Climate Change and the UN Security Council Georgetown International Environmental Law Review


Climate Change and the UN Security Council

By David Skawin, Staff Contributor

As the world becomes increasingly aware of the negative effects of climate change, nations have searched for various ways to combat the problem.  Recently, the international community embarked on a more unusual path, using the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) as a vehicle for addressing climate change.

The UNSC is the only organ of the UN that is able to issue binding resolutions, including those calling for military action, to member states.  It consists of fifteen member-nations, five permanent and ten non-permanent, and may act when it decides a situation might endanger “international peace and security.”  Usually, this power is wielded in the face of armed conflicts.  But in 2007, the UNSC held its first ever debate on the impact of climate change on peace and security.

“In 2007, the [UN Security Council] held its first ever debate on the impact of climate change on peace and security.”

The meeting focused on “the relationship between energy, security and climate.”  The proponents for action pointed towards scientists’ assessments that worsening climate change will lead to a plethora of problems: water scarcity, famine, disease, flooding, and mass migration.  The chair of the session, British Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett, called for a unified “long-term global response” by the UNSC and other international bodies.  Beckett emphasized that the problem is not a narrow one, but rather one that implicates “our collective security in a fragile and increasingly interdependent world.”

Opponents of UNSC action, such as China, Russia, and South Africa, raised doubts as to whether the Security Council is an appropriate venue for debate on climate change.  China questioned whether the Council has the “the professional competence in handling climate change.” Pakistan, on behalf of the “Group of 77,” a contingent of developing nations opposed to UNSC action on climate change, stated that issues regarding economic development “were assigned to the Economic and Social Council and the General Assembly.”  Pakistan went on to articulate its belief that this was an example of the UNSC’s “ever-increasing encroachment . . . on the roles and responsibilities of the other main organs of the United Nations . . .,” which “compromised the rights of the Organization’s wider membership.”

Since the initial debate in 2007, very little progress has been made.  In 2011, at a special meeting of the UNSC, the idea of an environmental peace keeping force, “Green Helmets,” was floated, and ultimately shot down.  Proponents, including the Pentagon, called for ambitious steps towards tackling climate change, a “threat multiplier” that could intensify regional destabilization by escalating existing conflicts while also creating new ones.  But a familiar cadre of nations proved resistant to any Security Council action, fearful that any resolution would disproportionately impact their interests.

“Since the initial debate in 2007, very little progress has been made.”

Most recently, in 2013, the UNSC met to discuss global warming.  But the meeting was prevented from having any actual effect once Russia and China vetoed it from being a formal session.  Both countries, as permanent members of the Security Council (along with the United States, France, and the United Kingdom), have the right to unilaterally veto any substantive UNSC action.  The battle lines and talking points in the 2013 meeting mimicked those of the 2011 meeting.

Despite such divisions, almost all countries agree that climate change is a legitimate issue that requires attention.  Using the UNSC as a conduit for action on climate change has proved to be a tempting idea because of the Council’s potential to effectuate more change than any other international body, but it holds little promise in my opinion.  The veto empowers China and Russia, two long-standing opponents to the idea, to singlehandedly halt any UNSC resolution.  China in particular believes it is disingenuous of Western countries, which have already reaped the benefits of industrial development, to disallow currently developing countries from using similar means to grow.  And although climate change proponents’ recommendations are not designed to be malicious towards developing countries, there is an important point to be made.  The notion of a body, that is in the de facto control of only five nations, forcing other, often weaker, nations to act in a way they disagree with, is anathema to national sovereignty, a long-cherished principle enshrined within the UN Charter itself.

“Using the UNSC as a conduit for action on climate change . . . holds little promise in my opinion.” 

Obviously, without the concerted and mandatory efforts to address climate change that the proponents of UNSC action seek, we risk not just increased global instability, but the disappearance of whole island nations, to name just one potential climate change-induced catastrophe.  But the answer needs to come from a more inclusive coalition of nations.  Whether that means a UNSC resolution, an international treaty, or action through regional organizations, any solution must be more understanding of the needs and interests of a wider membership of the world’s nations if the proposal is to have any chance of truly affecting change.