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Is There a Role for the UN Security Council on Climate Change?

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People ride motorcycles through a flooded street in Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam
People ride motorcycles through a flooded street in Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam October 18, 2016

In the past year, several UN member-states have renewed efforts to push the conversation of climate change forward within "the most powerful and contentious of all UN organs," the Security Council. Now, many are questioning the Council’s role beyond traditional matters of war and peace.

We caught up with SIS professor Ken Conca, whose research on the subject is featured in the current cover story of Environment magazine, to discuss what role, if any, the Security Council will occupy in the future of climate change.

Read Professor Conca’s full original article with access provided by American University Library.

Q: You write that the UN Security Council is “the most powerful and contentious of all UN organs,” and describe it as unaccountable to the full membership of the UN. What makes the UN Security Council (the Council) such a uniquely powerful group within the UN?

The Council is a high-profile body with significant agenda-setting power, and it draws the attention of the world’s media. It also has sweeping powers under the UN charter to compel UN member-states to comply with its resolutions, to impose sanctions, and even to use force—although these powers are used less frequently due to disagreement among key member-states.

Q: Why is it difficult to assess the security risks caused by climate change?

Climate change is a complex phenomenon; we have a good understanding of the basic science behind it, and the general trends and risks are quite clear, but there is still a lot of uncertainty in predicting specific consequences in particular places or in forecasting the rate at which they will occur. It’s also hard to know how governments and other actors will respond: the Obama administration took several actions to promote international cooperation on the issue, and just a few years later we see the Trump administration rejecting and back-pedaling on those actions. It’s already a security issue for island nations, coastal zones, and drought-prone regions. If it becomes so more widely, it’ll be because of the choices we make.

Q: You write about sampling bias in existing research about climate-related conflict, with a disproportionate focus on nations that are both English-speaking and relatively politically open. How has this impacted the available literature on climate-related conflict?

We know that conflict risks are greater in countries and societies that lack legitimate, resilient political institutions that can facilitate adaptation through political dialogue. Those are exactly the settings where the least research has been conducted on the stresses people and social groups face, so we know less about how they are responding and what options they have.

Q: There seems to be a disconnect between the priorities of the members of the Council, particularly the permanent ones, and the nations which will feel the earliest and most damaging effects of climate changes. Given that, what are the advantages of having this taken up as a Council priority?

At the moment, the governments that are pushing discussion of the issue in the Council are mainly concerned with creating a sense of urgency and promoting global action, not necessarily using the Council to deliver those actions. The main focus remains on promoting stronger national actions under the Paris Agreement. My research has tried to look down the road and ask what the Council might actually do, beyond just debating the issue.

Q: What’s the danger of “securitized” policy responses? Which nations would most likely benefit from Council action, whether motivated by diplomatic strategy or security risk?

Treating climate as a security issue is a double-edged sword. It may increase attention and the sense of urgency, but there are several risks. International cooperation and decisive action by the leading emitters are the keys, and there is a risk that security talk makes both of these harder to achieve. Security ministries are not necessarily the actors we want running the dialogue or selecting the policy responses. The old saying “If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail” applies here. There are also great sensitivities around sovereignty, particularly among less-developed countries—and understandably so, given how hard it has been for them historically to win control of their own territories and resources. When they see the most powerful nations framing an issue in terms of security, they may be less inclined to cooperate.

Q: How much of the discussion about climate as a security question centers on human migration?

Migration is a major concern of several governments, and one of the main issues that come up in security debates around climate change. Often there is a poor understanding of the issue—mobility is a common and often appropriate adaptive response, and can involve much more complex patterns than simply a one-time move from Point A to Point B. In my view, livelihood risks, the suffering of people who can’t use mobility as an adaptive response, and political instability are larger concerns than “migration”. There is also the problem of actors with a political agenda invoking fears about “those people,” and ignoring the fact of who is really causing the climate to change.

Q: What do you see as the best-case scenario should the Council assume an ongoing role in climate change as a security issue?

A best-case scenario would be for the world to get far more serious than it has been to date about reducing emissions and converting to renewable energy. Unfortunately, given the lack of progress, it seems likely that there will be international crises and emergency situations that end up on the agenda of the Security Council. I’ve advocated for actions that will help the Council collect information and understand the problem. We also need political efforts to forge a consensus about an appropriate role for the Council within a wider, UN system-wide response.