When it comes to climate change, bombs don’t work, so the United Nations Security Council prefers words to action.
Tuesday saw the highest profile discussion of climate change in the U.N.’s central body for promoting global peace. But Russia, which holds a veto as a permanent member of the Council, warned against any move to recognize warming as a threat to global security.
Moscow’s stance left the Security Council’s U.K. presidency stabbing at a broken panic button.
“It is absolutely clear that climate change is a threat to our collective security and the security of our nations,” said British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who presided over the meeting.
Leaders from many of the Council’s 15 members spoke of the droughts, floods, deserts, storms and rising seas eating away at the foundations of peace. They conjured up a future of regional collapse and millions of climate refugees looking for safe harbor.
Prime Minister of Antigua and Barbuda Gaston Browne challenged the world to imagine if 2017’s Hurricane Irma had not only forced the near abandonment of Barbuda, but hit Antigua too.
“What would have happened to the entire population of my country?” he said.
In 2020, the U.S. under then President Donald Trump blocked a German effort to draft a sweeping Security Council resolution naming climate change as a threat to global security. Last week, the U.S. officially rejoined the Paris Agreement and on Monday, climate envoy John Kerry said “the climate crisis is indisputably a Security Council issue.”
“The climate threat is so massive, so multifaceted,” said Kerry, “we bury our heads in the sand at our own peril.”
But Russia’s representative to the U.N. Vasily Nebenzya said the Council should not take on the work of other U.N. agencies that specialize in climate, “where this is dealt with by professionals.”
The Security Council has recognized climate change’s role in instability in the Central African Republic, Darfur, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Mali, Somalia and throughout West Africa.
But Nebenzya said the link between climate change and conflicts was specific to certain countries and there was “no justification” for making that connection globally. That “would even be dangerous,” he said, because “considering the climate the root cause of security issues is a distraction from the true root causes.”
As an example, Nebenzya blamed the destabilization of Africa’s Sahel region on NATO’s “willful” regime change campaign in 2011.
China, which has been Russia’s ally on this issue in past meetings, voiced narrower concerns. “Any role the Security Council plays on climate change needs to fall within the Council’s purview,” said climate envoy Xie Zhenhua.
But Xie supported the core sentiment raised by Johnson, Kerry and others, leaving Russia isolated among the permanent members of the Council. “Climate change has become a pressing and serious threat to the survival, development and security of humankind,” Xie said.
More aggressive pushback came from India’s Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar. He said there was no “accepted methodology” to show climate change was a cause of conflicts.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has frequently cited studies that link climate change and conflict. French scientist Valérie Masson-Delmotte, who co-chairs one of the working groups of the IPCC, said: “Aspects related to the threat [of climate change] to global peace have long been recognized.”
Military leaders have also long accepted the connection and last week, NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg put climate change firmly on the alliance’s agenda, calling it a “serious crisis multiplier.”
The Council has traditionally been more comfortable using its powers to impose sanctions or deploy military force, said Janani Vivekananda, a climate diplomacy and security expert at the Adelphi think tank in Germany. But it has made past resolutions on some so-called “soft” or “non-traditional” security threats, usually focusing on diseases such as HIV, Ebola and, last year, on COVID-19.
Tunisian President Kais Saied said on Tuesday: “If pandemics are a threat and armed conflicts are, in turn, also a threat, climate change then similarly represents a threat that is no less serious than traditional threats.”
If the suffering and strife caused by climate change was done at the hand of “some kind of despotic warlord or civil war,” Johnson said, “then nobody would question the right and the duty of this U.N. Security Council to act.”
Heiko Maas, the foreign minister of Germany, which is not currently a member of the Council, joined the meeting to make a plea for the Council to deliver “a strong resolution” linking the two issues.
Several leaders, including France’s Emmanuel Macron, called for the creation of a U.N. special envoy for climate and security and for U.N. Secretary General António Guterres to deliver annual reports to the Council.
But unless Russia yields, the Security Council can do nothing.
That “does highlight some of the shortcomings” of the Council, said Vivekananda. “How it’s quite toothless on, I would say, unarguably the security risk of the 21st century.”