Special Dispatch: Climate Change in the Security Council


Yesterday, for the first time, the UN Security Council addressed the issue of climate change, energy, and global security (video: part 1 | part 2). I sat in on the six-plus-hour open session, called by the British and led by British Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett. Although the major news outlets focused on a disagreement between the G-77 and the developed world over the appropriateness of the venue, there were many other topics that were discussed that could have bearing on the way the world chooses to the face the effects of climate change.The over-reported rift between the developed world and the G-77 and China was not centered on Climate Change but on the role of the Security Council. The G-77, wary of what the Deputy Perm Rep from Pakistan called “ever-increasing encroachment by the Security Council on the roles and responsibility of other principal organs of the UN,” protested that the Security Council has, as the Chinese Perm Rep put it, “neither the professional competence in handling climate change — nor is it the right decision-making place for extensive participation leading up to widely acceptable proposals,” making the not invalid point that the make-up of the Security Council doesn’t properly reflect the current global power structure.

Most of the developed world, led by the UK, made the following counter arguments. First, it’s a broad problem, potentially devastating to the human race in a number of ways; it would be a disservice to the magnitude of the issue not to confront it on as many fronts as possible. And, second, it is clearly a security issue. Foreign Secretary Beckett said:

Recent scientific evidence has…given us a picture of the physical impacts on our world that we can expect as our climate changes. And those impacts go far beyond the environmental. Their consequences reach to the very heart of the security agenda. The consequences of flooding, disease and famine and from that migration on an unprecedented scale. The consequences of drought and crop-failure and from that intensified competition for food, water and energy. The consequences of economic disruption on the scale predicted in the Stern Report and not seen since the end of World War II.

Though this rift got a lot of attention, it was not nearly the most interesting thing to come out of yesterday’s session.

True many (but not all) G-77 countries argued that climate change is a development issue not a security issue and expressed concern about the economic cost of adaptation, but it was almost universally agreed that it is a grave and global issue and one that has “left the global community with one option: international collective action” through the United Nations, as the representative from Qatar put it. In fact the sheer number of statements that were made (around 55, a record) point to how serious the world community is taking climate change. Even those who felt the Security Council was an inappropriate venue for this discussion took the opportunity yesterday to express their concerns about climate change and their commitment to adequately confronting it.

In fact, several Member States talked about effects of climate change that are already manifest in their countries. The representative from Ghana pointed to rising temperatures, which are contributing to drought and the expanding Sahara desert, and food shortages. The representative from Peru discussed shrinking glaciers in his nation and the effect on water supply. And the representative from Costa Rica talked about increased hurricanes and flooding.

That consensus was also reflected in the fact that nearly every Member State drew on the authority and findings of the IPCC report as a foundation for their remarks. This consensus among the world’s climate scientists appears now to be developing into a consensus among world governments.

In a way, these facts alone mark the meeting as a success. The representatives from the UK, the Netherlands, and Panama mentioned a similar thematic session on HIV/AIDS held by the Security Council and the benefits that were reaped simply from developing consensus on the gravity of the threat and moving the issue “from the fringes into the mainstream.”

Regardless of whether or not those effects are repeated in this instance, the international effort on climate change will certainly be bolstered by the Secretary-General Ban’s commitment to the issue. During his remarks to the special session yesterday, the Secretary-General talked at length about the IPCC report, the scarcity of resources as a catalyst for conflict, and the importance of the “entire multilateral machinery” working together to mitigate the effects of climate change, as well as the importance of engagement with civil society and the private sector.

Although the consensus on the need for forward movement was clear, the way forward is a little more diffuse. Many in the developing world maintained that a Framework for addressing climate change already exists and that it is incumbent on the developed world to begin to do their share of emission cutting. “Common but differentiated” was repeated often. The representative from the Congo went so far as to say that, through the effects of climate change, the poor will pay “for the excess consumption and carefree attitude of the rich.” Many developed nations, on the other hand, called for the immediate development of a successor regime to the Kyoto Protocol, which is set to expire in 2012, and action by the Secretary-General on hosting a world climate summit.

Regardless of which tactics are chosen, proponents of collective action on climate change should feel optimistic about yesterday’s session. It appears as if a global consensus has been gained on the gravity of climate change.