The UN Security Council and global action on climate change

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Climate change has long been recognized as constituting a threat to international security. The 1988 Toronto Conference, which marked the beginning of intergovernmental cooperation on climate change, acknowledged in its conference statement that changes to the earth’s atmosphere ‘represent a major threat to international security’. More recently, research has pointed both to the threat posed directly by extreme storms, drought, rising sea levels and floods but also by indirect impacts, such as those on human health, displacement and migration, and conflict. In each of these scenarios, climate change serves as an ‘underlying metadriver of unpredictable instability. To date, however, even discussion of the climate issue by the United Nations Security Council has been contentious

Global governance responses to climate change remain centred on the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) regime, emanating from the UN General Assembly. In the same year that the Toronto Conference declared climate change a threat to international security, the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) declared climate change to be a ‘common concern of mankind’, setting in place a tension that has existed ever since – between the UN Security Council as the apex of the international security institutional architecture and the UNFCCC regime founded on the principle of ‘Common But Differentiated Responsibilities’ (CBDR). Many still espouse the view that the Council lacks the legitimacy to take action in the climate change policy arena.

The complex nature of the climate change governance challenge means, however, that the issue and/or its consequences now also feature on the agenda of an ever-increasing array of international institutions, including the G20, International Maritime Organization, World Bank and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. There has been growing recognition of the need for far-reaching, complementary efforts requiring enhanced coordination on the part of all international institutions; the most recent report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) pointed to the need in climate change governance to ‘maximise potential institutional synergies’.

The need for institutional coordination is set to increase. Relevant recent advances in climate science point to the possibility of reaching future social and political tipping points that would constitute multifaceted and multiscalar global crises. Absent dramatically greater policy success than hitherto, the question of whether it would be legitimate for the Council to respond to climate change might well be reversed at such a point to the question of how the Council could legitimately and realistically refuse to contribute to governance solutions. This makes it particularly apposite to consider what constructive steps the Council could take to better prepare for the possibility of at some point needing to assume the role of global crisis coordinating body responding to the direct and indirect consequences of a warming planet.

This volume seeks to contribute to just such a discussion. This chapter first traces the evolution of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) to demonstrate that there is a history of the Council tackling new dimensions of international security and developing new tools and processes with which to do so. The chapter then investigates the historical evolution of consideration of climate change by the Council and the gradual shift that has taken place from the issue of whether the Council has any legitimate role to play, to that of how best the Council might make a contribution and, how best it might relate its efforts to those being taken by other international, and indeed national and local, actors. This chapter lays the groundwork for the more detailed consideration of specific Council tools in subsequent chapters.

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Edward Elgar


Shirley V. Scott & Charlotte Ku

Book Title

Climate Change and the UN Security Council