The Global Response to Climate Change: Can the Security Council Assume a Lead Role?

By Scott, Shirley V.; Andrade, Roberta C. D. | The Brown Journal of World Affairs, Spring 2012 | Go to article overview

The Global Response to Climate Change: Can the Security Council Assume a Lead Role?


Scott, Shirley V., Andrade, Roberta C. D., The Brown Journal of World Affairs


The United Nations Security Council has held two debates on climate change. The first in April 2007 was an open debate about the relationship between energy, climate, and security under the chairmanship of the United Kingdom. The second debate was held in July 2011 under German leadership. Both debates revealed contrasting opinions as to whether climate change should be regarded as a security threat, and the Council did not pass a resolution on either occasion. Nevertheless, a statement issued by the President of the Security Council in 2011 suggests that the Council may be edging closer to assuming a lead role in the global response to climate change.

This possibility raises several questions, which will be considered in turn. First, it must be determined whether climate change fits within the appropriate scope of subject matter of concern to the Council. Second, the type of action the Council might take if it were to make a decision must be considered. Third, it must be assessed whether a more decisive role for the Council in climate change governance would likely be effective in reducing the international security threat posed by global warming.

CLIMATE CHANGE AS A THREAT TO INTERNATIONAL SECURITY

There are two ways in which climate change threatens human security on a global scale. First, climate change can exacerbate already existing tensions, resulting in mass displacement, migration, and potential armed conflict. This is particularly true in those countries already facing a high risk of political instability due to social, economic, and political deprivation. Countries such as Brazil, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, and Turkey face a high risk of armed conflict likely to be exacerbated by climate change consequences.1 We have already witnessed climate-related conflict. Desertification and land degradation were major factors in the conflict in Darfur. Competition for water resources and land has been an ongoing cause of tension in the region, and has become even more difficult to contain due to drought and resource shortages.2 Drought also served as an important factor in the crisis in Somalia.3

This conceptualization of climate change as an indirect security threat is not far removed from the traditional understanding of a security threat focused on armed conflict. In this case, the threat comes from armed conflict rather than from the climate change impacts that have exacerbated them. In this conceptualization, climate change acts as a "threat multiplier," a factor that exacerbates existing tensions.

The second way in which climate change threatens international security is through the direct impact of rising sea levels, extreme weather events, and other climate change consequences. A one-meter sea-level rise is likely to adversely impact the economy and infrastructure of virtually every coastal city.4 Increasing temperatures may also facilitate the spread of disease and result in crop losses.5 Such phenomena threaten the survival and well-being of people as well as the territorial integrity of states, even in the absence of conflict. Sea-level rise may mean that the population of whole islands, and in certain cases whole states, including potentially Tuvalu and the Maldives, must be evacuated. Kiribati, a country consisting of 33 islands and atolls about two meters above sea level, recently purchased land in Fiji. Although the exact intentions of the Kiribati Government are unclear at this stage, indications are that the land may be used for relocation as a last resort.6

The direct impact of climate change on human security is likely to be worst in developing states that lack the capacity to prepare adequately for, or to respond to, extreme weather events and rising sea levels, but rich countries will not be spared. This conceptualization of climate change as a security threat differs from the former in that the threat does not emanate from violence, but rather comes directly from the environment. …

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