Germany on a mission: putting climate change on the agenda of the UN Security Council

Published: 15 June 2020 Authors: Mary Lobo and Stefan Talmon

It has long been recognised at an international level that the effects of climate change extend beyond the environment. Extreme weather events and rising sea levels have the potential to adversely affect territory, food and water supplies, in turn risking conflicts over access to scarce resources and mass migration as areas of land become uninhabitable. The ability to meet the world’s growing energy needs has also been raised as a key issue in the overlap between climate change and international security.

This overlap was first raised at the United Nations Security Council on 17 April 2007 at  an open debate of the Council on the topic of climate change and international security following a concept paper submitted by the United Kingdom. Whilst many States recognised the pressing need to address climate change, concerns were also raised as to whether the Council was the appropriate forum to discuss the matter. The responsibilities of the General Assembly and the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), as well as the importance of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, were key to these concerns. During the debate, Germany voiced its opinion that “[n]o [UN] institution can claim exclusive competence with respect to this cross-cutting issue [i.e., the security implications of climate change]”. Such concerns were nevertheless repeated by a significant number group of States – including, importantly, Argentina for the Group of 77, and China – in the open debate held under the German Presidency of the Security Council on 20 July 2011. These concerns were placed in the context of the responsibilities of the Security Council under the UN Charter and what Argentina termed the Council’s “ever-increasing encroachment […] on the roles and responsibilities of other principal entities of the United Nations”.

Unlike the 2007 open debate, however, the 2011 debate led to a formal conclusion in the form of a statement by the President of the Security Council. In the statement, the Council for the first time expressed “its concern that possible adverse effects of climate change may, in the long run, aggravate certain existing threats to international peace and security”, acknowledged that the “security implications of climate change” may be “drivers of conflict, represent a challenge to the implementation of Council mandates or endanger the process of consolidation of peace”, and requested “the Secretary-General to ensure that his reporting to the Council contains [contextual information on, inter alia, possible security implications of climate change]”. But the statement did not suggest that climate change as such posed an inherent or imminent threat to international peace and security, or that the Security Council should take any particular action on climate change. Instead, the Council recognised “the responsibility for sustainable development issues, including climate change, conferred upon the General Assembly and the Economic and Social Council”.

Following the 2011 open debate, the security implications of climate change did not form the focus of further discussions in the Security Council, although occasional reference was made to the “adverse effects of climate change” in Council resolutions and statements.

On 1 August 2018, the Federal Republic of Germany and the Republic of Nauru – which had raised concerns about the particular threat climate change posed to island States in the 2011 open debate – jointly founded the UN Group of Friends on Climate and Security. The group initially had 27 members, representing all regional groups of the Organisation; it has since grown to 48 members. Its stated aim is to obtain support for a draft declaration encouraging the United Nations to deal with climate change and security as a priority.

Since its election to the Security Council in 2019, Germany has pushed to place the security implications of climate change back on the Council’s agenda as, for Germany, “[h]uman-induced climate change is not only an environmental phenomenon, but also one of the main security threats of the 21st century.” In January 2019, along with the Dominican Republic, Germany prepared a new Council debate on the impact of climate-related extreme weather events on peace and stability. At the debate on 25 January 2019, the German Federal Foreign Minister, Heiko Maas, reiterated Germany’s view that the Security Council was the appropriate forum for the discussion, saying:

“Climate change is real. It is having a global impact. And it is increasingly becoming a threat to international peace and security. This is why the debate about the policy consequences of climate change belongs here – in the Security Council. It must become routine for us to take the link between climate and security into account in all conflict situations.”

The Foreign Minister also invited States to attend an International Climate and Security Conference in Berlin on 4 June 2019. In his opening speech at the conference, he emphasised that whilst climate change is more a catalyst than a direct cause of conflict, it remained a significant topic for discussion and – more importantly – action:

“It goes without saying that climate change is seldom the only reason for conflicts breaking out. There are usually a number of additional factors. However, climate change acts as a catalyst. It makes conflicts more likely. […]

And this is precisely why we can, indeed we must, take action here – with forward-looking policies that not only respond when it’s too late, but which actively seek responses. And I mean now.”

Germany expressed the view that the Security Council must become a preventative body on several occasions: statements to that effect featured in their contributions to the 2007, 2011 and 2019 open debates in the Security Council. Foreign Minister Maas also addressed this issue in a speech on the Day of the Peacekeeper on 6 June 2019, saying:

“By the way, the first topic we put on the Security Council agenda in January was climate and security. And at the time, people appeared somewhat puzzled by this. It seems that deaths only count if they have been caused by shooting, while deaths that result from starvation or dehydration are not part of the portfolio that the Security Council wants to address. And we need to change that.

We must make much greater use of such bodies to prevent conflicts – not merely to contain them once they have started. Regrettably, we have not been very successful in this area in the Security Council in recent years. We must do far more to ensure conflicts don’t break out in the first place.”

During the Security Council meeting on 15 June 2019, the German representative – speaking on the adoption of resolution 2476 (2019) concerning the question of Haiti – welcomed the creation of the United Nations Integrated Office in Haiti but noted the absence of any reference to climate change. He stated:

“One point I particularly want to highlight is that while we were pleased to see the reference in the resolution to the adverse effects of natural disasters on Haiti’s stability, we were surprised and disappointed that there was no reference to the security implications of the effects of climate change. […] Haiti is one of the countries of the world that is most vulnerable to the adverse effects of climate change. The effects of climate change there constitute a threat multiplier, bringing the risk of further destabilizing the country, creating new conflict over increasingly diminishing resources and derailing efforts aimed at peacebuilding and stabilization. The Security Council should therefore examine the situation more closely with a view to including the effects of climate change in its overall assessments and decision-making, and to do that we need a proper information basis, including a substantial risk assessment. Turning a blind eye to the problem will not make a threat multiplier like climate change disappear. Disregarding it and assessing the country situation selectively jeopardizes the effectiveness of the Council’s work.”

At the General Debate of the 74th session of the General Assembly on 25 September 2019, Foreign Minister Maas said:

“Germany has now been a non-permanent member of the Security Council for nine months, and the impression I have is that far too often, crises and conflicts are not discussed in the Council until shots have been fired and people are dying. That is the very opposite of sustainable policymaking, because at that point it is already too late. The Security Council must move from being a crisis-response body to a crisis prevention body. And, finally, it must also examine the causes of conflicts. That is why we put climate and security on the agenda at the very beginning of our term and will ensure that it remains there. Climate change has long ceased to be merely an ecological challenge for humankind. More and more often it is a matter of war and peace. Climate change is no less than a question of humankind’s survival. If people no longer have access to clean drinking water, if entire harvests are ruined by persistent drought and conflicts break out over the few remaining resources, the wars of the future will be climate wars.”

This speech reflected statements the Foreign Minister had made two weeks previously on 11 September 2019 to the Federal Parliament, where he suggested that slowness to act preventatively came particularly from some Permanent Members of the Security Council:

“Over the past months, we have learned that most members of the Security Council – in particular those with permanent seats – don’t want issues to be placed on that body’s agenda until shots are being fired, bombs are thrown and individuals have died. I believe this is absolutely the wrong approach. If the UN Security Council is to retain its importance, then we must rather make it a preventive Security Council. That is why, already in January – as our first order of business – we placed the item “climate and security” on the agenda. We all know that there is a nexus between climate and security. If you want to address the reasons why people flee, you must fight climate change. And if you want to prevent future wars over issues linked to climate change, then you must act today and fight climate change. Therefore, we are also using our Security Council membership to make a case for more preventive action, as opposed to waiting until it is too late.”

Despite Germany’s stated determination to raise climate change and security as a key issue during its membership of the Security Council in 2019/20, and the Foreign Minister’s assertion at the Berlin Conference that Germany had “managed to enshrine” climate change and security “at the institutional level at the UN headquarters”, they have indeed faced resistance from other members of the Council, including permanent members. The most notable of these was the Russian Federation, which voiced its disapproval of the consideration of the nexus between climate change and security in all three open debates in the Security Council, with the strength of its statements escalating. Whilst in 2007 the Russian representative concluded his statement by saying that the Council should “only deal with the consideration of questions that directly relate to its mandate”, in the 2019 debate, Russia’s position was expressed in the following way:

“We deem it excessive, and even counterproductive, to consider climate change in the Security Council, whose aim under the Charter of the United Nations is to swiftly respond to serious challenges to international peace and security. We consider that this practice undercuts the current system of division of labour within the United Nations. Yes, the climate is changing. However, climate change is not a universal challenge in the context of international security. Accordingly, it should be considered specific to each specific situation […].”

“Climate risks must also be taken into consideration, not in a generic way but in the context of discussing specific and real situations on the Council’s agenda – if they exist and if they are real.”

Furthermore, of the Permanent Members of the Security Council, only the United Kingdom and France are also members of the Group of Friends on Climate and Security. The United States, whilst recognising that “the Security Council and its member States can and should play an especially important role”, spoke about “extreme weather and natural disasters” at the 2019 meeting – and particularly about improving post-disaster recovery – rather than about climate change per se. Without the wholehearted support of the Permanent Council Members, turning items on the agenda into meaningful action may prove difficult, as a Council resolution requires the concurring votes of all 5 Permanent Members.

The question of whether action on climate change really falls under the mandate of the Security Council should also be considered. The responsibilities of the Security Council are set out in Chapter V of the UN Charter. In the relevant part, Article 24(1) states that “Members confer on the Security Council primary responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security”. The language used here and in Chapter VII – which details the action the Security Council may take with respect to threats to the peace, breaches of the peace, and acts of aggression –  supports Germany’s view that taking steps to reduce the likelihood of future conflicts is among the functions of the Security Council. The Council is empowered to address threats as well as breaches; to maintain as well as restore international peace and security; and to take preventative as well as enforcement measures.

That the Security Council need not wait “until shots are being fired, bombs are thrown and individuals have died” does not, however, determine whether climate change can legitimately be designated as a threat to the peace. Whilst it is generally accepted that there are links between factors that aggravate and spark conflict and the effects of climate change, it is not as widely accepted that these links are necessary or inherent. There are many factors which have the potential to aggravate conflicts; not all are threats to the peace for the purposes of Chapter VII.

A further issue is the distance between the nature of climate change and the nature of “threat” and “breach” of the peace for which the Chapter VII powers were originally intended. Although not stated explicitly within the Charter, Chapter VII was intended to be used in regard to international acts of sovereign States, in line with the customary principle of non-intervention in the internal affairs of States as reflected in Article 2(1) and Article 2(7) of the UN Charter. It is true that the non-intervention principle “shall not prejudice the application of enforcement measures under Chapter VII” – and a number of interventions under Chapter VII have occurred within contexts right at the edge of what could reasonably be suggested to be an international affair. Nevertheless, climate change does not pose a general immediate threat to international peace and security in the form of itself threatening conflict or war and whilst it has been argued that the definition of “peace” must be extended beyond the traditional understanding of “not war” to include economic, social, environmental and political factors, addressing climate change does not appear to sit centrally within the Security Council’s mandate.

It also follows from the nature of climate change that, even if the Security Council were theoretically an appropriate forum for action, it might not be the most appropriate forum. Although Member States may participate in Security Council discussions whenever the Council considers that the interests of a Member State are specifically affected – and, indeed, the open debates on climate change and security thus far have been well attended – only the 15 Members of the Council may vote on decisions. This compares poorly to the 54 Members of the ECOSOC and the 193 Members of the General Assembly, both of which also have the mandate to address climate change. Considering the global impact and causes of (and, therefore, solutions to) climate change, it might be expected that wider involvement in policymaking might correspond to wider commitment to the outcomes and thus greater success – though this cannot be guaranteed.

Furthermore, the holistic approach required to tackle climate change necessarily entails such careful balancing of national sovereignty and international cooperation that legally binding decisions of the Security Council may not be the best tool with which to address the problem. The difficulty of enforcing a decision made under the Chapter VII powers must also be recognised – assuming that the necessary consensus in the Security Council to pass a resolution could even be secured, which currently does not seem likely.

Germany, along with many other States, is right that climate change presents a serious and ever-growing threat to the international community. This threat, however, is not directly to peace as traditionally understood, but is rather a far wider threat to many aspects of society. It must be discussed; it must be acted upon. Work in the Security Council up until now has aided with the recognition and appreciation of this fact. In light of the resistance of Member States – including Permanent Members of the Security Council – to the further discussion of this issue in the Council, though, it might be more productive for Germany to refocus its efforts towards enacting the climate change solutions being presented elsewhere in the United Nations.

Category: United Nations

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  • Mary Lobo

    Mary Lobo is a final year law student at the University of Oxford. She also studied law at the University of Bonn, where she was a student research assistant at the Institute for Public International Law. She is assistant editor of GPIL.

  • Stefan Talmon

    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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