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UN Security Council Debates Security Impacts of Climate Change

20 July 2011: The UN Security Council held its second thematic debate on “Maintenance of international peace and security: the impact of climate change,” on 20 July 2011, in New York, US. Many delegates expressed concern that adverse effects of climate change could aggravate existing threats to international peace and security. While noting that the loss of territory in some States due to sea-level rise, particularly in small, low-lying island States, could have security implications, the Security Council could not agree that it had a role to play in this regard.

In a concept note circulated before the debate, Germany, as President of the Security Council, noted that since the Council's first debate on this topic, in 2007, awareness of the potential security implications of climate change has increased. Germany said consideration of the security implications of climate change was consistent with the Council's mandate to maintain international peace and security. Citing the 2009 Report of the UN Secretary-General (A/64/350), Germany also highlighted the “ultimate security threat” of sea-level rise for some small island States, and the related potential consequences of forced migration and social and political tensions, which could derail efforts in peacebuilding and post-conflict stabilization.

Opening the debate, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon reiterated his assertion in 2007 that a Security Council debate on climate change was appropriate and essential. He said climate change "not only exacerbates threats to international peace and security, it is a threat to international peace and security," and that members of the Council have a "unique responsibility" to mobilize action to confront the threats posed by climate changes to international peace and security. Ban called for the accelerated operationalization of the Cancun agreements, including on forest protection, adaptation and technology. Ban further noted the need for the upcoming Durban Climate Change Conference to make progress on climate finance, and to move from a conceptual discussion to concrete delivery of “fast start” financing and agreement on sources of long-term financing. He urged Durban to "provide a clear step forward" in terms of mitigation commitments, underlining that "developed countries must lead, while emerging economies must shoulder their fair share."

Achim Steiner, Executive Director of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), said climate change acts as a "multiplier" to existing threats including competition over water and land. He argued that sea-level rise represents a key threat to security.

Approximately 65 speakers took the floor during the debate, presenting opposing views over a question posed by Germany - how the Council could address such scenarios within its mandate. Speakers differed over whether the Council should consider climate change or if it should be left to other UN organs traditionally charged with climate and sustainable development matters, in particular the UNFCCC, the UN General Assembly and the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC).

The United States began the debate noting that the Council had been unable, in negotiations preceding the debate, to reach consensus on a presidential statement that climate change had the potential to impact international peace and security, despite “manifest evidence," and despite requests for this recognition from many countries whose existence was threatened. She said, “this is more than disappointing.  It's pathetic."

Marcus Stephen, President of Nauru, speaking on behalf of the Pacific Small Island Developing States (PSIDS), as well as the Maldives, Seychelles and Timor-Leste, underscored that climate change impacts threaten the survival of many countries. Noting that some islands could disappear altogether, forcing large numbers of peoples to relocate, he emphasized that "solidarity demanded more than sympathetic words," urging the formal recognition by the Security Council that climate change is a threat to international peace and security.

Bolivia called for the creation of an international tribunal for climate and environmental justice to sanction countries that do not comply with emission reduction commitments. He further proposed a Council resolution to cut global defense and security spending by 20 percent and channel the subsequent savings into addressing climate change.

Brazil and China, among others, outlined their objections to considering climate change within the Security Council. Brazil suggested that the challenges of climate change did not necessarily require a security response, and China said climate change was a sustainable development issue, which the Council did not have the means and resources to address.

The day-long debate concluded with a statement from the Security Council recognizing the responsibility for climate change and other sustainable development issues conferred upon the General Assembly and ECOSOC, and underlining the Assembly's 2009 resolution reaffirming the UNFCCC as the key instrument for addressing climate change. The statement also noted that “conflict analysis and contextual information” on the “possible security implications of climate change,” inter alia, is important when climate issues drive conflict, challenge implementation of Council mandates or endanger peace processes. The Council therefore asked the UN Secretary-General to ensure that his reporting to the Council contains such contextual information. [Concept Note for Debate] [UN Press Release] [Statement of UN Secretary-General] [Statement of UNEP Executive Director] [UN Security Council Summary of Debate] [Webcast of Debate (Part I)] [Webcast of Debate (Part II)]