Climate Change and Conflict By Cesare M. Scartozzi | 13 March, 2021
The UN Security Council at a Turning Point: Securitisation or Climatisation?
Photo credit: Paul Chapman/Flickr
On February 23, the UN Security Council (UNSC) held a high-level open debate on the topic of climate and security. The meeting, convened by the Permanent Representative of the United Kingdom, was the latest in a series of open debates and Arria-formula sessions set to define the role of the Council in addressing threats to international security posed by climate change. Despite a decade-long discussion, the UNSC is still divided on a series of conceptual and procedural issues that, as it will be shown in this article, prevent it from defining its role in relation to climate change.
Two distinct yet overlapping trends have emerged from the debates in the UNSC. One is the securitisation of climate - i.e., the reframing of climate change as a national security problem rather than a socio-environmental one. Securitisation as a trend politicises global warming and depicts it as an existential threat with the aim of justifying extraordinary courses of action (including the use of the defence apparatus) to cope with the climate emergency. The other trend is the climatisation of security - i.e., the mainstreaming of climate change in security policies, strategies, and practices. As argued by Lucile Maertens in a 2021 essay published in International Politics, the UNSC is in the midst of moving from a process of securitisation to one of climatisation. However, as it does so, instances of securitisation continue to flare up and cause divisions among member states.
Securitisation is problematic because it steers the debate on climate change towards agenda items where the mandate and the legitimacy of the UNSC are contested. If climate is indeed a threat multiplier that undermines international peace, it follows that the UNSC has the mandate to issue binding resolutions and take preventive actions. Thus, when member states such as the UK, US and France portray global warming as an “existential security threat,” they are indeed creating the pre-conditions to make climate change a responsibility of the Council. This push toward securitisation is, however, contrasted by Russia, China, and India, which dispute that climate is a predominant cause of conflict and argue that treating it as such will hinder future solutions.
It should be noted that the scientific evidence on the conflict climate change nexus is somewhat inconsistent. The IPCC has assessed in the Fifth Assessment Report that “collectively the research does not conclude that there is a strong positive relationship between warming and armed conflict.” Indeed, despite the activism of a few member states, the UNSC as a whole has been rather cautious in addressing the security implications of global warming. So far, it has only acknowledged that, in the realm of possibilities, there might be a hypothetical link between the adverse effects of climate change and international peace and security. Moreover, the UNSC has specified in several documents that conflict is a multi-dimensional phenomenon that cannot be reduced to a single variable (i.e., climate). Yet, in the ever-simplified political discourses of UNSC debates, these nuances often fade and give way to sensationalist oversimplifications that misinterpret the complex relationship between climate and socio-environmental conflicts.
The case of the United Kingdom illustrates well the perils of securitisation. The concept notes that the UK circulated before the open debate on February 23 make a case for UNSC preventive action by drawing a correlation between climate change, state fragility, and violent conflict. This simplistic correlation was then further simplified during the open debate when Prime Minister Boris Johnson used parables as rhetorical devices to further dramatise the conflict potential of climate change. Johnson, for example, asked us to think of a young man “forced onto the road when his home becomes a desert,” who then “goes to some camp” and “becomes easy prey for violent extremists.” Or, in another example, he asked us to think of a farmer “who has lost harvest after harvest to drought and then switches to poppy because poppies are a hardier crop.” Both cases, he remarked, pose a threat to international security because extremism and poppies will eventually find a way to “the streets of all our cities.”
The examples provided by the UK are compelling but unfounded. Not only do they ignore that violence is always multi-causal, but they also fail to consider that adaptive responses to climate change often lead to positive adjustments and cooperation. Ultimately, these gross simplifications of the relationship between climate and security that we see in some political statements at the UNSC provide a fertile ground for accusations of fear-mongering and securitisation. These accusations, in turn, delegitimise the UNSC and undermine the healthy process of climatisation of security.
As a pushback to securitisation, several members, including Russia and China, are suggesting that climate change would be better addressed outside of the UNSC, possibly in multilateral forums. If this happens, it would be a loss for everyone. Peace and security can only be sustainable if they account for environmental factors. Peacebuilding, for example, is a future-oriented process that cannot afford to be climate blind. Indeed, despite the resistance to address the topic, the UNSC has already included some climate change considerations in several resolutions (res. 2349, 2408, 2423, 2429) and requested that governments and agencies involved incorporate climate change in their risk assessments.
These resolutions, however, are not the norm. For instance, in March 2020, the UNSC has not included considerations on climate change in its resolution on South Sudan, even though the country is highly exposed to the adverse impacts of global warming. This inconsistency does not come as a surprise as the UNSC still lacks benchmarks and standards to deal with climate change. Working in this direction, Germany and the Group of Friends of Climate and Security proposed in 2020 a plan of action to operationalise climate change in the Council. The plan called for, among other things, the appointment of a Special Envoy on Climate and Security, regular reporting on climate change, and climate-sensitive peacebuilding. Unfortunately, the plan has not yet been adopted by the UNSC as it is seen by some member states as a dangerous expansion of the UNSC responsibilities.
In conclusion, it appears that the UNSC is at a turning point. High-level political debates on the link between conflict and climate are not going anywhere. Instead, they are alienating member states and undermining the legitimacy of the institution. Meanwhile, the real and tangible environmental dimensions of peacekeeping and peacebuilding are not properly addressed. It is therefore hoped that, moving forward, member states will work to address the actual impact of climate on security rather than speculating on its potential threats. In other words, it appears that the UNSC needs less securitisation and more climatisation.
Cesare M. Scartozzi is a PhD candidate at the University of Tokyo working on climate change and security. He also acts as editor-in-chief of Global Politics Review and as director of the Association for Social Sciences, Research and Innovation. A list of his publications is available at www.scartozzi.eu.