Published: 31 August 2021 Author: Stefan Talmon
For more than a decade, Germany has been on a mission to integrate climate security concerns into the work of the UN Security Council. During its presidency of the Council in July 2011, 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’. The Council acknowledged that the security implications of climate change are sometimes be drivers of conflict, as well as representing a challenge to the implementation of its mandates or endangering the process of peace consolidation, and requested that the UN Secretary-General ensure his reporting to the Council contain contextual information on, inter alia, possible security implications of climate change.
During its two-year term as a non-permanent member on the UN Security Council in 2019-2020, Germany time and again highlighted the security implications of climate change and advocated greater Council engagement with this issue. During the Security Council open debate on ‘Maintenance of international peace and security – Upholding the United Nations Charter’, the Minister of State at the Federal Foreign Office Michelle Müntefering stated:
[W]e encourage the Security Council, in line with the Charter of the United Nations, to address new threats to peace and security, including gross human rights violations, the effects of climate change and the risks emanating from new technologies, which often act as drivers of conflict.
On 12 March 2020, the Security Council adopted Resolution 2514 (2020) on the situation in South Sudan. In the resolution, it recognised ‘the adverse effects of extreme weather events on the humanitarian situation and stability in South Sudan’. The text of the resolution had been prepared by the United States, which under the Trump administration was sceptical about the effects of climate change. In Germany’s view, the text had some shortcomings. While welcoming the unanimous adoption of the resolution, the German representative nevertheless felt it necessary to make the following statement after the voting:
While we are pleased to see a reference in the text regarding the adverse effects of extreme weather events on the stability of South Sudan, we are disappointed that a reference to the security implications of the effects of climate change was not included despite overwhelming support for our proposal from the majority of Council members. In his most recent briefing to the Security Council (see S/PV.8741), Special Representative of the Secretary-General Shearer clearly linked the effects of the unprecedented floods in certain areas of the country to a spike in inter-communal violence in precisely those areas. Climate change and its related extreme weather events have started affecting yet another conflict on the Council’s agenda.
Since at least 2011, the Security Council has repeatedly expressed its concern that the effects of climate change may aggravate existing threats to international peace and security and underlined the importance of conflict analysis and contextual information, including on the security implications of climate change in relevant situations.
As the Security Council, we need to look at the situation more closely with a view to including the effects of climate change in our overall assessment and decision-making. To do so, we need a proper information basis, including a substantial risk assessment. By including a reference to climate change in the language of the resolution, we wanted to encourage the appropriate observation and analysis in the future, which would enable all actors, and in particular the Security Council, to better address this underlying cause of conflict.
Turning a blind eye will not make a threat multiplier such as climate change disappear. Disregarding it and assessing the country situation selectively jeopardize the effectiveness of the Council’s work.
During the debate leading up to the resolution, Germany had pointed out that ‘climate change has a direct effect on security, because … floods destroyed crops and livelihoods and led to communal violence.’ It suggested the inclusion of a reference to the security implications of the effects of climate change – a suggestion that the US strongly opposed and which was therefore not included in the text of the resolution.
In April 2020, Germany again raised the question of climate change and security. During the Council meeting on protecting civilians from conflict-induced hunger, Germany’s Deputy Permanent Representative to the United Nations stated:
Many conflict-affected countries are also experiencing the adverse effects of climate change first-hand, including drought, water scarcity, desertification, land degradation, erratic rainfall, flooding and other climate-related disasters. There is growing evidence that conflict and climate change, followed by economic shocks, are the two main drivers of acute food insecurity in the world. The interaction between conflict, climate change and food insecurity in an already vulnerable context has devastating impacts on civilians and poses a serious threat to the achievement of sustainable development.
In the Sahel region, we see the tangible repercussions of the link between climate change, security and food insecurity, as conflicts are flaring up between herders and farmers owing to competition over scarce resources of water and land, which serve as their livelihoods and means of food production. To secure and sustain peace in some of the world’s most fragile contexts, such as the Sahel, support for agricultural livelihoods should be considered as one part of a holistic response.
Climate change and food insecurity have serious effects on the maintenance of international peace and security with respect to the crises already on our agenda, and they threaten to cause and aggravate conflicts elsewhere. That is why the Council has to deal with these issues.
The Security Council as a whole, however, was not prepared to deal with the issue of climate change and security. In fact, there was a split in the Council which became apparent on 22 June 2020, when Germany and nine other Council members issued a statement on their joint initiative to address climate-related security risks. It read:
The Permanent Representatives of ten Security Council Member States met the United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres in a virtual format today to discuss how to enhance the inclusion of climate-related security risks into the Security Council’s overall assessment and decision-making.
The impacts of climate change affect – and will increasingly affect – populations across the globe. In specific cases, this can lead to food and water insecurity, large scale displacement, particularly among women and children, and social tensions which can potentially exacerbate, prolong or contribute to the risk of future conflicts and instability. The effects of climate change therefore constitute a key risk to global peace and stability.
The Security Council has discussed the issue repeatedly since 2007 and expressed its concern in 2011 that the impacts of climate change may aggravate existing threats to international peace and security and underlined the importance of conflict analysis and contextual information.
Today the ten Security Council members underscored the need to improve the Security Council’s information basis in order to enable the Security Council to better assess the security implications of the impacts of climate change and support relevant conflict prevention measures. The ten Security Council members also announced their intention to convene a high-level debate on this topic in the near future.
On 24 June 2020, during the high-level political segment of part I of the second Berlin Climate and Security Conference, Federal Foreign Minister Heiko Maas stated:
Foreign and security policy must … finally embrace a new concept of security. Today, we know: Not a single shot must be fired to throw entire regions into turmoil. A long drought can be equally destructive. Climate change has become one of the key risks to global peace and stability.
At the conference, Foreign Minister Maas also launched the ‘Global Climate Security Risk and Foresight Assessment’ to identify climate-related security risks and provide actionable information for policymakers.
In New York, Germany used its July 2020 presidency of the Security Council to convene a ministerial-level open debate on the theme of ‘climate and security’. In a concept note for the debate on 24 July 2020, Germany stated:
2. The effects of climate change, including increasingly frequent and severe weather phenomena, floods and droughts, diminishing freshwater resources, desertification, land degradation and sea-level rise, deprive entire populations of their livelihoods. Among those, women are disproportionately affected by the effects of climate change, deepening gender inequality and increasing the risk for gender-based violence. These effects of climate change can lead, inter alia, to food insecurity, large-scale displacement and social tensions, exacerbating, prolonging or contributing to the risk of future conflicts. The effects of climate change are threat multipliers and constitute major risk factors for international peace and security … .
5. The effects of climate change in specific situations are conducive to the potential emergence, continuation or escalation of conflict. The Security Council needs to consider and address these security implications in its work … .
7. The Security Council has increasingly recognized the role of climate-related security risk in specific situations on its agenda. Currently, 11 resolutions refer to the implications of the effects of climate change on peace and stability … .
8. Despite growing attention on the ever-increasing scale of climate-related security implications, the Council still lacks a systematic approach to climate-related security risks.
In the lead-up to the debate, a spokesperson for the Federal Foreign Office stated during the regular government press conference:
The effects of climate change, at this very moment, already constitute a growing threat to international peace and security, as the inclusion of the issue in a dozen resolutions on various conflicts, for example in Africa, shows.
Federal Foreign Minister Heiko Maas chaired the high-level debate on climate and security on 24 July 2020, saying in his speech:
Climate change is happening, and its consequences for peace and security are already real, from the Sahel to the islands of the Pacific and the Caribbean. Sooner rather than later, climate change will be a catalyst in almost every conflict that we are dealing with … .
We call on the Secretary-General to appoint a Special Representative on Climate and Security as soon as possible. He, or she, could ensure that climate change is placed where it belongs, namely, at the heart of the Security Council’s work, which is to maintain international peace and security in the twenty-first century. … the United Nations needs to be ready to act when climate-related security risks hit. Such risks must therefore be addressed in all mandates and conflict-prevention strategies. Together with our partners, we will convene an informal expert group of the Security Council on climate and security as soon as possible. Our goal is to enshrine this topic in the Council’s work once and for all.
Germany had hoped that the Council meeting would result in an ambitious thematic resolution on climate and security. Indeed, it prepared a draft resolution on climate change and security and how to mitigate climate-related security risks. The draft resolution contained ‘a number of proposals for integrating climate security concerns more systematically into the work of the Security Council and the United Nations system more broadly, including how the United Nations could more effectively tackle climate security challenges in collaboration with a range of stakeholders at the global, regional, subregional, national and local levels’. In particular, Germany proposed
- the creation of an informal expert group of the Security Council on climate and security
- periodic reports by the Secretary-General to the Council on climate-related security risks
- the appointment of a Special Representative on climate and security
- the inclusion of climate security matters in country-specific reports to the Council
- use of the Peacebuilding Commission to provide written advice to the Council regarding climate security concerns
The Security Council, however, adopted none of these proposals. While Germany had the support of nine other Council members, it encountered resistance from China, Russia, and the United States. Germany’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations, Ambassador Christoph Heusgen, lamented the lack of support from these three permanent members. In the written statement, he said:
Dear colleagues, there are ten members of the Security Council that have launched an initiative with the objective that the Council assumes its responsibility and reacts to the threats that are so evident to peace and security, which climate change and environmental degradation without any doubt present.
It is really a pity that this project was not supported in the interventions of our American, Russian and Chinese friends, even regarding simple things like having a regular report by the Secretary-General on the consequences of climate change on security, or training U.N. peacekeepers to recognize when degradation happens and react to possible consequences for conflict, or having a Special Representative who concentrates on the issue.
In his oral intervention, Ambassador Heusgen directly attacked China, saying:
Having listened to our Chinese colleague who says how much China cares for Africa, I would like to remind you that it was the African presidency of Niger who clearly said there is a link between environmental change, environmental degradation, climate change and security and presses for it. The interpretation of what Africa needs also in terms of support from the Security Council for the problems that we are facing with climate change, I think, we, Germany, have a different view. Colleagues, we can suppress actions of the Council, but the problem will not go away.
Indonesia and South Africa were more neutral than the three permanent members, but also did not support the draft resolution. In the end, Germany did not put the resolution to a vote because the United States threatened to veto it.
On 27 August 2020, Germany followed up on the ministerial-level open debate on climate and security. On behalf of the ten Council members prepared to integrate climate-related security risks more systematically in the work of the Security Council, the chargé d’affaires a.i. of the Permanent Mission of Germany to the United Nations wrote a letter to the Secretary-General informing him that these States would convene an informal expert group of the Security Council on climate and security. The letter continued:
This advisory, non-decision-making group will be open to all Council members and will meet regularly. The informal expert group will improve the flow of information and analysis with respect to the peace and security implications of climate change in country- and region-specific situations and sharpen the focus and specificity of Council deliberations and actions. The group will provide a space for transparent, regular and systematic consultations between country experts and United Nations entities on climate-related security risks in order to improve the understanding of the adverse effects of climate change on peace and security and help strengthen the Council’s efforts to mainstream the climate and security agenda in its daily work. …
We would be grateful if the Department of Political and Peacebuilding Affairs, in the context of the climate security mechanism, could act as the secretariat of the informal expert group, coordinate the provision of information to Council members, as necessary to the group’s work, and facilitate its meetings.
The permanent representatives of Germany and the Niger were to serve as inaugural co-chairs of the informal expert group.
China and Russia reacted negatively to the letter by the German diplomat. On 21 September 2020, the permanent representatives of the two countries wrote to the Secretary-General:
We would like to express our objection to the request to the Department of Political and Peacebuilding Affairs to ‘act as the secretariat of the informal expert group [of the Security Council on climate and security], coordinate the provision of information to Council members, as necessary to the group’s work, and facilitate its meetings’, as expressed in the aforementioned letter. We find it inappropriate for the Secretariat to fulfil such a role owing to the absence of a specific intergovernmental mandate. We also disagree with providing such a mandate to the Secretariat under any pretext.
Furthermore, we are concerned that this initiative to convene this informal expert group is creating a precedent whereby certain “voluntary” expert bodies would be established without official decisions of the Security Council and while views of its key Member States are not taken into account.
In addition, it is worth mentioning that the Secretariat has, on many occasions, raised the issue of its challenging financial situation. In this respect, it would be more appropriate for the Secretariat to focus its efforts on providing support to activities that are mandated by intergovernmental decisions.
As a result, the Department of Political and Peacebuilding Affairs could not assume the role envisaged by Germany and, in particular, did not act as the secretariat of the informal expert group.
Germany, however, did not abandon its attempts to firmly place climate change on the Council’s agenda. During the Security Council open debate on ‘Peacebuilding and Sustaining Peace: Contemporary Drivers of Conflict and Insecurity’ on 3 November 2020, Minister of State at the Federal Foreign Office Niels Annen, once again, advocated a broader understanding of international peace and security and an expansion of the Security Council’s mandate, stating, inter alia:
Unless the Council systematically and effectively considers the security implications of climate change … we will fall short of what the international community — and, most of all, those who are most severely affected by conflicts —expects us to deliver. …
And if the Council wants to remain relevant, it will have to up its game and finally grapple with the security implications of … climate change and all the other pressing global issues the world expects it to deal with. …
Climate change is undoubtedly one of the most relevant threats to stability and security in our time. … climate change is a major driver of conflict in the twenty-first century. The Security Council has to live up to its responsibility. More needs to be done to enhance our understanding of this dimension of conflict. …
There is a vicious circle of climate change, environmental degradation and conflict. It increases the risk of violent conflict, displacement and, consequently, humanitarian crises.
On 29 November 2020, the informal expert group on climate and security met for the first time, looking into the effects of climate change on the security situation in Somalia. On the occasion, Germany’s mission to the UN tweeted, ‘an important step for UNSC to take this threat seriously!’. Taking stock of Germany’s term on the Security Council in a speech to the Federal Parliament on 26 November 2020, Federal Foreign Minister Heiko Maas also touted the establishment of ‘the first ever Security Council informal expert group on climate and security’ as one of Germany’s achievements on the Council. Foreign Minister Mass, however, misrepresented the legal situation when he talked about a Security Council informal expert group. This is clear from another statement he made a week later in the Security Council in New York where he said:
We have established an informal expert group of members of the Security Council on climate and security.
Because of the opposition of several Council members, Germany was unable to establish an informal expert group of the Security Council. It could only establish an informal expert group of (some ten) members of the Council.
Informal expert groups of the Security Council must be distinguished from working groups of the Security Council. The latter are subsidiary organs of the Security Council which are established by a Council decision or by a decision of its members. Working groups, such as the Working Group on Peacekeeping Operations, the Working Group on Children in Armed Conflict, or the Working Group on International Tribunals, consist of all Council members and carry out specific responsibilities under its direction. They make recommendations to the Council on possible action.
Informal expert groups, on the other hand, are not subsidiary organs of the Security Council. Referring to the Council’s Informal Expert Group on Women and Peace and Security, China once noted:
[T]he Group is not an official body of the Council and that the work it does in the name of the Council must respect the views of all Council members in a manner consistent with the Security Council mandate and the rules of procedure, or its decisions will not be authoritative or morally binding.
However, like working groups, informal expert groups of the Security Council consist of all members of the Council and are established under a Council resolution or by a unanimous decision of the members of the Council. Thus, without the agreement of all Council members no informal expert group of the Security Council on climate and security could be created. UN bodies usually serve as secretariat to the informal expert groups. It was probably for that reason that Germany and the other nine Council members requested the Secretary-General designate the Department of Political and Peacebuilding Affairs as secretariat of their informal expert group on climate and security.
Informal expert groups are a source of information for the Council. Such groups receive briefings from a wide range of UN and other sources and make recommendations to the Council. An informal expert group of the Council would therefore have been a way to mainstream climate and security in the Council’s actions. It could have facilitated a more systematic approach to, and sustained consideration and analysis of, climate security concerns within the Council’s work and enabled greater oversight and coordination of the implementation of the Council’s decisions.
The fact that Germany failed to have a thematic resolution on climate and security adopted, and to establish an informal expert group of the Council (instead of some of its members) shows that its own assessment of its performance on the Security Council does not always entirely coincide with reality. Against the background of the Security Council taking little action on climate and security in 2020 beyond generally ‘recognizing the adverse effects of climate change’, the statement by Foreign Minister Maas that ‘Germany has therefore firmly placed climate change on the Council’s agenda, with the support of virtually all its members’, seems self-deluding.
A number of (permanent) members of the Security Council are still opposed to the Council substantially engaging with the security implications of climate change or adopting climate-change specific measures. Indeed, a number of UN member States more generally are, at best, ambivalent about the Security Council addressing the issue of climate change, as they fear the Council may take measures under Chapter VII of the Charter or intervene in their internal affairs on the pretext of addressing the adverse effects of climate change on international security. There is also the more fundamental question of whether climate change as such is actually a ‘threat to the peace’ for the purposes of Article 39 of the UN Charter. It could be argued that the adverse effects of climate change are not threats to the peace themselves, although they are threat multipliers and constitute major risk factors for international peace and security. In its concept note for the high-level open debate on climate and security, Germany spoke of ‘climate-related security risks’, ‘security implications of climate change’ or the ‘complex interlinkages between climate change and peace and security,’ but not of the effects of climate change constituting a threat to the peace. The Security Council, however, has a large discretion in determining what constitutes a threat to the peace. The Charter would not prevent the Council from recognising climate change or, better, its adverse effects, as a threat to international peace and security and thereby address it as part of its primary responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security. Whether the Council engages with climate change is ultimately not legal but political.
Category: United Nations