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.
The United States has made food security a key theme of its UN Security Council Presidency for the month of March, and today will chair a UNSC open debate on the links between conflict and food security. In many ways, the Council’s focus on food security is a closely-related continuation of the UK’s emphasis on climate security during its presidency last month. The World Climate and Security Report 2020 identified the deep linkages between climate change consequences and food insecurity across all regions of the globe.
According to the Global Report on Food Crises for 2020, over 135 million people faced acute food insecurity in 2019. The report characterized what it considered significant drivers of acute food insecurity as: conflict (affecting 77 million people in 22 countries), weather extremes (affecting some 34 million people in 25 countries), and economic shocks (affecting 24 million people in eight countries).
In case you missed it, the World Meteorological Organization brought together multiple entities, including United Nations-affiliated organizations and others, to publish their collective information on the latest climate science at the end of the summer. Each organization wrote one or more chapters. The overall messages from these chapters include that greenhouse gases continued to increase in 2020 from 2019 despite a small reduction in the increase because of the COVID-19 pandemic; Paris Agreement greenhouse has emissions goals are not being met; the sea level is rising faster than the long-term average; the period 2016-2020 will likely be the warmest five years on record; and the extent of Arctic sea-ice continues to decrease with warming over the next five years continuing at twice the overall rate elsewhere around the globe.
While climate change and its implications for security have been acknowledged many times by international military leaders (see here for example), as well as by senior leaders in the U.S. Department of Defense (here), the United National Security Council (UNSC) has only addressed the issue in fits and starts thus far, despite the institution’s global charge to maintain international peace and security (here). One reason for this is the individualized lens that each member country uses to assess climate change and its effect on their own security, as well as others. This creates a barrier to a consensus on what the UNSC’s general agenda should be on climate change despite individual resolutions that single out specific areas or states where climate change and its effects on security, e.g., food insecurity, are mentioned and addressed (see here and here). Other U.N. organizations have readily embraced climate change and security within their programs (here).
Climate change has and will continue to have both direct and indirect effects around the world. Changes in water will be one of the most visible direct effects, whether it is too little water, such as during prolonged droughts; too much, such as flooding caused by sea-level rise or tropical storms; or misaligned timing, such as when seasonal rains are early or late. Across numerous societies, the climate change-water interaction will be disruptive, but through mitigation and adaptation actions, this interaction can at least be ameliorated. However, these disruptions will also have significant security implications locally, regionally, and globally depending on their intensity, spatial extent, and longevity, and due to their disproportionate effects on different segments of societies. This deteriorating security environment is very likely to increase the vulnerability of affected populations, enhance inequities, and interfere with mitigation and adaptation actions, which will prolong instability. Thus, any security analysis must integrate the effects of climate change on water, and its attendant effects on the vulnerability of populations, to capture a true picture of the security environment. Resources like the newly-released World Water Development Report (WWDR), titled “Water and Climate Change,” should therefore be taken very seriously by the security community.