The Security Council and climate change: nothing to see here

In a recent UN Security Council debate, talk of “green helmets” provides a visually compelling image of the way in which UN ‘blue-helmet’ peacekeeping could be adapted to reflect the security challenges of climate change. While others have noted the weakness of the Council’s final conclusion, I’m not sure, however, that the Security Council’s engagement with the subject would add very much to international efforts to address climate change.

In the four years since the last Council debate on the security implications of climate change, not much seems to have changed in the politics of the issue – many developing countries, China and the Non-Aligned Movement included, are resistant to the very inclusion of the issue on the Security Council agenda. While the German presidency of the Council sought to focus the debate around two specific areas – sea-level rise, particularly in the context of small island states, and food insecurity – the fundamental nature of how we think about the connection between climate change and security hasn’t changed.

The commonly-accepted way of thinking about climate change as a security issue is as a ‘threat multiplier’ – a factor that exacerbates the intensity or frequency of existing challenges, whether in famine, migration patterns, resource scarcities and so on. But when conflicts or crises that we can be say to be ‘climate-related’ do arise, there is little that is qualitatively different about these situations than the existing range of situations that the Security Council confronts. Changing weather patterns and a rise in global temperature are themselves only distant and indirect, not proximate ’causes’ of conflict. Instead, their effects are felt through phenomena already commonly experienced. For instance, climate change may induce drought or flooding, the significance of which depends on the resilience of how that society is governed, economically and socially. The length and complexity of this causal chain means that, for the purposes of what the Security Council can do, climate change drops out of the equation.

Ahead of the Council’s debate, Germany’s UN Ambassador acknowledged as much:

“As far-fetched as the idea of “green-helmets” might sound, consider the tasks that the United Nations peacekeepers already perform today — e.g. emergency aid, development and recovery, state — and peacebuilding. Repainting blue helmets into green might be a strong signal — but would dealing with the consequences of climate change — say in precarious regions — be really very different from the tasks the blue helmets already perform today?”

When crises do emerge that are related to climate change, they will be dealt with in the normal way. Through peacekeepers as a possible course of action, they’ll only be addressing symptoms – but the Security Council only ever addresses symptoms. The ‘climate’ perspective only comes in when we try and understand the causes of conflict – and dealing with deep-rooted causes is not really something the Security Council does.

Instead, to do that, we have to turn to the ultimate causes of climate change, in the sources of rising greenhouse gas emissions, with the challenge of how to slow, and eventually reverse, global emissions. And that is something that I can’t see the Security Council touching with a barge pole, in involving core questions of how national economies are to be organized and the problems of global economic cooperation.

As the Presidential Statement released at the end of the debate noted, the Security Council has to consider how the impacts of climate change will affect its other mandates and missions. That, however, is somewhat removed from the notion that talk of the ‘security implications of climate change’ provide novel missions and rationales for action. Any change in this area is at best, incremental. So could the Security Council could become an institutional hub for international efforts on the issue? Not a chance.

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