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On Monday, 13 December, Russia used its veto in the United Nations Security Council to block a thematic resolution on climate change and security put forward by Ireland and Niger. While the draft resolution contained specific actions, its main purpose was symbolic: to put the security implications of climate change firmly on the Security Council’s agenda, much as Resolution 1325 did with women, peace and security.
Russia has made clear many times before that it opposes broadening of the Security Council’s agenda, not least to cover climate-related security issues. Putting forward this new resolution was important. But, in the end, Russia’s veto was predictable, as were India’s ‘no’ vote and China’s abstention.
The questions have to be asked: what was gained by this initiative, and what was lost? And more important: what now?
An avoidable confrontation?
There is mounting evidence that climate change has profound implications for our present and future security. The great majority of Security Council-mandated peace operations are located in countries most intensely affected by climate change.
Compared with a similar draft resolution Germany wanted to put forward in summer 2020, the text put to the vote on Monday was more narrowly focused on operations and actions mandated by the UN Security Council. But it was never likely to satisfy Russia, India or China, which have remained steadfast in their position that climate change is a matter for other UN entities, such as the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, not for the Security Council.
Putting the resolution to the vote pitched these 3 countries against a group of 12 Security Council members and at least 113 non-members who co-sponsored the resolution—which makes it the draft resolution with the second highest number of co-sponsors in Security Council history. More broadly the vote highlighted the differences between a handful of hold-outs—also including Brazil, which will take up a two-year Council seat in January 2022—and the majority of UN member states, including many African countries. This majority maintains that, as the Council is responsible for maintaining international peace and security, it cannot and should not ignore climate-related security risks.
The ramifications of Monday’s vote for the UN’s work on climate security will only become clear in the next couple of months. The vote certainly underlined the fact that the hold-outs are in the minority. But one fear is that the experience will have hardened their position; countries that want to see stronger language on climate-related security risks in country-specific resolutions might well face more resistance, and new language on concrete operational action seems less likely in this atmosphere.
Opportunities for progress abound
On the other hand, plenty can be done—and is already being done—to build up the UN’s work on climate-related security risks that cannot be blocked by a Security Council veto. This is not only important for international peace and security but can, in the longer run, improve the prospects of a future thematic resolution.
In 2020, Germany initiated the Informal Expert Group on Climate Security in the Security Council. The group has the potential to enhance the Security Council’s work by gathering and feeding in information on climate-related security issues. Furthermore, being a voluntary initiative by member states, it is not constrained by the formal working methods of the Council, which means it can be creative and flexible. The group’s incoming chairs, Kenya and Norway, should seize the opportunity and make its meetings on climate security a regular and substantively valuable process.
The UN Climate Security Mechanism (CSM)—a joint initiative between the UN Department of Political and Peacekeeping Affairs, the UN Development Programme and the UN Environment Programme (and, from 2022, the Department of Peace Operations)—could also be strengthened. Created in 2018 at Sweden’s prompting, the CSM is tasked with helping the UN system to address climate-related security risks more systematically and to devise prevention and management strategies.
The CSM has already achieved a lot. It has been a catalyst for building the evidence base for climate-related security risks and sharing related knowledge and practice among UN entities. But more work is needed to encourage and prepare both UN peacekeeping operations and special political missions to identify and act on climate-related security risks.
The deployment of climate security advisers will be critical to enhance coordination, to collect evidence and to advance practice within these operations. To facilitate this, member states should consider providing funding for these positions to the CSM rather than directly to missions. This would allow the CSM to deploy advisers where they are most needed and further strengthen the agency of the CSM within the UN system.
Facts from the ground—and on the ground
Such efforts by the Informal Expert Group and the CSM will further build the evidence base on climate-related security risks, as well as increasing the amount of work that is being done to address them within Security Council-mandated operations (along with many other UN activities). Independent researchers—especially in the Global South and in countries like Russia and China—should also keep generating reliable, timely and actionable analysis on climate-related security risks, to complement that generated within the UN system.
As this happens, the case that climate change does not belong on the Security Council agenda will become harder and harder to make.
At the same time, a new diplomatic approach is needed. In the past few years, the resolution’s supporters and opponents have largely been talking past each other. Attempts to engage with Russia’s (and China’s and India’s) concerns were few and difficult. A change is needed.
The Decision on Strengthening Co-operation to Address the Challenges Caused by Climate Change passed in Stockholm in early December by the Organization for Security and Co-operation (OSCE) shows that Russia can engage on climate security—albeit in a very different organizational framework. Ultimately, addressing climate-related security risks is in Russia’s, and all countries’, interests.
The momentum behind climate security in the UN system is building due to the realities experienced by countries on the Security Council’s agenda. Russia’s veto will delay official thematic recognition in the Security Council for another year or two, but it will not stop the growth of the UN’s work on this issue in the meantime.
The ways forward are clear. If they are taken, Security Council leadership on addressing climate-related security risks—underpinned by a thematic resolution—is still in prospect.
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