Climate Change Exacerbates Existing Conflict Risks, Likely to Create New Ones, Assistant Secretary-General Warns Security Council
With climate change poised to further intensify resource competition, exacerbate conflicts and drive hundreds of millions of people from their homes, the phenomenon — once considered separately from matters of peace and security — must now take centre stage in the Security Council’s work, experts stressed during the 15-member organ’s 24 July videoconference meeting*.
“The climate emergency is a danger to peace,” said Miroslav Jenča, Assistant Secretary-General for Europe, Central Asia and the Americas, who briefed the Council on behalf of the United Nations Department of Political and Peacebuilding Affairs. Record temperatures, unprecedented sea levels and frequent extreme weather events paint a dangerous future for the planet and for humanity, as lives and livelihoods are threatened, competition increases, and communities are displaced. While noting that no automatic link exists, he said climate change exacerbates existing conflict risks and is likely to create new ones.
Citing examples ranging from the Pacific to Central and Southern Asia, he said that in sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia and Latin America, the changing climate is expected to displace more than 140 million people within their national borders by 2050. In the Middle East and the Horn of Africa, the impacts of climate change have already deepened conflict and provided fodder for extremist organizations. Indeed, it is no coincidence that seven of the 10 countries most vulnerable to climate change already host United Nations peacekeeping or special political missions.
Against that backdrop, he called for action on multiple fronts — including accelerating the implementation of the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change — while adding that peace and security actors also have an important role to play. “The failure to consider the growing impacts of climate change will undermine our efforts at conflict prevention, peacemaking and sustaining peace, and risk, trapping vulnerable countries in a vicious cycle of climate disaster and conflict,” he stressed.
Outlining several opportunities for action, he said new technologies must be leveraged to translate long-term climate foresight into near-term action. The Climate Security Mechanism — run jointly by his department, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) — provides guidance in that regard. Meanwhile, efforts to deliver peace and security must place people at their centre and build on the power of women and youth as agents of change. He pointed to one such project, in which women environmental leaders are helping to implement Colombia’s 2016 peace agreement.
Among other recommendations, he called for more multidimensional partnerships that connect the work of United Nations entities, Member States, regional organizations and others. Examples include regional efforts to support people in the Boko Haram-affected Lake Chad Basin; the Green Central Asia Initiative on transboundary water issues, led by Germany; and a mechanism on climate-related security risks run jointly by the United Nations and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). “These tailored, region-specific examples can provide valuable insights and lessons for other partnerships to follow,” he said.
Mahamadou Seidou Magagi, Director of the Centre National d’Études Stratégiques et de Sécurité in Niger, declared: “There are few places in the world where climate change is as real as in the Sahel.” Already, high temperatures are on the rise, and heavy rains, flooding, sandstorms and droughts are common. Noting that 85 per cent of the region’s natural hazards in the last four decades have taken place after 2001, he said surface water is scarce across the region and competition for resources are exacerbating hardships.
“Livelihoods handed down through generations are at risk as water tables dry up, crop yields diminish and the desert slowly overtakes once fertile lands,” he continued. Those challenging conditions are also exacerbating already tense relationships between various rural groups, especially between farmers and herders. Meanwhile, others have been forced to flee their homes or turn to illegal activities — including joining extremist groups — to survive.
Describing climate change as but one of the many drivers of conflict, he urged the Council to view it as a “threat multiplier”. Such a situation requires the international community to act. Outlining Niger’s innovative national initiatives and regional leadership efforts, he said the country has reduced by half the percentage of its population vulnerable to food insecurity. It also hosts a regional centre tasked with studying weather forecasts and food security issues.
He made several recommendations, asking the United Nations to conduct an integrated climate security assessment before engaging in country assistance. The Organization should also help build national and local capacity to monitor climate change; collect authoritative data on the topic and make it available to Member States; ensure that the United Nations Development Assistance Framework fully incorporates climate security risks; and establish a new climate security risk coordination mechanism.
Coral Pasisi, Director of the Sustainable Pacific Consultancy in Niue, also briefed the Council. Stressing that climate change presents the single greatest threat to her region’s security, she focused on its serious repercussions for Pacific maritime boundaries and the settled legal order they represent. “The [United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea] established a comprehensive legal order for the ocean, providing […] rights, duties and economic returns,” she said. However, that Convention did not foresee climate change, sea level rise and their potential impacts.
She said the basepoints that serve to demarcate the maritime boundaries of many Pacific small island States — including low-lying atolls — often consist of coral islands and sandy cays and are now under threat from sea level rise and degradation. “This could have significant consequences for statehood, national identify, sustainable development, livelihoods and law and order in the Pacific,” she warned. In response, Pacific leaders are working to urgently register maritime boundaries and legally ensure that, once fixed, they cannot be challenged as a result of sea level rise.
Turning to a second major threat — that posed to the Pacific’s blue economy — she said climate change threatens to permanently degrade and destabilize coral reefs, ocean ecosystems and the many species on which Pacific States are highly dependent. For example, climate change is projected to significantly alter the migration patterns of tuna — from which nine Pacific island nations derive up to 84 per cent of their Government licensing revenue — pushing them out of Pacific exclusive economic zones. Such changes would also lead to an increase in illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing, likely exacerbating conflict in the region.
Finally, she spotlighted the serious threat of displacement, noting that before islands disappear into the ocean they will become so degraded as to force mass population movements. Displacement is already occurring both within and among island nations, increasing the chances of conflict and instability, and young people stand to lose their cultural birth rights all together. Calling on the international community to halt and reverse climate change, she added that the Council — as the premier organ responsible for peace and security — should take the time to understand the threat and do everything possible to address it.
As Council members and other delegates delivered remarks, many agreed that the organ should focus more on the risks and impacts of climate change on the situations on its agenda. Several speakers called for the prompt appointment of a Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Climate and Security — with regular reporting to the Council — as well as greater emphasis on climate in the context of the organ’s conflict prevention efforts.
Alexander De Croo, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Finance and Development Cooperation of Belgium, said that while some might not think that climate change belongs on the Council’s agenda, it is “our most existential challenge yet”. The first article of the Charter of the United Nations binds signatory States to “take effective collective measures for the prevention and removal of threats to the peace”. Stressing the need for the Council to be better informed on the matter, he called for an institutional clearing house to mobilize existing expertise and make it available to the Council. He also called for a regular reporting by the Secretary-General on climate-related risks and preventive measures.
Heiko Maas, Minister for Foreign Affairs of Germany and Council President for July, speaking in his national capacity, said humans cannot negotiate with nature. “The physical, chemical and geographical realities of global warming will not compromise with us,” he stressed, adding: “Sooner rather than later, climate change will be a catalyst in almost every conflict that we are dealing with.” Against that backdrop, he proposed three immediate steps: First, the Council should improve its information on climate-related security risks, including with early warning indicators. Second, the Secretary-General should appoint a Special Representative on Climate and Security as soon as possible, and third, the United Nations should include climate-related risks in all its mandates and conflict prevention strategies.
Wilfred P. Elrington, Minister for Foreign Affairs of Belize, speaking on behalf of the Alliance of Small Island States, said that on the world’s current trajectory small island nations face the certain prospect of increased loss and damage from climate change. Asking States to take bold and decisive action in line with their obligations under the Paris Agreement, he said the Council should promote adaptation as a prevention paradigm while strengthening the international framework for addressing loss and damage. All United Nations organs should be informed and equipped to deal with worst-case scenarios. Considering the COVID-19 pandemic — which has exposed a range of compounding risks and exacerbated inequality — he also called for an end to “irresponsible and unethical practices” that interrupt natural ecosystems and may spread zoonotic diseases.
Tariq Ahmad, Minister for State for South Asia and the Commonwealth of the United Kingdom, agreed that scarce resources, economic shocks, displacement and sea level rise can lead to significantly higher chances of violent conflict. “With the added multiplier […] of COVID-19, the threat to peace becomes extreme,” he said. Noting that global climate security approaches must include women’s full, effective and meaningful participation, he spotlighted his country’s support for resilience-building — particularly in climate-vulnerable regions — through better coordination and increased financing. He also advocated for tailored, evidence-based approaches to climate security threats, which means including climate risk assessments, climate forecasting and resilience as integral parts of the Council's work.
The representative of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines said many situations on the Council’s agenda — from Haiti to Afghanistan to West Africa and the Sahel region — demonstrate the tangible impact that the climate crisis is having on security. However, due to a lack of collective political will, the Council has proven unable to include climate and security considerations in many of its resolutions. She emphasized the need for data from country and region-specific situations and encouraged the integration of climate-security assessments in all reports to the Council, while calling upon major and historical carbon emitters — “super-emitters” — to commit to the Paris Agreement. Indeed, developed countries should honour climate finance pledges to developing nations as a floor and not a ceiling, she said.
The representative of the European Union delegation agreed that today’s meeting is timely both from a climate perspective and from the perspective of the COVID-19 crisis, which continues to expose and exacerbate existing vulnerabilities. “We simply cannot afford to lose ambition on addressing the planetary crisis while fighting the pandemic,” he said. Citing important recent strides in the Security Council’s work, he joined other speakers in calling for a regular and systematic reporting on the matter by the Secretary-General. The Council should mainstream climate-related security risks into its consideration of country- and regional-level conflicts, while the United Nations peacebuilding architecture must be enabled to tackle climate-related risks. Underscoring the European Union’s commitment to the Paris Agreement — including through its Green Deal plan — he called on other partners to demonstrate the same determination.
Kenya’s delegate said that, in the Horn of Africa — where many countries are confronting extreme weather events, COVID-19, terrorism and the worst locust infestation in 70 years — climate change is pushing State capacity to the limit. Calling for concrete action, she said States must “walk the talk” by committing to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and the Paris Agreement. Noting that Kenya will join the Council as an elected non-permanent member in 2021, she echoed calls for improved early warning systems, better data and greater collaboration between Member States, international agencies, the private sector and communities themselves. She encouraged the Council to mainstream climate change into its resolutions, as seen in resolution 2349 (2017) on the Lake Chad Basin.
The representative of the Dominican Republic, associating himself with the Group of Friends on Climate and Security, said that for many small island developing States, climate change poses an existential threat. The Council must increase its analytical capacity and integrate the necessary tools to identify, and eventually prevent, the drivers of destabilization. Noting with appreciation the efforts of the Climate and Security Mechanism, he called on the Council to adopt an integral approach that incorporates climate-security risks in its deliberations, together with more contextualized reporting from the Secretary-General. He also advocated for a mandate that would allow the effects of climate change on international peace and security to feature regularly on the Council’s agenda.
Denmark’s representative was among those who called explicitly for the Council’s peacekeeping and special political missions to consider climate-related security risks in their mandates. “We see strong merit in mandating a regular comprehensive report by the Secretary-General on the climate-security nexus,” he said. It is essential that peace operations engage with local communities and authorities in an inclusive manner, as their knowledge and expertise are critical for effective policy analysis. Regional actors must be engaged, as should subregional climate centres. Peace operations should also work with non-traditional security actors in co-producing risk assessments, efforts that should include national meteorological and hydrological agencies.
Simon Coveney, Minister for Foreign Affairs and Minister for Defence of Ireland, said the link between climate change and security is already being factored into the planning of armed forces around the world. While risks vary across geographic regions, the most vulnerable continue to suffer around the world. Protecting them, and safeguarding their human rights, must be part of the global response. Agreeing with other speakers that robust analysis must inform all the United Nations work, he also echoed calls for the Secretary-General to appoint a Special Representative on Climate and Security and provide contextual reporting, and for the Council to enhance the inclusion of climate-related security risks into its peacekeeping mandates.
Rene Kokk, Minister for Environment of Estonia, also echoed many of those points. Calling for a more systematic approach to the Council’s assessment of climate-related security risks, he underlined the need for reliable, accurate information and data to better understand the conflict drivers. As climate change brings competition for natural resources and energy, there is also a need to invest in green and sustainable technologies. He also called for a greater emphasis on climate in the context of the Council’s prevention tools and strategies, in order to avoid dealing with consequences later.
Providing another on-the-ground perspective, Fiji’s representative said that any peacekeeper from his country can attest that water scarcity, cyclones, desertification and other climate-related natural phenomena all compound conflicts. Climate crises threaten peace and stability within States, while fuelling insecurity between and among them. “Don’t put climate on the back burner,” he pressed, proposing measures and advocating for the issue to be featured as a recurring agenda item. Urging the Council to ensure that the peace and security dimensions of climate change are systematically mainstreamed across the United Nations system, he called for the convening of a world leaders’ summit on the international peace and security consequences of climate crisis — and the Organization’s response — as soon as possible.
France’s delegate agreed that the repercussions of climate change and the collapse of biodiversity must be a key element of the conflict prevention agenda. Rigorous and regular analysis of those risks is a matter of international public interest and the United Nations must play a central role in that regard. Moreover, risk analysis must be accompanied by preventive measures to be implemented by Governments, regional organizations, development partners and United Nations agencies. In that vein, he proposed the establishment of a collective tool to provide early warnings of the impacts of climate change on international peace and security.
Some speakers struck a different tone, warning against adding climate change to the Council’s agenda. South Africa’s representative stressed that little scientific evidence exists to suggest direct causality between climate change and threats to international peace and security. “Where climate change is thought to be a clear contributing factor to a threat to international peace and security, it is appropriate for the Security Council to comment on this issue,” he said, describing climate change as a sustainable developmental issue. Its security implications are best addressed through massively scaled-up, accessible climate-adaptation and mitigation-related support to affected countries. Introducing climate change as a thematic issue on the Council’s agenda risks drawing attention and resources away from the Framework Convention on Climate Change, he warned.
Indonesia’s representative said that the link between climate change and security risks is highly context-specific. “It is only through understanding the precise relationship between climate and conflict that we can come up with effective and efficient policy recommendations,” he said, stressing also the importance of strengthening the capacity of affected countries to adapt and mitigate its impact. Advocating for mainstreaming climate change considerations throughout the peace continuum on a case-by-case basis, he said that could include integrating climate analysis into risk assessments, considering climate impacts on peace processes and designing climate-sensitive peacebuilding interventions in conflict-affected countries.
Pham Binh Minh, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Foreign Affairs of Viet Nam, said his is among the nations most impacted by climate change, with the Mekong Delta affected by sea level rise and salination. Noting Viet Nam’s strong commitment to its international obligations on the issue — as well as its regional collaborations — he expressed concern over the mass displacement and increased competition being caused by the phenomenon around the globe. “In the face of these tremendous challenges, the Security Council must do its part,” he said, calling for an integrated approach that addresses the root causes of conflict — such as poverty, injustice, militarism and disregard for international law. The organ should include the impacts of climate change in its conflict analysis and do more to support the entire United Nations system to tackle the phenomenon, all while respecting the sovereignty, national ownership and primary responsibility of States, he said.
China’s representative urged States to honour their international climate change commitments, adding: “All countries should firmly support multilateralism instead of putting oneself first.” Spotlighting the principles of “common but differentiated responsibility” and respective capabilities, he underlined the need to build a fair, equitable and win-win global climate governance system. Developed countries should fulfil their commitments to provide $100 billion in climate finance annually by 2020, set a new collective quantified goal and enhance the transparency of their financial support. Stressing that climate change is a development issue — rather than a matter of security — he said addressing it must be a priority. Countries should promote green and low-carbon transformations, enhance resilience and put people first, working under the coordination of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. Outlining China’s efforts to tackle climate change, fight the coronavirus and promote economic recovery, he warned that some countries’ “irresponsible and crazy acts of unilateralism” pose great dangers. “Should this go unchecked, international rule of law, equity, justice, equality and mutual trust will no longer exist, and the world will descend into absolute chaos,” he warned.
Also participating was the Secretary for State and Foreign Affairs of Tunisia, as well as the representatives of Nauru, Niger, the Russian Federation and the United States.
* Based on information received from the Security Council Affairs Division.