Climate Security at the UNSC: Opportunities for US Action in March

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Caitlin Werrell, Co-Founder and President of the Center for Climate and Security, presents the Responsibility to Prepare framework to the UN Security Council – Dec 15, 2017

By Erin Sikorsky, Steve Brock, Francesco Femia, Rachel Fleishman, and Caitlin Werrell

“No one country can solve the climate crisis on its own. It’s exactly the kind of challenge the United Nations was created to solve.” – U.S. Special Envoy John Kerry, UNSC High Level Meeting on Climate Security

On February 23, the UK capped off its February Presidency of the UN Security Council (UNSC) by hosting a high-level meeting on climate security, chaired by Prime Minister Boris Johnson. At the meeting, Johnson noted, “it is absolutely clear that climate change is a threat to our collective security and the security of our nations….climate change is a geopolitical issue every bit as much as it is an environmental one. And if this Council is going to succeed in maintaining peace and security worldwide then it’s got to galvanise the whole range of UN agencies and organisations into a swift and effective response.” 

What might such a swift and effective response look like? As the United States assumes the UNSC Presidency in March, it has an opportunity to turn the speeches at the UK-led meeting into lasting action. The Presidency will be Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield’s first chance to advance President Biden’s repeated pledges to put climate change at the center of U.S. foreign policy. Possible activities the US could consider, in support of its broader whole-of-government strategy as outlined in the Executive Order on the climate crisis, are the following: 

  • Arrange a formal, public meeting and/or informal “consultations of the whole” where the UNSC President uses its prerogative to call UN officials to formally brief on climate security. This briefing could feature officials from the political affairs and peace-keeping departments to demonstrate the importance of understanding climate risks within all parts of the UN, not just those formally tasked with managing it. 
  • Call an Informal Interactive Dialogue, which allows participation by non-members, with Pacific Island Forum (PIF) states. The PIF states have long sought a hearing at the UN on the existential threat of sea-level rise. 
  • Call an Arria Formula meeting with climate security focused NGOs, experts, climate-concerned non UNSC member states, designed as a foundation for driving a robust climate security agenda. The Center for Climate and Security’s Caitlin Werrell presented its The Responsibility to Prepare and Prevent (R2P2) framework to such a meeting in 2017.
  • The month could culminate with the issuance of a “Presidential Statement on Climate Security,” detailing key aspects for further action. Alternatively, an official Presidential Press Statement, written and verbal, could be issued. This could be used to set the stage for further action in the coming months at President Biden’s April 22 climate summit, as well as at the G7, G20 and of course, COP26. 

While the UNSC Presidency provides an opportunity to shine the spotlight on climate security, there are additional steps the US and its allies and partners can advance to integrate climate security into UN institutions and processes. These are longer-term actions, and will require sustained commitment and coalition building to enact. As outlined in a previous Council on Strategic Risks blog post, there is currently an appetite for such transformational action among many current UNSC members. Recommendations in this realm draw from the Center for Climate and Security’s Responsibility to Prepare and Prevent framework, and include:

  • The official integration of climate security considerations in each UN mission’s semi-annual report to the Secretary General and the UNSC. Each Force Commander could also be tasked with including climate security considerations in their annual briefings. 
  • The establishment of multiple regional Climate Security Crisis Watch Centers which feed into a UN wide Climate Security Crisis Watch Center. Such centers would have the triple benefits of cultivating a shared data-driven community; giving regional organizations a role in the success of a global climate security data network; and connecting these organizations through their common mission. 
  • The establishment by the UNSC or UN General Assembly (GA) of a climate and security mandate. The Secretary General could exercise his authority under that mandate to appoint a Special Representative of the Secretary General for Climate Security as part of the Special Advisors, Representatives and Envoys construct. In the absence of a UN climate and security mandate, like-minded member states should encourage the Secretary General to appoint a Personal Representative for Climate Security.
  • Further building out an institutional structure through the creation of an office for climate and security within the Department of Political and Peacebuilding Affairs at the Assistant Secretary General-level, a division for climate and security within the Department of Peace Operations, and a climate security unit within the Office of Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. 
  • Any climate and security organizational entity established should work closely with the Secretary General’s Special Advisor for Climate Action, currently dual hatted as the  Assistant Secretary General for the UN Climate Action Team.

While a climate security framework will be easily accepted by   some UN actors, it may be met with skepticism by others. The US should therefore seek to work closely with other UN member states to help generate broad support. This support will be especially critical in the UN General Assembly’s Fifth Committee which has authority over budget and management issues.  Addressing climate security successfully will require the same level of discipline and rigor as are afforded other critical security issues, including full integration into training, education, situational assessments, planning and operations. 

Action on climate security at the UN should be just one aspect of a broader US climate security strategy. It is an important aspect, however, particularly given President Biden’s commitment to centering the issue across US foreign, development and security policy. Institutionalizing analysis and consideration of climate security risks throughout the UN will help the organization meet its mission to maintain international peace and security.


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