The Security Council and Climate Change – Too Hot to Handle?

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The Security Council, the only body of the United Nations that can adopt binding coercive measures, has so far been reluctant to train its sight at climate change. As the consequences of climate change become ever more severe, an important question is therefore whether the Security Council will address the security implications of climate change.

Article 24 of the UN Charter gives the Security Council primary responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security. The Council’s classic domain has been interstate armed conflict. Starting in the early 90s, the Council began to show a greater willingness to prescribe measures also in internal situations of humanitarian emergency, thereby articulating a new approach to what constitutes a threat to international peace and security (clearly described in Presidential Statement S/23500, 31 January 1992).

The purpose of this post is to examine whether we can expect a similar evolution when it comes to climate change. In doing so, we must distinguish between three different ways in which the Council can address climate change.

First, the Council can address climate change as part of its general response to conflict situations. Ongoing hostilities in Libya, South Sudan, Yemen and Syria were all catalyzed by extraordinary droughts, storms and extreme flooding, which caused economic and political turmoil and instability. Yet, all these conflicts are recurring items on the Security Council’s agenda. Seen this way, the Council has already shown its aptitude to deal with the immediate security implications of climate change as part of its conflict management agenda.

Second, the Council can proscribe targeted measures to prevent climate change as an independent driver of conflict. This is arguably very different than merely tackling the violent effects of climate change without addressing climate directly. Third, the Council can address security implications of climate change occurring outside of conflict. This is an especially acute problem for most of the so-called Small Island Developing States (SIDS), whose very existence are threatened by sea-level rise, hurricanes and dwindling natural resources. Their remote geographical location and small populations suggest that the situation in those states could gradually deteriorate without causing much conflict or international instability.

The focus of the remainder of the post will be on the Council’s ability to address climate change directly, both as an independent driver of or unrelated to conflict.

The Security Council debates

It was only in 2007 that the Council held its first ever debate about the security impacts of climate change. The session was chaired by then British Foreign Secretary, Margaret Beckett. She referred to climate change as “exacerbating many threats, including conflict” and underlined that the Council needed to “build a shared understanding of the relationship between energy, security and climate”. Papua New Guinea, who spoke on behalf of the Pacific Small Island and Developing States, said that the “impact of climate change on small islands was no less threatening than the dangers guns and bombs posed to large nations”.

Other countries expressed doubts over whether the Security Council was the appropriate body to discuss climate change. The Chinese representative said that climate change “could have certain security implications, but, generally speaking, it was, in essence, an issue of sustainable development”.  Pakistan, speaking for the so-called “Group of 77”, a broad coalition of developing countries, was also not convinced that the Security Council was the right forum. Russia said, tellingly, that the “Council should only deal with issues under its mandate”. 

Not until 2011 did the Council return to the topic of climate change and security, this time in an open debate initiated by Germany. By now, the Obama administration had made combating climate change an integral part of US foreign policy and was advocating increasingly for a more assertive role for the Council. But amongst the sceptics, the debate only showed incremental change towards accepting a greater role for the Security Council. Russia and China were still adamant that climate change was predominately a development issue, outside the purview of the Security Council.

For the Pacific Small Island Developing States the security implications of climate change fell squarely within the Council’s mandate. In a clear call to action, the President of Nauru, Marcus Stephen, described climate change as being as serious a threat as nuclear proliferation and terrorism and urged the Council to coordinate the requisite international response.

The Council did agree to a Presidential Statement (S/PRST/2011/15), but it contained concessions to those opposed to a more engaged Security Council. After protracted negotiations, the Council could only bring itself to say that “the possible adverse effects of climate change may, in the long run, aggravate certain existing threats to international peace and security” (emphasis added). The statement was silent about potential measures by the Council to mitigate security effects caused by climate change. Ambassador Susan Rice from the United States likely spoke for many when she described the statement as “pathetic”.

Climate Change and Conflict in the Recent Work of the Council: Lake Chad and Somalia

An important development came with Resolution 2349, adopted unanimously by the Council on 31 March 2017. The resolution concerned the security situation in the Lake Chad Basin region. In operative paragraph 26 the Council:

“Recognises the adverse effects of climate change and ecological changes among other factors on the stability of the Region, including through water scarcity, drought, desertification, land degradation, and food insecurity, and emphasises the need for adequate risk assessments and risk management strategies by governments and the United Nations relating to these factors;”

And when the Council on 27 March 2018 adopted Resolution 2408 to extend the mandate of the United Nations Assistance Mission in Somalia (UNSOM), it included an almost identical paragraph, this time related to the stability of Somalia.  

Resolution 2349 and 2408 are interesting primarily for three reasons. First, they contain the first recognition by the Council that there is a clear correlation between the effects of climate change and regional and national stability. Second, by specifically addressing climate change the Council confirmed its willingness and competence to deal with the issue. Third, the Security Council for the first time encouraged governments to take active measures to manage the adverse effects of climate change. Erik Solheim, Executive Director of United Nations Environmental Program, has referred to the resolutions as “a breakthrough in the fight against climate change”.

One should be careful not to exaggerate the ramifications of the resolutions. The climate measures were not prescribed as legally binding obligations. Instead, the Council did little more than nudge the governments into taking action against climate change. And the Council seemingly focused on managing the effects of climate change, not combating climate change as such. It is also worth noting that the Sahel region and Somalia are both areas with on-going armed conflict and that the Security Council’s focus on climate change occurred in that context. For the Small Islands and Developing States and other states where the risk of conflict is remote, the resolutions might therefore hold limited relevance.

Addressing Climate Change Outside of Conflict

Where there is no impending conflict, the Council has thus far been reluctant to call on states to enact climate measures. However, the Council’s handling of other non-conventional security threats indicates that this could change. Below are three examples of particular salience.

In Resolution 1983, adopted in 2011, the Council considered the impact of HIV/AIDS on international peace and security. The Council recognized that HIV was “one of the most formidable challenges” to the development, progress and stability of societies and required an “exceptional and comprehensive” global response. The Council welcomed and encouraged cooperation among Member States to achieve sustainable HIV and AIDS prevention.

In response to a deadly Ebola outbreak in Africa, the Council, in 2014, adopted Resolution 2177, characterizing the epidemic as a threat to international peace and security. The Council highlighted the:

“stability of the most affected countries concerned [that], unless contained, may lead to further instances of civil unrest, social tensions and a deterioration of the political and security climate…”.

In a string of operative paragraphs, the Council called on the international community to provide various kinds of assistance and resources to support the affected countries.

When Haiti in 2010 was hit by a devastating earthquake, with death tolls estimates as high as 300 000, the Council adopted Resolution 1908, which expanded the mandate of the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH) “to support the immediate recovery, reconstruction and stability efforts undertaken by the Government of Haiti. The ceiling of the military component of MINUSTAH was raised from 6,940 to 8,940 troops, while the limits of the police component was increased from 2,211 to 3,711 personnel. Although MINUSTAH was initially dispatched to restore security in Haiti following widespread violence and civil unrest, the Council’s expansion of military and police personnel was solely in response to the earthquake.  

In sum, the three resolutions represent a noteworthy development. By addressing HIV, Ebola and a particularly deadly earthquake as issues of international peace and security the Council expanded its traditional area of competence beyond the limited sphere of armed conflict.


The Council is still far from taking assertive steps against climate change. But the trend lines are clear. The Council has now, unequivocally, recognized the international security implications of climate change and, on two occasions, highlighted the need for governments to take active measures to manage the adverse effects of climate change.

Based on statements given during the open debates in 2007 and 2011 and Resolution 2349, it seems that the Council still views climate change through the lens of conflict prevention. This is in keeping with the Council’s traditional role. For those most threatened by climate change, such as the Small Island and Developing States, this is still deeply concerning. The Council’s responses to HIV, Ebola in Africa and the 2010 Haiti earthquake, however, indicate that it might be willing to address climate change also outside of conflict, should the security effects of climate change become clearer and more hazardous.

If the Council decides to act against climate change, it has a wide range of measures at its disposal. It could oblige countries to take climate friendly actions, including legislative measures, enact sanctions against individuals or entities that fail to comply with international environmental standards, and issue condemnations of certain behavior or inaction.

Some might argue that this is all wishful thinking and that the chances of decisive Council action are bleak. But the Council does, after all, have primary responsibility for international security. Can it remain credible without addressing the biggest security threat of our time?  

Editor’s Note: The views and opinions expressed in this post are the author’s own and should not be attributed to the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

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