Security Council Open Debate: Climate and Security, July 2020

Friday, July 24, 2020

Coral Pasisi.jpg

Ms. Coral Pasisi, Director of the Sustainable Pacific Consultancy from the Pacific Islands region, briefed the UN Security Council at this year's open debate on climate and security.
Ms. Coral Pasisi, Director of the Sustainable Pacific Consultancy from the Pacific Islands region, briefed the UN Security Council at this year's open debate on climate and security. Photo: IISD

By Gayathri Nagasubramaniam, WILPF Women, Peace and Security Programme 

On 24 July 2020, the UN Security Council, under the presidency of Germany, held an open debate on climate and security. Earlier in the month, the annual High-Level Political Forum (HLPF) on Sustainable Development was held virtually to review progress towards Agenda 2030 and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), including the theme of “protecting the planet and building resilience”. WILPF contributed to the Women’s Major Group Position Paper on this year’s HLPF theme of “Accelerated action and transformative pathways: realizing the decade of action and delivery for sustainable development”. The position paper calls on governments to address interlinked crises: crises of inequality, environmental degradation, armed conflicts, and attacks on civil society including women human rights and environmental defenders, in light of the fifth year into Agenda 2030 and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). It emphasizes how global capitalism and hierarchies fuel the climate crisis and environmental destruction, and therefore that protecting the environment can not be realised without, for example, ending violence against women and girls or the extractive economic system. 

The main aim of this open debate, as stated in the concept note, was to encourage the Council to address climate-related security risks, identify current tools, partnerships and early warning capabilities to support the timely assessment of these risks to prevent conflict, and determine UN in-country resources to collect and provide information in a gender-sensitive manner. The debate largely highlighted that climate change is a threat-multiplier, with most statements focussing on adherence to Paris Agreement and other international commitments, as well as the need for a climate-sensitive response in peacekeeping. Moreover, the geographical focus on climate change’s implications was on the Sahel region and the Small-Island Developing States (SIDS). 


Miroslav Jenča, Assistant Secretary-General for Europe, Central Asia and Americas, UN Department of Political and Peacebuilding Affairs (DPPA), briefed on the differential impact of climate-security risks in various regions and how climate change affects vulnerable populations. In particular, he noted: the rise in the Pacific sea level puts livelihoods at risk; the lack of water and natural resources has led to tensions across Sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia and Latin America; climate change has deepened grievances for stability in the Middle East and Horn of Africa region. He stated that climate-related security risks have a gendered impact and added that failure to consider the impact of climate change will undermine efforts of conflict prevention and peacekeeping. He called for “ambitious climate action” and compliance with the Paris Agreement. Further, he presented three actions to effectively address climate-related security risks: 

  • Leverage new technologies and enhance analytical capacity to translate long-term climate foresight to an actionable near term analysis; 
  •  Place people at the centre to deliver solutions by particularly building on women and youth as agents of change as a way of integrating peacebuilding, the environment and gender equality; 
  • Strengthen multi-dimensional partnerships and the work of the UN and member states in Lake Chad Basin, West Africa and the Sahel. 


Colonel Mahamadou Magagi, Director of the Centre National d’Études Stratégiques et de Sécurité, focussed on the security impacts of climate change in Africa. He mentioned that climate change has adverse consequences for regional peace and security as it directly impacts personal income and living standards of communities, exacerbates the competition around natural resources in rural areas, leads to forced migration and youth radicalization. He stated that the link between climate change and security is not always straightforward: while it is one amongst the many drivers of conflict, it is also a “threat multiplier”. 

Coral Pasisi, Director of the Sustainable Pacific Consultancy, stressed on the impact of climate change on food security and livelihoods in the Pacific region. She highlighted that climate change threatens the maritime boundaries in the Pacific region, while also posing a threat to the blue economy by degrading coral reefs, fisheries and ocean ecosystems. Additionally, she added that communities in the Pacific region face forced migration and displacement due to climate change. She called on the Council to actively reverse the effects of climate change through the ambitious implementation of the Paris Agreement and address climate change by coordinating efforts, building on the risk assessment technology and mobilizing resources.

Key Themes  

Climate Change as a "Threat Multiplier" and its link to Peace and Security

Climate change on its own does not cause conflict but exacerbates many underlying drivers. But this relationship is cyclical, not linear, as war also impacts the environment. Armed conflict and militarism have devastating impacts on the environment, including air and water pollution from the use of explosive weapons in populated areas, greenhouse gas emissions from military bases and other emissions-intensive activities, and toxic waste from weapons testing. Feminists have long identified climate change and the exploitation of the environment as part of a broader system of exploitation and violence, and have pointed out that many of the worst impacts of climate change have been felt by communities that are already facing other structural barriers and inequalities. 

A primary framing in the Council during this debate was on climate change as a “threat multiplier” with several states (including Tunisia, South Africa, the United Kingdom and Kenya) adopting this language. Some states (Belgium, Estonia and Indonesia) added that climate change reinforces the pre-existing socio-economic drivers of conflict. Further, a few states (Indonesia, the UK, Tunisia, Dominican Republic and Kenya) pointed out the immediate challenges of climate change that manifest in terms of rising sea levels, food insecurity, species extinction, loss of livelihoods and scarcity of natural resources.

While framing climate change as a “threat multiplier” does acknowledge that conflict has many causes, it is important that policy responses to the climate-peace-security nexus are multidimensional and rights-based as opposed to militarized. Recognizing the real threats that climate change poses to regions such as the Sahel should not inspire a military buildup there, but rather investments in food and water access. Military bases located on small islands should not be weatherized but closed. The factors often identified or implied as “threats” - such as inequalities, lack of food and water access, poverty, and existing levels of violence - are more fundamentally denials of people’s basic human rights. These factors, in turn, are exacerbated and further impacted by armed conflict and military buildup. 

It is certainly not the Council’s role to design and implement human development programmes nor climate action plans. But as the body responsible for the maintenance of international peace and security, the Council and its powerful members must face the fact that climate change begs a clear reconceptualization from them of what “security” means, as well as a reversal of the trend of rising military spending. Thus, mobilization for climate action must step away from narratives embedded in its securitization and move towards approaches that comprehensively take into account its various causes. 

While illustrating the gruesome effects of climate change is essential, the Council should ensure that it takes proactive climate action now. Stopping climate change and reversing its effects is crucial, for people to live in peace and to fulfil their basic rights to food, water, and a healthy environment. Thus, in its attempt to address issues of international peace and security, the Council must work in coordination with other UN bodies towards mitigating climate change to create harmonious and sustainable societies for the collective future of all people.

Geographical Focus on the Sahel and Small Island Developing States

Climate-related security risks in the Sahel region and Small Island Developing States (SIDS) were a prominent part of the discussion. However, states largely focussed on the ways in which climate change causes conflict or poses security risks in the regions rather than addressing the real drivers of conflict that stem from structural inequalities. Few states (South Africa, Belgium and the Dominican Republic) highlighted the impact of climate change in the Sahel region and the Lake Chad Basin, particularly to do with lack of land and water resources exacerbating tensions between the herders and farmers in the region. While limitations and contentions on land and water resources exist, the root causes of conflict in the Sahel region lay in human rights violations, discriminatory policies, weak governance and climate change. 

The SIDS face some of the most intense impacts of climate change due to their susceptibility to natural disasters, limited natural resources and geographical isolation. The rising sea levels create far greater economic and humanitarian consequences and uncertainties for the islands and the nearby coastal areas. However, their natural resources are already facing pressures due to human activities such as overexploitation, pollution and deforestation, which is coupled with their fragile economies and political instability. A small number of states, including the Dominican Republic, Belize and Fiji, stressed that climate change is an existential threat to SIDS and it gravely impacts their economic development and boundaries. 

Climate Sensitive Approaches to Peacekeeping 

Peacekeeping and peacebuilding efforts must always lead to peace and rehabilitation of the local communities rather than increased militarization. States mentioned the role of peacekeeping in addressing climate change, in particular, some states (Nauru, Kenya and Ireland) urged the council to revisit and retrain peacekeepers on climate change issues, wherein they could effectively avert the environmental strain on the local population. However,  mitigation of climate change is not in the hands of peacekeepers. It is in the hands of national governments, militaries, regional actors, all of whom have a role to play in changing the course of this "change".

Gendered Impact of Climate Change 

Women face higher risks from climate change, particularly in situations of poverty. As a majority of the world’s poorest people are women, their lack of access to economic opportunities, in turn, reduces their capacities to adapt to climate-related impacts. Moreover, current patriarchal societal structures and other hierarchies prevent them from equally participating in climate-related decision-making. Climate impacts are already being most keenly felt by communities that played no part in creating our current climate crisis. 

Therefore, to effectively address climate change, states should not only mainstream gender perspectives in their mitigation and adaptation efforts, such as including gender-sensitive criteria in climate financing mechanisms, but also prioritize women’s leadership and participation across all levels of planning and implementing these efforts. The Women, Peace and Security (WPS) agenda provides a constructive framework to unfurl the linkages between climate change and conflict and their differential impacts on women and girls, but it was only directly referenced by the UK, along with Denmark and Kenya calling for women’s participation in realizing peace. Ireland and the EU representative also pointed out the need to better address the nexus of climate change, gender and resilience. The UK strongly emphasized on the gendered impact of climate change, stating women and girls are exposed to disaster-induced poverty, sexual exploitation, and gender-based violence (GBV) and are more likely to die during conflict. They also expressed their commitment to tackling all forms of GBV and sexual violence in conflict.

Adherence to Paris Agreement, UNFCCC and Way Forward for the Council 

As some of the world’s largest polluters, historic and present, sit in the Council, there was a weak emphasis on accountability and implementation of climate-related international agreements. States (mostly superficially) called for compliance with the Paris Agreement, relevant Security Council Resolutions and to an extent the 2030 SDG Agenda. Several states (Indonesia, UK, China, Vietnam, Ireland, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Belize, Kenya, Fiji, Nauru) stressed that the Paris Agreement must continue to guide international action on climate change with accelerated progress on the Agreement vital to maintaining the peace architecture. Further, China, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Kenya, Belize and South Africa also called on countries to ratify the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and strengthen the institutions that deal with the climate change mandate. The UK urged for the need to push for effective implementation of existing resolutions that address climate-related security risks, including among them UNSCR 2242, which is part of the WPS agenda. 

There was agreement that discussions on climate change in the Council need to translate into long-term and sustainable diplomatic action that is centred around comprehensive information. In this regard, the Council members suggested a number of recommendations: appointment of a Special Representative to coordinate response on climate-related security risks (Germany, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Fiji, Estonia and Ireland); the launch of an informal expert group on this topic (Germany, Belgium); need for reliable information and data on climate-related security risks; the democratization of access to data, early warning indicators to enable early action, and systematic reporting by the Secretary-General to the Security Council on this topic. However, some of these suggestions have been proposed by states on previous occasions, which indicates that the Council lacks the unified political will for climate action, particularly due to the politicization and denial of this crisis by some states in multilateral spaces. Moreover, Russia expressed their strong reservations about the Council’s engagement on climate change, stating that they strongly disagree that it is a generic security issue and urged countries to not “reinvent the wheel” and steal discussion away from other UN organs. 

Other themes and key gaps

One of the other themes discussed in the debate was the impact of climate change on youth, a critical issue given that youth will inherit a dying planet. Belgium, Niger, Denmark and the EU representative called for the inclusion of youth in climate-related decision making and strengthening of the Youth, Peace and Security mandate. Denmark mentioned that regional and local partnerships play a key role in risk mitigation. However, most states addressed “putting people at the centre” of climate and security policy only superficially with no references to its impact on indigenous communities and other marginalized groups, nor the mobilization of these communities for climate action and land rights. Furthermore, the links between extractive industries and rising violence against human rights, environmental, and land defenders were not mentioned, although this is a critical issue including in Latin America. 

Moreover, states also did not unpack the links between disarmament, arms control, militarization, and climate change. Militaries are massive polluters; for instance, by some data, if the U.S. military were a country, it alone would be the 47th largest greenhouse gas emitter in the world. St. Vincent and Grenadines and Vietnam highlighted the need to address the root causes of conflict such as militarism, poverty and injustice in order to better tackle the effects of climate change. Few states (USA, France, Belize and China) mentioned that COVID-19 has exposed the range of threats that need collective action and climate change being one of them. Other topics briefly mentioned were the need for knowledge and technology sharing, green energy and climate financing. 

While the increased role of the Council in addressing climate change-related risks is welcomed: words must translate into effective climate action. Member-states must revisit the nexus between climate change, peace and security to find effective solutions to climate change that do not overlook the underlying threats to conflict but rather effectively address them. They must avoid militarized responses to climate change that will divert key resources away from climate action and will potentially exacerbate the problem.


Note: This analysis covers the statements that were delivered verbally in the open debate VTC meeting, and does not include written statements.


Concept Note: 2020 Open debate on Climate and Security