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Flags of member nations flying at United Nations Headquarters. 

Climate Change, Conflict, and the Global Community


This is part four in an article series discussing climate change, conflict, and the role of the United Nations Security Council. Read part one here, part two here, and part three here.


On December 15, 2017, a group of United Nations (UN) member states and global leaders called an Arria-formula meeting of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) titled “Climate Change: Preparing for the Security Implications of Rising Temperatures.” A panel of climate change experts engaged the UNSC in a conversation about climate change and its effect on conflict and security. The panel held the meeting specifically to call the UNSC to action in assessing and combating the detrimental human effects of climate change now and in the future. This article will analyze the comments made by member states at the meeting regarding the assessment of climate change as a threat to security, and whether the UNSC should be at the forefront of addressing climate caused conflict.  


Concerned member states and civil society leaders called the December 2017 Arria-formula meeting in an effort to convince the UNSC that climate change is an urgent threat to security and therefore should be a UNSC priority. The Minister of Sweden spoke extensively on the need for swift and effective cooperation, emphasizing that there is no more room for denial or procrastination. He called for multilateral action and streamlined communication between the field and the UNSC. Many speakers agreed with the minister and offered documents like the Paris Agreement as a step toward a holistic solution.


Not all UNSC members and attendees were on board, however. After providing a list of the ways that their individual governments are attempting to combat climate change within their respective borders, both China and Russia argued that the Security Council does not have the time, knowledge, or resources to commit to the speakers’ demands.


Although the United States did not make a verbal comment at the Arria-formula meeting, their recent interactions with the global community have shown what kind of consideration the current administration gives to international cooperation. Their silence at this meeting still made a statement, proclaiming the US-centric attitude that has been pervading many of the country’s recent political decisions, especially in the international context. In June 2017 the United States announced their intention to withdraw from the Paris Agreement, with President Donald Trump stating that document “disadvantages the United States to the exclusive benefit of other countries.” The United States also disengaged from the UN’s process of constructing the Global Compact for Migration recently, with US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley citing similar concerns. The Global Compact, like the Paris Agreement, is never intended to be legally binding, and the United States left the process long before the document existed even in zero draft form.


Despite the dissent from large veto-armed powers, most member states remain adamant in their demand for acknowledgment, collaboration, and action addressing climate change and conflict. Speakers at the Arria-formula meeting made it clear that climate change is no longer a theory, nor is it a naturally occurring phenomenon. Its effects are both tangible and discreet, capable of traversing national borders and adding danger and destruction to already fragile situations. The statements at this meeting proved that the majority of UN member states, including almost all members of the Security Council, see climate change as a threat to security and are willing to work together to combat that threat.


At the beginning of January, the Permanent Representative of Kazakhstan to the UN Kairat Umarov became the President of the UNSC for the year of 2018. In his first briefing with civil society, Umarov referred to climate change as a “global security matter,” and stressed that agricultural workers were losing their livelihoods to drought and other “man-made catastrophes.” His other statements on the topic were not worded as strongly, but still presented a sense of urgency and responsibility.


“We need to think about how to employ people,” Umarov said during the meeting, “but employ them in a way that will [help] countries to progress, not to create problems for themselves in the future.”


Of course, no statement or action from any UNSC member state fully represents the beliefs of that state’s citizens. Umarov’s comment, for example, called for action in protecting climate change affected citizens, but set his words within the process of further development and globalization. Both of these have contributed significantly to rising temperatures and unequal resource distribution between the northern and southern hemispheres.


 Like any power structure, the actions of UN member states can anger or even alienate global citizens. This is disheartening, but should also act as a call to action for NGOs and other members of civil society


Like many of those who spoke at the Arria-formula meeting, MCC UN is aware that climate change and conflict is a daunting and multi-dimensional topic, which is why one of our office’s priorities is communicating with our field offices and advocating for the human rights of migrants who have been affected by climate change.


The United Nations, particularly the UNSC, projects discordant ideas of equality and democracy. The structure of the UN that gives an equal number of General Assembly seats to population powerhouses like China and small island states like Palau is at odds with the absolute veto power of the Permanent Five members of the UNSC. Therefore, when assessing a global response to a multifaceted issue like climate change, it is important to pay attention to which voices are lent the loudest microphones. In this context it is crucial to analyze the power dynamics that influence this conversation, such as the UN’s emphasis on development, the disproportionate impact of climate change on the global south, and the tendency of a number of powerful countries to shun international cooperation. Climate change is advancing rapidly and igniting conflict around the world. An effective global response will require sacrifice, cooperation, and hard work across all levels.


Abby Hershberger is the Program Assistant at Mennonite Central Committee’s UN Office.