The UNSC and climate change: a debatable mandate

Aug 18 2011
VERTIC Blog >> Environment

Rebecca Pryce, London

On 20 July 2011, the UN Security Council again held a debate on whether climate change is a threat to international peace and security. If it found so, the Council would be free to use its powers under the UN Charter to address it. The first such meeting in four years revealed new issues and cast a different light on the more familiar ones. What was the outcome of these discussions, and how did the Council see its role?

The United States, with other Western countries, wanted the Council to adopt a statement accepting that climate change represents a clear threat to international peace and security. Its attempt, however, was unsuccessful, as both Russia and several developing states were sceptical of the argument. Russia, for instance, could only accept that climate change had ‘possible security implications’. This fell short of Western positions, and eventually led to a largely inconclusive meeting.

Cumbersome multilateralism...
The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) was opened for signature in 1992. It was intended as the primary forum for dealing with climate change. The goal of the convention is to stabilise the concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere at a level that prevents dangerous human interference with the climate. The treaty does not contain any compulsory limits on greenhouse gases. It also has no enforcement rules. Additional protocols, such as the Kyoto Protocol, instead sets binding emission limits.

The highest decision making body within the convention is the Conference of Parties (COP). It is made up of all the countries who have ratified the convention. The COP meets yearly and is led by a president. The president plays a key role in maintaining discussions among the attendees and in facilitating agreement among the parties. The presidency is not permanent, but rather rotates among five regions: Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean, Central and Eastern Europe, and Western Europe and others. The conference usually makes decisions by consensus. However, amendments to the convention text can be done with a qualified majority vote. No country holds a veto.

…versus nimble minilateralism
By contrast, the UN Security Council has five permanent and ten elected member states. The UN General Assembly elects the rotating states for a two-year term period. The Council only needs nine affirmative votes to decide on substantive matters. The five permanent members also needs to vote in favour. Having fewer states involved mean that it’s easier to reach consensus. Security Council decisions may also, in certain circumstances, be legally binding on all UN member states. This ability to create legally binding norms quickly makes the Council an appealing venue. However, its exclusiveness also means that not all stakeholders may accept its findings, which in the longer run may risk undermining the Council’s credibility and effectiveness.

The United States’ main argument is that the Council is, in fact, in the best position to face the challenges posed by climate change. Climate change is not a distant threat, but a current security concern because of its impact on food prices, shortages in water, migration and public safety. The Council’s resolutions are legally binding, and immediately so. This means that Council action may bring about real and immediate change. The US ambassador, Ms Susan Rice, noted her disappointment of the UNFCCC process’s inability to reach consensus on climate change. She made an roundabout reference to previous Council action on international terrorism and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. In her view, that action had highlighted the Council’s impressive ability to tackle new threats to international peace and security.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon strongly supported the US position. He argued that the fact is clear: climate change is a threat to international peace and security and not just another exacerbating factor in the deterioration of international security. He stressed the need for ‘ambitious targets’ to ensure that global temperatures remain below 2°C. The Council could therefore play a significant role in mobilizing international action on climate change.

The views of the front-line states...
The President of the Republic of Nauru, speaking for Pacific Small Island Developing States, also supported a UN Security Council mandate on climate change. The President highlighted that the rising sea levels were eroding the coastline, ‘damaging critical infrastructure’, and that the resulting loss of land could spark disputes over land and other resources. The President also reminded those present that ‘some islands may disappear altogether, and with them thousands of years of cultural heritage [which] would force large numbers of our citizens to relocate.’ As the Security Council deals with unconventional security threats, it should deal with global warming since it ‘carries the potential to destabilize Governments and ignite conflict’.

Palauan Ambassador Stuart Beck, associating himself with Nauru, said that the Security Council has been mandated to act in response to crucial international tasks with a “limitless” mandate, something which should be uncontroversial. Agreeing with the Secretary-General, he expressed surprise over opposition to Security Council action as peace and security are being threatened.

...versus those in development
Representatives from Russia and developing countries such as India and China rallied against the proposed statement. The main argument made against the resolution did not revolve around whether climate change represents a threat to international peace and security. The arguments instead focused on whether the UNSC is a useful, or correct, place for these concerns. In these regards, the makeup of the UN Security Council has remained a bone of contention for many nations. The exclusive rights of the permanent members raise much criticism. Also, the south believes the North should take the lead in combating climate change, a key aspect of the Kyoto Protocol, but not necessarily through the Council.

The Bolivian representative argued that as the permanent members of the Security Council are some of the largest emitters of greenhouse gases, they may not be the best decision makers for climate change issues. Instead he believed that the security aspect of climate change should be dealt with in a forum where the ‘guilty’ States do not control the right to veto. It should be discussed in a forum where the main victims are adequately represented.

Chinese Ambassador Wang Min followed a different line of argument, stating that climate change was fundamentally a sustainable development issue and not a security threat. As a result, he argued that the Security Council is not the correct body for dealing with climate change. It simply lacks the necessary expertise.

End game
The final statement expressed ‘concern’ over possible impacts of climate change on international peace and security. This dismissed the views of, for instance, President Marcus Stephen of Nauru. The Council did, however, accept that climate change could be a future threat to international peace and security. And the outcome also highlighted fundamental differences in how countries choose to address the climate change challenge.

Finally, the statement confirmed that the UNFCCC remains the most important arena for addressing the problem. Many states do not want the debate to move away from the COP. This view may change, however, as the prospect that radical climate change may destabilize international security increases with time.

This latter observation should give delegates to the September 2011 Durban COP pause for thought. The relevance of the UNFCCC process depends on its ability to deliver concrete results. If those results fail to materialize, the UN Security Council may ultimately feel compelled to take action. Its July meeting may have been inconclusive, but it is hardly its last on the matter.

Last changed: Aug 18 2011 at 6:09 PM