Climate security in the UN Security Council: Achieving more through improved knowledge and increased credibility

January 29 

Climate security in the UN Security Council: Achieving more through improved knowledge and increased credibility

02 February 2021 | Judith Nora Hardt, Michael Brzoska and Alina Viehoff

The German government should continue its efforts on climate change and security even after its membership in the UN Security Council has come to an end. Strengthening the knowledge base, developing a broad understanding of security, and linking climate change mitigation measures with crisis prevention instruments are important in this regard.

The German government has put considerable effort into establishing climate change as a cross-cutting issue on the agenda of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), one of the priorities during its membership. Nevertheless, at the end of its two-year term (2019-2020), the results of this effort are mixed. In particular, the German government has failed to pass a corresponding resolution in the UNSC. Instead, they had to content themselves with a short statement (the Joint Statement of July 2020) by ten of the fifteen UNSC member states, which identifies the dangers of human-made climate change to international security and conflict.

While the strongest opposition to a UNSC resolution on climate-related security risks came from the Trump administration, which blocked a resolution on climate change, other states joined the opposition. The permanent members China and Russia as well as Indonesia and South Africa (2019-2020 in the UNSC) refused to address the issue within the Security Council. The latter two fear that climate change could serve as a pretext for military intervention and would prefer to avoid an expansion of the issues dealt with in the UNSC, although climate change has a strong and widespread impact on these countries.

Despite these obstacles, the German government should remain committed to addressing the issue of climate change and security in the future. Two factors are of primary importance: firstly, underpinning the debate with more knowledge about the links between climate change, peace and conflict, and secondly, strengthening the credibility of Germany's position on security risks and the way they are dealt with.

For this purpose, we offer recommendations on five different levels.

1. Anchoring the link between climate change and crisis prevention in the UNSC and beyond

Official recognition of climate change as a security issue by the primary multilateral institution for ensuring international security and peace has been discussed in the UNSC since 2007. Considering its multiple dangers and impacts, it is overdue. Even after its membership has ended, Germany should continue to provide diplomatic support to those states represented in the UNSC that wish to take the issue forward, including France, the UK and supportive  non-permanent members. Additionally, the German government should stick to its goal of anchoring the topic in other international organisations, formulated in the 2017 guidelines "Preventing Crises, Resolving Conflicts, Building Peace". In particular, further strengthening debates and strategies within the framework of the European Union is an important step that should also be linked to the promotion of the topic in the UNSC.

2. Promoting exchange and institutionalisation

The German government should strengthen existing forums that enable information exchange and dialogue on climate security within the United Nations (UN) both financially and politically through initiatives at the diplomatic level. To this end, the activities of the Group of Friends on Climate and Security within the UN initiated by Germany and the island state Nauru in 2018 need to be intensified. Support for the UN Climate and Security Mechanism, a cross-institutional initiative to promote exchange on the climate-security nexus, should be permanently ensured and expanded. Besides this, Germany's funding of the first UN climate and security expert in the context of the UNSOM peacekeeping mission in Somalia should be followed by further offers for practical and context-specific measures.

3. Improving the knowledge base on the relationship between climate change, security, peace and conflict

In the UNSC, the German government has committed itself to the improvement of the knowledge base for future decision-making in the Council on the security implications of climate change. This is an important step that should be substantiated and implemented through personnel and financial support for appropriate initiatives and forums. The Climate and Security Expert Group, funded by the German Federal Foreign Office, is a good first approach to this. In addition to the important role of think tanks, the communication between political actors and current research on climate change, peace and conflict should also be promoted. The systematic strengthening of science and its exchange with decision-makers, both nationally and internationally, are central to this. To ensure that the latest findings on the topic are communicated to the relevant international institutions and decision-makers, the German government should appoint an interdisciplinary advisory board of experts. International dialogues, bringing together science, policy and practitioners in peace, environment and development cooperation, are another fundamental instrument for strengthening science-based decision-making. The Berlin Climate Security Conference, which has been held twice so far, could also provide an important forum for this in the future.

4. Preventing the danger of "securitisation”

To counter the concern, voiced by critics, of a one-sided emphasis on conflicts and security threats as consequences of climate change, the German government should highlight the complexity of the issue. It is not climate change itself that is an issue for peace and security, but the combination with numerous other factors, such as political exclusion and the lack of conflict-settling institutions. Military means to mitigate the consequences of climate change are therefore inadequate. Instead, Germany should support measures for substantial mitigation of and adaptation to climate change as well as disaster risk reduction. Simultaneously, these aspects should also be linked to traditional strategies and instruments of short-term and long-term crisis prevention, such as mediation and the promotion of the rule of law. These approaches should also be at the centre of the activities of the UNSC, for which concrete proposals are made in a current policy brief.

These approaches should have a particularly persuasive effect once cases of successful management and resolution of environmental conflicts through the supportive use of instruments of civil conflict management accumulate. Thus, the German government should support and finance relevant initiatives, such as, for example, those of the United Nations Development Programme and of NGOs such as Accord in South Africa, in which the combination of peacebuilding and crisis prevention with climate protection measures is being tested.

5. Advocating for a future-oriented security concept

In its latest authoritative White Paper on Security Policy, the German government lists climate change as an influencing factor for crises, but only in the context of traditional security policy. Other documents on German conflict prevention and management policy, such as the Guidelines mentioned above, demonstrate a more comprehensive understanding of security. Germany should therefore be committed not only to improving coordination and cooperation within the environment, foreign affairs, development and defence ministries as well as in the field of crisis prevention and disaster management, but also to a broader concept of security.

Latest research findings show a shift in the security conceptions of the member states of the UNSC, including Germany, in recent years. Most states still adhere to a traditional understanding of security, but concepts such as human security are gaining in importance. The recognition of the existential threats of climate change to the environment and humanity, in general, is also beginning to shape the debates at UNSC and EU level. However, a comprehensive and future-oriented conception of security has yet to be developed. This should build on existing conceptions of extended and human security, but also include ecological aspects. In this context, it is essential that the connections between climate change, peace and conflict are also considered in local situations as a problem of global social responsibility and are addressed on multilateral levels. The current effects of the Corona pandemic on crises, conflicts, peace processes and security increase the need for a reorientation of security policy.

Future development of long-term commitment

As already in 2011, Germany successfully intensified the debate on climate change as a comprehensive problem for peace and security in the UNSC and UN context, even if it did not achieve the targeted resolution. Future progress requires the consolidation of previous successes and the establishment of further possibilities for the gathering and dissemination of information. What is also required is the elaboration of a more comprehensive understanding of security to strengthen Germany’s own credibility as a major peace and security actor and to live up to its claim on a "leading role in resolving global crises".

This text is based on the results of the research project "Climate Change and Security in the United Nations Security Council", funded by the Federal Foreign Office and conducted in cooperation between the Institute for Peace Research and Security Policy and the research group "Climate Change and Security" at the University of Hamburg from 2019-2020.

The text was first published in German on the PeaceLab-Blog.

Judith Nora Hardt is a researcher at the Centre Marc Bloch in Berlin and is associated with the Institute for Peace Research and Security Policy and the Climate Change and Security Research Group at the University of Hamburg.

Michael Brzoska is a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute for Peace Research and Security Policy (IFSH) at the University of Hamburg.

Alina Viehoff is a researcher focusing on Critical Security Studies and Political Geography.

More information about the working group "Energy transition / Climate change" on the website from the Centre Marc Bloch.

Photo : The Security Council / UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe / 18 December 2015


Judith Nora Hardt
judith.hardt  ( at )