Is it Time to “Climatize” the UN Security Council?

By Mark Nevitt 

Earlier this week, the UN Security Council failed to pass a draft resolution that would have defined climate change as a “threat to peace” within Article 39 of the UN Charter. Under international law, this critical threat to peace determination acts as a key that opens the door to supplemental legal authorities. But this resolution, co-sponsored by Ireland and Niger, was vetoed by Russia, one of the Council’s five permanent members (“P5”).  By defining climate change as a threat to the peace, the Council could have sent an important signal that climate change is squarely within its ambit while setting the stage for follow-on action.

“Climatizing” the Security Council:  Legal Authorities

Under Article 24 of the UN Charter, all Members confer on the Security Council “primary responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security.”  Under Chapter VI of the Charter, this can encompass investigating situations likely to endanger international peace and security.  Under Chapter VII, the Council can make a threat to the peace determination under Article 39.  The U.N. Charter states that the Council shall:

[D]etermine the existence of any threat to the peace, breach of the peace, or act of aggression and shall make recommendations, or decide what measures shall be taken in accordance with Articles 41 and 42, to maintain or restore international peace and security.

What constitutes a threat to the peace is undefined and is ultimately left to the Council’s discretion. With this responsibility comes awesome delegated authorities to use military force or impose economic sanctions. For example, Article 41 addresses non-military (diplomatic and economic) measures against nations engaging in particularly harmful climate activities.  As my colleague Professor Craig Martin has argued, there will be an increased pressure to discipline so-called “climate rogue states.” If a threat to peace determination was made, the Council could use its authority to impose targeted sanctions on nations engaging in particularly harmful activities—think President Bolsonaro’s destructive policies in the Amazon. Article 42 authorizes military action to maintain or restore international peace and security.  

Since the Cold War ended, the 15-member Security Council—composed of five permanent (“P5”) and ten rotating members—has shown an increased willingness to address non-traditional security threats.  This includes the HIV/AIDS crisis in 2000, weapons proliferation in 2004, and the Ebola health crisis in 2014. The Council made a threat to peace determination during the Ebola outbreak in 2014, a public health threat with similar collective action characteristics to climate change. This helped ease the flow of logistics and humanitarian assistance to countries ravaged by Ebola. Against this backdrop, a diverse group of environmentalists, climate scientists, and national security professionals are sounding the alarm on climate change’s role in catalyzing conflicts and intensifying natural disasters.  

Greater Security Council Emphasis on Climate Change

Despite this particular resolution’s defeat, the broader trend is for greater UN Security Council involvement in climate-security matters. And it is difficult to see this trend reversing as climate-driven extreme weather and droughts increasingly destabilize the African Sahel and sea-level rise raises the specter of nation extinction among several Small Island Developing States.  

The Council first began to address climate change in 2007. Since then, the Council has sponsored four Climate Security open forums and several more informal “Arria-formula” climate meetings.  In 2017, the Council took an important step when it addressed climate change’s role in exacerbating 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—thoughtful prescriptions that are shared by the Center for Climate and Security.  Several studies suggest that the climate crisis will  increase the future risk of armed conflict.  And climate change is now understood as both a catalyst for conflict and threat multiplier

Russia, China, and India:  Against a “Climate-Security Council”

In recent years, Russia has pushed back on bringing climate security discussions to the Council’s agenda. It argues that doing so diverts the world’s attention from “deep-rooted reasons of conflict,” arguing that any climate issues are best left to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change or Economic and Social Council. Yet international institutions often fail to break free from their governance silos despite the clear need to collaborate across institutions and expertise.  Any Security Council Resolution requires the unanimous consent of the P5 (the other four include China, United States, France, and the United Kingdom).  India, a non-permanent member of the Council, also opposed the climate measure. China abstained. Yet the other twelve Council members voted in favor of defining climate as a threat to the peace, and U.N. diplomats estimated that at least 113 of the UN’s 193 members supported the resolution.

Economically, Russia is a petrostate whose economy is heavily reliant on fossil fuel extraction and exports.  It is increasingly vulnerable to decarbonization efforts and the shift away from fossil fuels envisioned by the Paris Climate Accord.  Indeed, Russia  generated almost 30 percent of state revenue from fossil fuel companies in 2020, to include $40 billion from Europe.  The recent unclassified U.S. National Intelligence Estimate assesses that “most countries that rely on fossil fuel exports to support their budgets will continue to resist a quick transition to a zero-carbon world because they fear the economic, political, and geopolitical costs of doing so.”  So Russia’s economy has much to lose from decarbonization efforts.  Russia has consistently argued against  “climatizing” the Security Council, suggesting that this serves as a pretext for Western nations to meddle in the internal affairs of other nations.  Yet this particular resolution was co-sponsored by Niger, an African developing nation already wrestling with “latent conflict” between groups in the Niger River Basin.  

Geopolitically, Russia may actually be a climate beneficiary in the Arctic. As the Arctic melts, trade routes open and climate change is opening the possibility for fossil fuel extraction on the continental shelf., Russia has increasingly militarized the Arctic, investing in icebreakers, military bases, and polar infrastructure. However, Russia may also experience significant risks as a result of a changing climate – whether that comes from drought and heat waves decimating its wheat harvest, or the disruptive implications of a melting permafrost along its northern border. 

Also a member of the P5, China has pledged to achieve net-zero emissions by 2060, although how China will implement and achieve this goal remains unclear.  While China is not a petrostate, it is now the world’s largest greenhouse gas (GHG) emitter, accounting for about 30 percent of worldwide emissions. China’s emissions are growing.  It is vulnerable to the shift away from fossil fuels and continues to build coal-fired power plants domestically.  

Finally, while India is not a member of the P5, it currently has a seat on the Council as a non-permanent member. It is the world’s fourth largest GHG emitter.  Similar to China, its total and per capita  emissions are rising.  India’s role in thwarting Security Council action is particularly disappointing but not altogether surprising.  Recall that at the Glasgow Summit last month, India’s representative argued that parties should phase-down unabated coal power and inefficient fossil fuel subsidies.  The initial text used the term “phase-out,” but China and India insisted that the language be softened—two nations whose economies are heavily dependent on coal power for economic growth.  

Where Do We Go From Here?

As a non-permanent member, India will be off the Council shortly. All eyes will turn to Russia and China’s climate views on the Council.  As the world’s largest emitter and economic and military powerhouse, China is no longer the developing nation that existed when the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change was negotiated in 1992.  China may be increasingly exposed to international criticism for thwarting action on climate change.  

Skeptics to Security Council action have asserted that climate change is simply not part of the Council’s agenda. Further complicating matters, P5 members are some of the world’s worst climate offenders. Why should the world listen to them?

Yet climate change is the ultimate destabilizer.  As I’ve argued before, the UN Security Council must walk a “legitimacy tightrope” that balances its understood legal mandate with the maintenance of peace and security. And Council climate inaction presents its own legitimacy costs. After all, the UN Charter confers on the Council the “primary responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security.” Scientists predict that four island nations—Kiribati, Maldives, Republic of Marshall Islands, and Tuvalu—may well be uninhabitable by mid-century.  Indeed, climate-driven nation extinction strikes at the core of the UN Charter, which prioritizes the sovereign equality of all 193 members.   

In sum, just as climate change massively destabilizes the physical environment, it will destabilize existing legal frameworks and institutions, irrespective of future Council action and threat to peace determinations.  Climate change will force us to look at existing governance structures and institutions with fresh eyes as we struggle to prevent climate-exacerbated conflict and save small island developing states from climate-driven extinction.  

Mark Nevitt is a former tactical jet aviator and lawyer in the United States Navy.  He is currently an Associate Professor at Syracuse University College of Law. He previously taught at the University of Pennsylvania Law School and the U.S. Naval Academy and has written extensively about climate change law and its security implications.

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