. This includes Germany’s 2020 open debate on climate security and the joint Ireland/Niger effort in December 2021 to adopt a thematic resolution. The lesson here seems clear, and unlikely to change over the course of the year: avoid an omnibus resolution (for now) and focus instead on incremental progress via country-specific settings where there is strong evidence.

Unite behind the A3

The so-called African Three or “A3” group are the three elected African members, which this year are Mozambique, Ghana, and Gabon. African member states have played a leading role in integrating climate change into peace work, with the African Union (AU) meeting nine times in the past several years on this topic. The AU Peace and Security Council has adopted a common position on climate change and peace and security in Africa, offering a possible model for the UN to do something similar.

Gabon held the only formal climate-security session in the UN Security Council in all of 2022, during which a significant amount of empirical evidence from the African continent was provided, supporting Ghana’s point that there is now a sufficient enough link between climate and security to require action by the Security Council. Some experts following this Council meeting noted that the persuasive evidence offered by African countries made the subsequent statements by Russia and India (arguing that climate change belonged exclusively in the realm of economic development and the UNFCCC) feel out of sync with reality.

There is scope to build on Gabon’s session and bring in new evidence from the African continent. Mozambique’s experience in particular could be powerful, given the links between climate change and the activities of violent extremist groups on its territory. It is worth noting that Russia was open to discussions of climate-driven shifts in the Lake Chad Basin region in 2017 when the links to Boko Haram were involved.

Make UAE the Good COP

This year, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) is both on the Security Council and host of the 28th United Nations climate conference, COP28. And while the 2022 COP had specific initiatives based on climate and security links, there will be enormous pressure to deliver more tangible outcomes beyond loss and damage this year. Moreover, the UAE will be looking to play a visible leadership role on climate throughout the year (and potentially highlighting stories that sidestep its role as a massive oil and gas producer). If it looks like COP28 might not deliver big money on climate mitigation, the UAE may look for wins on the adaptation side, which could be partially met by promoting strong climate-security responses from the UN system.

The UAE may wish to play a leadership role within the Council on issues of particular interest to the Gulf region, such as sea level rise and extreme heat. Of course, the elephant in the room will be the UAE’s leading role in the fossil fuel energy sector, but this could drive even greater willingness to be seen as active on the climate agenda. The UAE’s June presidency of the Security Council this year is an opportunity for these threads to come together. Offering the UAE support on an ambitious Council presidency could be a fruitful avenue for other E10 members.

The rising tide of water and insecurity

Malta has declared that climate-driven rising sea levels pose an existential threat to its people, and will certainly wish to keep the issue squarely on the Council’s agenda this year. Ecuador is also deeply affected by climate change, including through sea level rise, coastal erosion, extreme weather, biodiversity loss, and changing rainfall patterns. A recent increase in floods and fires in Quito has underscored the close relationship between water and security across the region. This is a complex issue with high political stakes, especially for small island states facing immediate risks from rising water levels (e.g. the Maldives). E10 members may wish to informally discuss how water, human security, and related issues (crops, drought, flooding) could be framed within the Council, including via Arria formula meetings.

One linkage that could be pursued is connecting humanitarian emergencies—which is one of the few remaining areas of (partial) agreement within the Council—with water-related issues. Could E10 members put a spotlight on the potential for large-scale humanitarian suffering and displacement due to water shortages and/or flooding and create an entry point for Council action on climate? Or even stress the protection of civilians risks posed by climate change? This might be the year to try a humanitarian/protection approach.

The crisis of 2023: food and energy

The war in Ukraine and the lingering effects of the pandemic have deeply impacted our global health and food systems. Skyrocketing fertilizer and gas/oil costs have led to dramatic increases in food prices, without a commensurate increase in buying power in many parts of the world. While some experts indicate that the cost of food may be peaking and could decline, the ripple effects across the world are likely to be felt for several more years at a minimum. As the Arab Spring demonstrated, there are clear links between livelihoods, basic services, and the willingness of populations to rise up in widespread unrest. The significant spike in popular demonstrations during the COVID-19 restrictions was another indicator that food and health are likely to be some of the most important aspects of our global conflict landscape in the immediate and longer-term future.

Recent scientific evidence shows that there exists a strong linkage between climate, food systems and security. Multiple pathways (resource scarcity and abundance, food and nutrition insecurity, inequality, forced displacement and mobility, among others) whereby climate has influenced human security show that agriculture and food systems play a pivotal role in sustaining peace. Especially in those contexts where climate impacts are increasingly threatening local livelihoods, it has become clear that keeping global, national and regional food systems strong and resilient must be a priority. Here, the concept of “climate-resilient peace” could be more formally introduced into the Council, perhaps through the Peacebuilding Commission.

Listen to real people, and the science

Every day, communities are living—and trying to survive—the effects of climate change. Five consecutive years of drought in the Horn of Africa leaves little doubt that growing farmer-herder conflicts are linked to environmental changes, while climatic changes across the Sahel are driving widespread changes in livelihoods. Here, the Security Council has struggled to agree on any kind of future-oriented analysis: attempts at horizon scanning or early warning have foundered, despite a clear agreement that the UN should improve its prevention efforts. But as the only climate-security session in 2022 highlighted, there is real power in bringing “voices from reality” into the Council, accompanied by strong scientific evidence.

E10 members could use a range of entry points, including the Peacebuilding Commission, briefings from regional envoys, resident coordinators, and local civil society groups to offer a ground truthing to the climate-security issue. The more that Council members listen to voices of those directly affected by climate change, the harder it will be to ignore reality. While we don’t propose an underwater session of the Security Council (yet), it is certainly time to turn up the heat in the Council chamber in 2023.

[1] The ten elected members are: Albania, Brazil, Ecuador, Gabon, Ghana, Japan, Malta, Mozambique, Switzerland, and the United Arab Emirates.

Adam Day is Head of the Geneva Office of United Nations University Centre for Policy Research (UNU-CPR). Janani Vivekananda is Non-Resident Senior Fellow at UNU-CPR and Head of Climate Diplomacy and Security at adelphi, Berlin. Grazia Pacillo is Senior Scientist and co-lead of the CGIAR FOCUS Climate Security team and Non-Resident Senior Fellow at UNU-CPR.

This article was first published in the Global Observatory.