Effects of climate change as threats to international peace and security

Published: 21 December 2017 Author: Stefan Talmon

Climate change policy is not generally seen as a traditional domain of the United Nations Security Council. Nevertheless, Germany seems convinced that the Council should take up this topic. Since 2011, Germany has consistently worked to bring the security implications of climate change to the attention of the Security Council. On 10 April 2017, in an Aria-formula meeting on the security implications of climate change and sea level-rise, the German representative stated:

“No one can ignore the challenges posed by rising temperatures, increasingly extreme weather phenomena and their devastating consequences. Germany would like to build on previous discussions in the Council and to reinforce an important message: the effects of climate change pose a threat to global security. We believe strongly that this issue should be on the Council’s agenda.

One of the clearest threats is the impact of sea-level rise on the securityCand even survivalCof many Member States. […]

We all know that climate change is already making low-lying islands and coastal areas uninhabitable. And as extreme weather events become more frequent and severe, the safety of millions of people and much critical infrastructure will be at risk. Sea-level rise may also dramatically increase the numbers of displaced persons in densely populated coastal areas as people are forced from their homes. Such developments may even erode state capacity and legitimacy, damaging national and international security. […].

Climate change is a fact. So is sea-level rise. And the security implications are clear to see. It is high time that the international community and its leading organs fully recognize them as such. German policy has been consistent. In July 2011, when we chaired the Security Council, this august body reached a consensus on a presidential statement regarding climate change and security. […].”

Several months later, on 15 December 2017, Germany addressed the matter again in an Aria-formula meeting on the security implications of rising temperatures. The German representative said, inter alia:

“Effects of climate change have already turned into an existential threat for many countries, and the Council will have to deal with many more cases in the future where the effects of climate change drives or exacerbates threats to international peace and security.

One such example for the Council having assumed its responsibility, and an important step towards tackling these climate-related security challenges, was SC resolution 2349 on the Lake Chad basin of March this year. But such climate-related security challenges are not limited to the Lake Chad basin.

No matter how successful we are in reducing carbon emissions, we will also have to deal with the security implications of ever increasing effects of climate change. Climate change will impact the livelihoods of millions of people, and many countries are already overwhelmed and pushed to their limits in adapting to it. Violence, destabilization and large scale migratory movements may be the consequence, in turn threatening regional and international peace and security. […].

 Not every effect of climate change poses a threat to peace and security. Social, economic, political and other complex factors also enter into the equation. Nevertheless, taking into account the effects of climate change in the context of specific conflict situations is clearly part of the SC’s mandate to assume the primary responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security. […].”

Only five days later, on 20 December 2017, Germany’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations in New York once again addressed the link between climate change and peace and security in an open debate of the Security Council on complex contemporary challenges to international peace and security. He said, inter alia:

“I would like to highlight one challenge which deserves more of our attention: the effects climate change and their implications for peace and security. One could argue that climate change is first and foremost a question of environmental policies. Yes, it certainly is. But the effects of climate change can have serious security implications. As Chancellor Merkel stated at the COP 23 in Bonn last month, and I quote:

‘We have melting glaciers, rising sea levels and flooding; we have storms, unbearable heat and severe droughts. No one may or can ignore this. And if we also think about the growing global population, we know that increasing conflicts over natural resources will be inevitable if we do nothing to protect the climate.’

So if the Security Council, rather than merely reacting, wants to anticipate threats to international peace and security, it must have the security implications of climate change on its radar B and indeed firmly on its agenda!”

The German position is quite clear: while not every effect of climate change poses a threat to peace and security, some effects of climate change may very well pose a “threat to the peace” in terms of Article 39 of the United Nations Charter and can thus open the way for Security Council action under Chapter VII.

In 2011, Germany started a process that one day may well end in the Security Council taking enforcement action to combat the consequences or even the causes of climate change. Under German presidency, the Security Council on 20 July 2011 adopted a Presidential Statement which stated in part:

“The Security Council reaffirms its primary responsibility under the Charter of the United Nations for the maintenance of international peace and security. The Council stresses the importance of establishing strategies of conflict prevention. […]”

“The Security Council expresses its concern that possible adverse effects of climate change may, in the long run, aggravate certain existing threats to international peace and security. […]”

“The Security Council notes that in matters relating to the maintenance of international peace and security under its consideration, conflict analysis and contextual information on, inter alia, possible security implications of climate change is important, when such issues are drivers of conflict, represent a challenge to the implementation of Council mandates or endanger the process of consolidation of peace. In this regard, the Council requests the Secretary-General to ensure that his reporting to the Council contains such contextual information.”

Some six year later, the SecurityCouncil for the first time acknowledged the link between climate change induced environmental changes and security challenges. In its resolution on the Lake Chad basin, the Council recognized “the adverse effects of climate change and ecological changes among other factors on the stability of the Region, including through water scarcity, drought, desertification, land degradation, and food insecurity”. Germany considered the resolution “an important step [of the Council] towards tackling these climate-related security challenges”.

The consequences of climate change not only “aggravate certain existing threats to international peace and security”, they are also capable of creating new threats. Climate change can lead, for example, to scarcity of drinking water, food shortages and loss of inhabitable land which, in turn, can lead to mass migration and conflicts over territory where human survival is still possible. The members of the United Nations have tasked the Security Council with the primary responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security. To that end the Council is not only called upon to take effective measures for the removal of existing threats to the peace but also to take effective anticipatory measures for the prevention of such threats. If Germany’s position that the effects of climate change may constitute a threat to the peace gains more general acceptance, the Security Council will be able to actively tackle both the consequences and causes of climate change.

Category: United Nations

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Author

  • Stefan Talmon is Professor of Public Law, Public International Law and European Union Law, and Director at the Institute of Public International Law at the University of Bonn. He is also a Supernumerary Fellow of St. Anne’s College, Oxford, and practices as a Barrister from Twenty Essex, London. He is the editor of GPIL.

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