The UN Security Council and Climate Security: Reflections on the Unsuccessful Draft Resolution

The UN Security Council and Climate Security: Reflections on the Unsuccessful Draft Resolution

[Dr. Syed Ali Akhtar is an Academic Fellow at National Law University, Delhi. He holds a PhD in International Law from South Asian University. Pranav Ganesan is also an Academic Fellow at National Law University, Delhi. He has recently graduated from the University of Oxford’s BCL Programme.]

On December 13, a draft resolution framing the problem of climate change as a ‘threat to international peace and security’ failed at the United Nation Security Council (UNSC) due to a veto by Russia, a permanent member. This draft resolution, calling for the systemic integration of climate-related security risks with the UNSC’s work, was co-authored by Niger and Ireland, and co-sponsored by 113 members of the United Nations (UN), representing the second highest supported draft in the history of UNSC. Russia and India were the only two members to cast a negative vote, with China abstaining and all other members voting in favour of the resolution. India’s representative to UNSC, T.S. Tirumurti, justified the negative vote by arguing that the UNSC is not an appropriate forum to debate the issue of climate security, and the resolution would have meant for climate security “to be taken out of the wider international community represented in the UNFCCC, and given instead to the [UNSC].” In a similar vein, the Russian Ambassador suggested that the resolution would turn “a scientific and economic issue into a politicized question,” and risked becoming a tool for abuse. Russia had previously criticised the move to securitize climate change during an open debate on the count that the addition of UNSC to the roster of institutions (“cooks”) already working on climate change would “spoil the broth.” 

Critical arguments akin to those made by India and Russia seemed to dominate the discourse on recognising the UNSC’s role in relation to climate security, several years ago. Indeed, in 2012, a coalition of 130 countries (mainly developing) together with China and Russia argued that the UNSC is the wrong place to address climate change. The turning of the tides witnessed in relation to the recent draft resolution puts India in an awkward position, as what was once a voice of the Global South in relation to climate change issues now stands in isolation. 

We seek to weigh in on the controversy sketched out above by answering whether the UNSC has the mandate to thematically discuss and address climate security, and if yes, whether it should do so. In regards to the latter, we respond to the concerns raised by states and experts who take an opposing stance. Before proceeding, it is germane that we unpack the issue of ‘climate security.’

Climate Security

In this article, we refer to climate security as a shorthand term to describe the issue of how climate change (and climate response measures) affect peace and security, and how situations where the latter are compromised by the former. As the ambassador from Niger explained during the open debate convened by it in September, numerous studies suggest a negative ‘feedback loop’ created by climate change and conflict dynamics. That is, “climate change impacts fuel additional pressures, while conflict undermines communities’ abilities to cope.” However, this link has not been recognised in the treaties constituting the international regime on climate change. The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) recognises a list of categories of developing countries which are climate vulnerable, or whose capacities to implement response measures are especially limited (Article 4.8). While today’s conflict-ridden countries could very-well fit within some or the other of these categories, it is arguable that countries affected by conflict and insecurity should be its own category. Similarly, the Paris Agreement only explicitly identifies “least developed countries” and “small island developing States” as having special circumstances. This is not to say that the international climate change regime is prejudiced against noticing the vulnerability of conflict-ridden countries. The bottom line is that the issue of climate security is yet to be mainstreamed into international climate change law. 

The current situation is not ideal because important issues like the mobilisation of climate finance need to take climate security into account. Conflict-ridden countries risk the misfortune of neglect from (egoistic) financiers of climate mitigation measures, who would naturally prefer putting their money in places with a stable and secure political infrastructure. As for ‘adaptation’ and ‘loss and damage’ finance, it is safe to say that the general uncertainty surrounding the same in the international climate regime is likely to affect them differently from other developing countries. Of course, there is hope for such mainstreaming in the future through the 27th Conference of Parties to the UNFCCC, which is due to be held in Egypt, a country which is proactive about climate security. But the foregoing sketch informs us of the motivation underlying the push for recognition of climate security in the UNSC. 

But is ‘Climate Security’ Within the Mandate of the UNSC? 

Under Article 24(1) of the UN Charter, the UNSC is entrusted with the task of maintaining international peace and security. The problem of climate change does not neatly fit into the conventional understanding of ‘international peace and security’ as ‘absence of violent conflict.’ However, there is no indication in the Charter that this conventional understanding is correct. While the definition of the expression is hotly debated, its contours can be understood by reference to actual practice of the UNSC. As the arbiter of what should be considered as a threat to international peace and security, the UNSC may very well frame climate change as one such threat. 

Notably, the UNSC’s engagement with climate change goes back to 2007 when it discussed the relationship of energy, security, and climate. Since then it has also acknowledged the potential security implications of climate change. Moreover, it has also taken certain measures with regard to climate induced security threats in certain countries (not just limited to the African continent- e.g. Cyprus and Iraq). One notable example is Resolution 2349 which addresses the negative security, humanitarian, and developmental dimensions of the Boko Haram crisis. Here, the UNSC recognised the “adverse effect of climate change… on the stability of the [Lake Chad Basin] Region.” Given this background, the question arises as to why some states were unwilling to agree upon the UNSC’s engagement with climate security at a broader, thematic level. The objections to such engagement stem from apprehensions of abuse, as well as worries of undermining the existing multilateral efforts to address climate change. Thus, since the UNSC could thematically recognise climate change as a threat to international peace and security, we are invited to ask if it should do so (and actively involve itself in the manner envisaged by the failed draft resolution)?  

Is the UNSC an Appropriate Forum?  

The democracy challenge

Generally, the Global South has been wary of the UNSC’s ‘expanding’ mandate and find the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) or other multilateral fora with a fairer representation and equal voting power to be better alternatives to address global challenges. However, a majority of states (many belonging to the Global South) today support a UNSC resolution on the security implications of climate change. In light of this, does the ‘democracy challenge’ to the draft resolution in question really hold water? 

Contrary to the view that the resolution would place a “whole of humanity” problem in the hands of a forum lacking “universal representation,” it actually sought to do something less grand- integrating climate security an important component of UNSC’s conflict prevention strategies. It sought to create certain monitoring and reporting obligations- which would have allowed us to better understand the complex relationship between climate change and security. Indeed, the Council’s 2017 mission to the Lake Chad region was instrumental in noticing the link between the climate change-induced drying up of Lake Chad and Boko Haram taking root in the region. Moreover, the draft resolution encouraged peacekeeping operations to have dedicated capacity on climate security. What it did not do is task the Council with answering the ethically charged question of burden-sharing, on which there exist different competing narratives amongst different groupings of states. 

Equity and justice

Dubash has argued that there are worries about displacement of the UNFCCC as the primary forum for climate governance where a “balanced consideration of all aspects of the climate problem, including adaptation and loss and damage,” can take place. And as a forum “dominated by richer countries,” the UNSC would likely marginalise these issues. We fail to see how the resolution seeks to build the UNSC as another forum for climate governance. It is true that issues of ‘adaptation,’ and more so- ‘loss and damage’ (both important concerns for developing and particularly vulnerable countries) have a track record of being given less importance in climate negotiations. And Dubash is right about the greater risk of their marginalisation should their consideration by the UNSC become pertinent. One could argue that such consideration would indeed become pertinent in light of the UNSC’s ‘conflict prevention’ mandate. That is, UNSC could argue that since climate change can trigger new conflicts, it is responsible for addressing climate change. Consequently, it could meddle with states’ climate change obligations (of mitigation, adaptation and support) in an inequitable manner. However, we find this apprehension to be a bit far-fetched. As the US Secretary General has explained, the UNSC’s role in conflict prevention is likely to be confined to operational measures in the face of “immediate crises” rather than structural prevention

China raised an important concern that the draft resolution “could allow developed countries new excuses to shirk their historical responsibilities and commitments” because of its failure to acknowledge states’ common but differentiated responsibility (CBDR) and historical responsibility that flows from this principle.  However, we submit that the resolution’s silence on historical responsibility or the lack of language that represents equity hooks cannot change the international legal position that all states’ individual climate obligations are based on the principle of CBDR and respective capabilities in light of different national circumstances. That the UNSC could cause this legal principle to be supplanted or diluted is based on a controversial and debatable view that it is a ‘law-making body’ (Cf. Talmon). In any event, there is no reason why the lack of ‘equity hooks’ in the resolution should mean that the principles of equity and CBDR which are entrenched in international climate change law has been modified (Article 3.1, UNFCCC; Article 10, Kyoto Protocol; Article 2.2, Paris Agreement). 

Duplication of Efforts

Concerns about the duplication of efforts that are already being taken under the UNFCCC were raised by China, which took a moderate stance and Russia, whose stance was far more critical. Swati D’souza substantiated this by highlighting that the adaptation framework under the UNFCCC could address climate-related conflicts. Admittedly, the framework could do so, but has so far not done this. In any case, close reading of Articles 7 and 8 of the Paris Agreement tell us that international climate change law encourages the development of new institutional arrangements such as those envisaged by draft resolution. 

Article 8 encourages UN specialized organisations and agencies to support the implementation of Article 7, which recognises the ‘Cancun Adaptation Framework.’ Further, Article 7.7(b) calls for the “[s]trengthening of institutional arrangements, including those under the [UNFCCC] to support the synthesis of relevant information and knowledge, and the provision of technical support and guidance.” The emphasised text clearly welcomes rather than shuns the role of arrangements related to adaptation beyond those under the UNFCCC. Moreover, the Cancun Adaptation Framework is silent on the issue of climate security and the vulnerability of conflict-ridden countries (except to the extent that it invites programmes for food security and measures for enhanced understanding of climate migration). The outcomes envisaged by the draft resolution identify important “challenges and gaps,” in adaptation faced by some developing countries and are thus in accordance with Article 7.7(d) of the Paris Agreement.  

Concluding Remarks 

In this article, we have attempted to explicate that some concerns with the draft resolution moved by Niger and Ireland either lack nuance or are highly speculative. While we recognise that the UNSC is an undemocratic institution and capable of abusing its power, these concerns apply in relation to its involvement with virtually all issues. The draft resolution was a golden opportunity to signal the urgency of addressing climate change, from the perspective of security. We agree with Russia that the “inclusion or non-inclusion of any theme or issue on the [UNSC] agenda should not be a gauge of its importance or relevance.” But far from virtue signalling, the UNSC resolution would have made the reality of climate change’s debilitating impacts on security in the Sahel region, and the issue of potential impacts on other regions ‘visible’ to the international community!

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Environmental Law, Featured, General, United Nations Security Council
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