“There is no Plan B because we do not have Planet B.” - Ban Ki-moon, former Secretary of the United Nations General Assembly
Global temperatures are rising, and according to NASA there is a 95% chance that human activity is the cause. On an international scale, climate change is creating dire situations and escalating conflict in areas already facing instability. Although it is impossible to comprehend the full effects of climate change on conflict, there are several undeniable patterns. Climate change can be the root cause of a conflict, such as in the Lake Chad Basin, where drought has led to conflict over dwindling resources and the rise of terrorist activity. Climate change also possesses the power to provoke further conflict within systems that have always existed, such as human migration and gender disparity. Farmers in Central America, for example, are facing drastically changing environmental conditions including droughts and flooding, which can debilitate or decimate entire harvests. To sustain themselves and their families, a number of these farmers opt to migrate north - only to encounter hostility and inadequate resources. Even when farmers choose not to emigrate, the loss of their livelihoods gives rise to food and resource insecurity, leading to violence and crime within their own borders.
These very human impacts of climate change were at the center of a December 15, 2017 Arria-formula meeting of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). Arria-formula meetings convey a particular significance. They involve frank and honest discussion about crucial topics brought up by civil society and concerned member states. They also encourage members of the UNSC to initiate conversations with each other outside of the authority of the UNSC President, although the president may be involved in calling an Arria-formula meeting. These are opportunities to hear from leaders outside the UNSC who possess extensive knowledge of a particular security concern. Many of these are leaders within civil society, which encompasses non-governmental organizations that work in the interest of citizens, such as community groups and religious organizations. Member states and civil society have called Arria-formula meetings to address a wide range of pressing topics in the past, including Aleppo, illegal Israeli settlements, and the role of women in conflict resolution.
The December 2017 Arria-formula meeting was titled “Climate Change: Preparing for Security Implications of Rising Temperatures.” Member states including Sweden, France, the United Kingdom, Japan, and Italy (all members of the Security Council at the time), as well as Germany, the Maldives, and Morocco called the meeting. A concept note, circulated prior to the event, listed four priority discussion points—the reinforcement and promotion of the (S/PRST/2011/15) statement on climate change; how the Security Council can effectively assess new climate caused security risks; how to address food-insecurity, migration, economic stress, and other peripheral effects of climate change; and how to prevent climate caused conflict.
The meeting included a briefing panel led by Halbe Zijlstra, Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Netherlands, and Caitlin Werrell, co-founder and President of the Center for Climate and Security. Sebastiano Cardi, Permanent Representative of Italy to the United Nations, opened the event and moderated the discussion. Cardi stated that the effects of rising temperatures are visible all over the world and are leading to natural catastrophes and human displacement, which then trigger or aggravate conflict. In that way, climate change is a “stress factor,” adding another level of crisis to situations that are already unsafe.
Since the United Kingdom called a meeting of the UNSC to open a debate about climate change in 2007, the United Nations (UN) has put forward several efforts to monitor and counteract its effects. The Paris Agreement, adopted in 2015 in France, is a notable example. This agreement aids countries in setting individualized goals for more environmentally sustainable practices.
Over the past several years, however, the effects of climate change have magnified and morphed into an undeniably pressing security concern, in addition to an environmental crisis. The purpose of the most recent Arria-formula meeting was to clarify this threat to security, discuss techniques to assess risks, and urge the Security Council to act immediately. Failing to do this, Cardi emphasized, would be failing to protect the livelihoods of millions of global citizens. This meeting was a call for leadership and joint action from the Security Council.
Zijlstra echoed many of Cardi’s points. He briefed the audience on the One Planet Summit, which was held on December 12, 2017, two years to the day after the adoption of the Paris Agreement. He also reported that the Planetary Security Initiative had held three meetings on climate change in one week, signaling a sense of urgency within the global community. Zijlstra argued that all nations have a responsibility to act, and thus the Security Council must tangibly address the effects of climate change in order to preserve peace and prevent conflict.
Werrell warned the Security Council about the transition into a new world. The Holocene—the current geological epoch—is ending, she argued, giving way to the “Anthropocene,” an era marked by significant and detrimental human impact. Although harrowing at times, Werrell’s message was one of encouragement, not despair. She emphasized scientists’ ability to predict the effects of climate change if given adequate resources, and all of humanity’s capacity to actively combat these effects through global cooperation. Although the influence of climate change on conflict is unprecedented in many regions, foresight is unprecedented as well, meaning that there is no excuse for inaction.
Member states voiced different opinions on the role of the Security Council, but most speakers addressed three key points: the undeniability of climate change, the impact of climate change on conflict, and how the UN should assess and respond to that conflict.This series of articles will analyze these views first by looking at two regions currently experiencing struggle at the intersection of climate change and conflict, and then by reporting what UN member states are saying about progress and the role of the UNSC at this intersection.
Abby Hershberger is the Program Assistant at Mennonite Central Committee’s UN Office.