Climate Change: A Threat to International Peace & Security?

Climate Change: A Threat to International Peace & Security?

[Mark Nevitt is an Associate Professor at Syracuse University College of Law and affiliated faculty with Syracuse University’s Institute for Security Policy & Law and a former lawyer in the United States Navy.]   

Is the climate-security century upon us?  If so, what are the implications for international legal governance and institutions?  In his recent Opinio Juris essay, based on his provocative and meticulously researched article, Atmospheric Intervention, Professor Martin argues that the climate change crisis may well exert pressure for change on the governing jus ad bellum regime.  

Climate Change: A Destabilizing Physical and Legal Force

I am persuaded by Prof. Martin’s argument that the climate change crisis is likely to impact the international collective security system.  While his focus was on the jus ad bellum regime, he briefly discusses the role of the UN Security Council and other institutional structures.   My own work has focused on how the crisis will implicate the international institutions and governance structures that oversee the entire collective security system, particularly the UN Security Council.

In a forthcoming law review article, I argue that climate change will force us to look at international institutions and governance structures with fresh eyes as we struggle to prevent climate-exacerbated conflict and save island nations from possible climate-driven extinction.  In turn, the UN Security Council can and should play a substantive role in addressing the multi-faceted challenges that we face in our “climate security century.” 

Climate change demands both innovative governance solutions and a legal entrepreneurship mindset—using existing tools in new ways.   After all, climate change is an aptly named “super-wicked” problem—no one technological innovation or legal agreement is likely to solve it by itself.  As climate change’s risks are felt—not to mention the risk of “green swan” climate events that transcend any one risk model—we must proactively expand the climate governance aperture.  Call it the “all hands-on deck” approach to international climate governance.  In what follows, I acknowledge both the challenges to UN Security Council action on climate, while arguing that the Council should take three concrete steps to meet the climate security challenges.  

The Security Council and Climate Change:  Political and Legitimacy Challenges

Increased Council climate engagement faces significant political headwinds:  witness the Council’s failure last week to extend the 13-year-old embargo on arms trade with Iran, Council gridlock surrounding the Syrian crisis, and the Council’s slow response to the COVID-19 crisis.  And any Council climate action must overcome political calculations from each member of the Permanent Five (P5).   It may also face legitimacy challenges by some Members who argue that the Council is simply exceeding its understood mandate.   Skeptics will assert that climate change is not part of the Council’s agenda and should remain solely within the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and Economic and Social Council.  Further complicating matters, P5 Members are some of the world’s worst climate offenders.  China, for example, contributes more Greenhouse Gas emissions than any other nation on an annual basis, while the U.S. is the largest GHG emitter on a historical basis.  Why should we listen to them?

But Council climate inaction presents its own legitimacy and political costs.  After all, the UN Charter confers on the Council the “primary responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security.”  With this responsibility comes broad, delegated authorities.  The Council is afforded broad discretion in both investigating situations likely to endanger international peace and security (Chapter VI) and making a “threat to the peace” determination under Article 39 (Chapter VII) of the U.N. Charter.  What constitutes a “threat to the peace” is left to the Council’s discretion.   Increasingly, a diverse group of environmentalists, climate scientists, and national security professionals are sounding the alarm on climate change’s role in catalyzing conflicts, intensifying natural disasters, and threatening the territorial integrity and very sovereignty of several island nations.  

Several studies suggest that the climate crisis will  increase the future risk of violent armed conflict within countries.  The consequences of climate change also strikes at the heart of the sovereignty-based UN Charter system:   Scientists predict that four island nations—Kiribati, Maldives, Republic of Marshall Islands, and Tuvalu—may well be uninhabitable by mid-century.

Can the Council afford to stand by while climate change leads to drought and food insecurity, a rise in violent conflicts, mass migration, and possible nation extinction? 

Of course, Council policy—and the votes of the P5—are beholden to politics.  And U.S.-China relations may well be at a nadir, thus thwarting Council action today.  I recognize the current political and legitimacy headwinds that any Council climate action faces.  But I also acknowledge that political calculations can change quickly—witness proactive Council action on terrorism in the aftermath of 9/11.  In addition, the United States is less than 75 days from a historic election. A new Biden Administration would immediately rejoin the Paris Agreement and may well seek to jumpstart the China-U.S. bilateral climate agreement signed in the run-up to the 2015 Paris Climate Accord. Indeed, in his Democratic acceptance speech last night, Biden explicitly called climate change an existential threat and one of the four historic crisis facing the nation.  So what should the Council do to address the climate crisis that may be within the realm of political possibility in the short or medium term?

Formalize & Synchronize Council Debates & Discussions on Climate Change

First, the Council should lean into its role as a powerful, agenda-setting international institution by continuing to host high-level open debates and climate security discussions with U.N. Member Nations, NGOs, and IGOs.  Doing so taps into Security Council expertise, provides a ready-made forum to engage with the leading climate scientists, and allows space to formulate legal and policy solutions to address the most pressing climate-security threats.  Since 2007, the Council has sponsored four Climate Security open forums and several more informal “Arria-formula” climate meetings.   

Yet these Council climate debates and meetings occur in an ad hoc manner.  Whether they occur rests entirely on the whims and priorities of the rotating Security Council Presidency.  Why not synchronize and formalize future Security Council climate debates in a systematic way?   Such meetings could take place in the immediate aftermath of the Framework Convention’s annual Climate Change’s Conference of the Parties (COPs)? These “Security COPs” would work in governance harmony with ongoing climate efforts, establish a more formal linkage to the Framework Convention. It would also centralize the Framework Convention’s role in climate mitigation matters while tapping into specialized Council expertise on discrete security matters. This establishes a two-way dialogue between the Council and other climate efforts. Too often, international institutions fail to break free from their governance silos despite the clear need to collaborate across institutions and expertise.

Develop Forward-Looking Climate-Security Risk Assessment Tools

Second, the Council should build upon its earlier efforts to address climate change’s adverse effects via Security Council Resolutions.  But the Council should take a more proactive risk-based approach to climate.  In 2017, the Council took the historic step of specifically recognizing climate change’s destabilizing effects on the ongoing conflict in the Lake Chad Basin.  It followed up with similar pronouncements in Mali, Somalia, and Darfur.  In doing so, the Council emphasized the need for adequate risk assessments and risk management strategies to address future conflict areas.  While the Council acknowledged the relationship between climate change and conflict in these resolutions, they were fundamentally reactive in nature.  We know that climate change serves as both a catalyst for conflict and threat multiplier and threat accelerant.  Why not take the lead in developing these risk management strategies before climate disaster strikes? 

Clearly, climate change will have a massively destabilizing impact in the African Sahel and numerous developing nations in other regions.  Where are the other climate-security hotspots and how can we begin to plan for them today?  Developing forward-looking risk assessment measures could take many forms.  The Council could coordinate specific climate-security matters across interested U.N. organs.  This could potentially include the development of an early climate warning system.  Better yet, the Council could establish an early warning information-sharing “clearinghouse” system across U.N. organs or establish a more formal institutional home to assist the U.N. in responding to future climate crisis.   Either way, the Council—which has historically been criticized as a reactive institution—must think proactively on where future climate disruption and conflict is likely to take place.  Best to adopt a proactive, risk-based approach to climate today, rather than waiting for climate disruption to inevitably strike.

Debate Whether Climate Change Is a Threat to International Peace and Security

Third, the Council should debate whether the consequences or causes of climate change constitute a threat to the peace within the meaning of Article 39 of the UN Charter.  Doing so elevates climate change and its security impacts on the international stage and serves as a  potential key that unlocks the door to a menu of powerful and legally binding Council follow-on actions.  Article 41 economic measures—or the mere threat of its invocation—could serve as a powerful tool to address climate change through the use of targeted sanctions to punish particularly destructive climate actions by the “climate rogue states” discussed in Prof. Martin’s article.   

Declaring a non-military or non-traditional security threat such as the consequences or causes of climate change to be a threat to international peace and security is not entirely without precedent.   The Council made such a determination during the Ebola crisis in 2014, a public health crisis with similar collective action characteristics. This facilitated the flow of logistics and humanitarian assistance to countries ravaged by Ebola.  Doing so reflects a more sophisticated and nuanced understanding of what can threaten national security—a point made by Prof. Oona Hathaway and others. The COVID-19 crisis showcases that non-traditional security threats can have a devastating effect on human security—projected coronavirus deaths in the U.S. could surpass American lives lost in World War II.  

Alternatively, the Council could issue a broad climate-security resolution that falls short of a formal Article 39 determination.  This is similar to the Council’s earlier efforts on HIV/AIDS that date back to 2000.  While the Council has been relatively slow (and heavily criticized) in its COVID-19 response, it did manage to address the COVID-19 crisis last month through the passage of Resolution 2532. This Resolution called for a global 90-day ceasefire and requested that the Secretary General provide updates to the Council “on the U.N. efforts to address the COVID-19 pandemic in countries in situations of armed conflict or affected by humanitarian crisis.”  An analogous climate-security resolution could adopt a similar approach, calling for an immediate cessation of hostilities in climate hotpots and establishing a more formal dialogue between the Secretary-General and the Council.  Either way, there is space and precedent for Council action to address non-traditional security threats.  And climate change’s continual physical toll—130 degrees in Death Valley last week and ongoing California wildfires—will stress the need for any meaningful climate action.

Climate Change Transcends Borders and Governance Frameworks

Regardless of whether the Council can overcome its current political paralysis, this much is clear:  climate change is indifferent to both political borders and political calculations. Just as climate change massively destabilizes the physical environment, it will destabilize existing legal frameworks and institutions.  Climate-drive disruption will continue to occur, irrespective of international governance efforts.  Greta Thunberg and other climate change activists have even brought their advocacy for massive climate action to the Council:  they recently critiqued the climate policies of two prospective non-permanent Security Council members (Canada and Norway) in this year’s election for a non-permanent seat on the Council.  The Council can and should proactively play a role in shaping governance solutions as we come to terms with an “all hands-on deck” approach to international climate governance.  These three concrete steps are a good place to start.

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Environmental Law, Featured, General, Law and Sustainability, National Security Law
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