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Biden called climate change an ‘existential threat.’ Can the U.N. Security Council help?

The U.S. presides over the council this month

U.N. headquarters in New York. (John Moore/Getty Images)
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For the month of March, newly confirmed U.S. ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield will serve as the rotating president of the U.N. Security Council, where climate change has become an increasingly discussed topic. President Biden has called climate change an “existential threat” and emphasized its importance by appointing John F. Kerry as a special presidential envoy with a seat on the White House National Security Council. Biden has already issued executive orders directing the country’s intelligence agencies to assess related risks and directing other parts of government to examine the links between climate change and migration.

But no one country alone can manage the security risks prompted by climate change, as is true for the overall risks of climate change itself. The solutions aren’t solely, or even primarily, military. What useful role can the U.N. Security Council play, given its key role in managing peace and security internationally?

What’s the connection between climate change and security?

Since the mid-2000s, scholars have studied how climate change could erode international security. Much of the research has focused on whether and how extreme and volatile weather might lead to or worsen conflict within nations, through effects such as disruptions to agriculture and economic growth, making it harder for people to survive and potentially prompting migration. The countries most likely to experience climate-related conflicts are those with weak and ineffective governments, a recent history of conflict and slow economic development, and countries where some groups are excluded from government. Not surprisingly, 10 of 21 ongoing U.N. peace operations are in countries ranked as most exposed to climate change.

But civil conflict is just one of many broad security risks that climate change may kick off. Rising seas and storm surges, extreme and more-unpredictable weather, rising temperatures that make it difficult to spend much time outdoors, disrupted food and water supplies — all these and more will make it harder for humans to survive.

Scholars have described these as “actorless threats” — severe challenges to peace and security that come not from individuals, groups or nations intentionally trying to do harm but from sources such as wildfires, hurricanes and pandemics. While each nation will necessarily try to handle the particular effects that hit within its borders, only international cooperation can make effective responses possible.

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What’s been happening at the U.N. Security Council?

At the U.N. Security Council, 15 designated U.N. member states debate central challenges to international peace and security. The council consists of five permanent members — China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States — and 10 rotating members, elected from different regions to two-year terms. If the council can reach consensus, it has considerable power to authorize action.

Each month a different government assumes the council’s rotating presidency. That country then has an opportunity to put particular issues on the agenda. With the United Kingdom set to host the United Nations’ annual climate negotiations in Scotland at the end of the year, it used its February presidency to host debate on climate and security. Its main ambition may have been to pressure countries to commit to more-ambitious greenhouse-gas reductions before the climate negotiations.

The Security Council has been discussing climate change and the associated security risks since at least 2007. Still, the topic is comparatively new and somewhat controversial. Some permanent members of the Security Council, notably Russia and China, have been reluctant to discuss climate change as a security risk, arguing that other venues, such as the U.N. climate meetings, are more appropriate. But it has taken a few actions. Prompted by Sweden, in 2018 the United Nations created a small office, the Climate Security Mechanism, to help it more systematically address climate-related security risks and devise prevention and management strategies.

The Security Council, through resolutions, also has recognized the role of climate change in complicating peace operations in African conflicts, including those in Mali, Sudan and Somalia.

In July, Germany chaired a high-level debate on climate change and security at the Security Council and proposed several new measures to raise the profile of climate and security concerns, including creating the post of special representative, developing an enhanced early-warning system and incorporating climate security in all peace-operation mandates. However, the Trump administration quashed any hopes of a joint Security Council resolution.

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What could the Security Council do next?

The Biden administration could partner with like-minded elected members to the Security Council such as Ireland, Kenya and Norway to deepen the council’s engagement. For instance, the United States could revive the German proposal, but it could also go further.

For example, the Security Council thus far has been reluctant to talk about how low-lying island countries such as Tuvalu and the Marshall Islands may become uninhabitable as sea levels rise. The United States could bring that issue to the fore, encouraging countries to commit to more-robust funding to enable island nations to adapt.

Further, climate change and wider environmental damage have been making it easier for viruses to jump from animals to humans, as happened with the novel coronavirus. The United States could spur a conversation on ecological security, focusing on how to protect the planet’s basic life-sustaining functions and how to mobilize funding to support healthy ecosystems, including forest and oceans, and safer interactions between humans and animals.

Thus far, the Security Council has mostly focused on reactions to ongoing conflicts and discussion of how climate change might have had a hand in starting or extending them. There has been little emphasis on prevention of climate-related security risks. The United States could start a dialogue in the council on what capacities are needed to prevent conflicts, building on its own recently released strategy for the 2019 Global Fragility Act, which is intended to get ahead of the problem by identifying issues early.

While the Biden administration’s ambassador may be chairing the Security Council’s work this month, success will require building support and overcoming skepticism from Russia and China that the council is the right place to discuss climate change at all.

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Joshua Busby (@busbyj2) is an associate professor at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin.

Morgan Bazilian (@MBazilian) is director of the Payne Institute at the Colorado School of Mines.

Florian Krampe (@FlorianKrampe) is a senior researcher and director of the Climate Change and Risk Program at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.

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