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Why the UN Security Council can’t keep ignoring climate-driven conflict

Drought and famine further jeopardise peace in fragile regions. The UN needs to recognise this threat before Cop27.

By Jamal Benomar

The UN Security Council’s raison d’être is to maintain international peace and security. The war in Ukraine has exposed its inability to fulfil that core purpose.

As we approach the next UN climate summit, Cop27 in Egypt, the Security Council’s impotence will again be laid bare. Climate-driven conflict poses the greatest threat to global security in the 21st century, yet the Security Council reflects only the preoccupations of when it was founded in 1945. It must now be reformed to meet the challenges of today.

Africans, hosting this year’s Cop, should lead the demand for change. The continent least responsible for causing climate change is now the most vulnerable to its reverberations. Many states in the continent are fragile, and climate-induced drought and famine compound the risk of conflicts developing.

The Sahel region, an arid stretch of land running beneath the Sahara, is a potent example. Temperatures there are rising one and a half times as fast as the global average, the UN estimates. Droughts and floods are more frequent and severe each year. Lake Chad, the lifeblood for many in the region, has shrunk by 90 per cent since the 1960s. It is no coincidence that the terrorist group Boko Haram emerged from such an ecological collapse. 

Accelerating desertification is also driving nomadic herders into conflict with farmers. Some have banded into militias, proliferating across Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso. Where governance is remote, with few resources to spare in government, groups such as Islamic State in the Greater Sahara and Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam have grown in number and reach. Attacks by Islamist groups have displaced 2.5 million people, 1.5 million of them in Burkina Faso alone. Now, the dead hand of famine stalks the region. The consequences for human security will be tragic.

Of course, pre-existing weak state authority, an abundance of firearms and the steady erosion of dispute resolution mechanisms have created fertile ground for such groups. However, we cannot untie volatility triggered by water scarcity, food insecurity and desertification from climate change. 

In areas already plagued by war, peace will be difficult to calcify where it has been struck. The Middle East has been in almost continuous drought since 1998. In 2020 a heat dome spread across the region driving record temperatures, with Baghdad hitting 51.8°C. Here, the ensuing competition for diminishing natural resources will strain fragile peace processes.

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However, members of the Security Council have rejected a proposal, co-sponsored by Niger and Ireland, for increased international effort to understand and respond to climate change’s effects on peace and security.  Despite a 12-2 vote in favour, it failed to pass because of a veto from Russia, while China abstained. China, Russia, and India, which also voted against the proposal but does not have a veto, have all argued that the link between climate change and security is not thoroughly established. Yet as an International Centre for Dialogue Initiatives report published this week, Climate Change and International Security, establishes, the evidence is stark.  

The moral argument for a stronger UN Security Council response is undeniable. The five permanent members – China, France, Russia, the UK and the US – are responsible for almost half of the world’s annual emissions. The African continent, 54 countries, is responsible for just 3 per cent. Given the climate’s profound impact on security, this disparity can no longer be ignored by the Security Council. Its handling of climate security to date has been ad hoc and resources remain limited; most UN field operations don’t include climate security experts.

The Security Council should include the impact of climate change on security as part of its primary duty in maintaining peace. To serve that goal, the UN General Assembly should appoint a special climate envoy to advise the Security Council and lead UN action on climate change and insecurity, justifying the allocation of resources and earlier interventions in brewing conflicts.

In conjunction with remedial action, preventative steps such as carbon sequestration and nature restoration are vital. A reformed UN Trusteeship Council could act as a clearing house for information on such efforts, such as the Great Green Wall of the Sahel, a planned 8,000km stretch of trees and vegetation across the breadth of Africa to stem desertification. Originally formed to facilitate the independence of former League of Nations mandate territories, the Trusteeship Council suspended operations in 1994 when the last territory, Palau, gained sovereignty. Trusteeship of the environment would be a fitting evolution.

The African Union is home to countries that are most vulnerable to the impact of climate change. In tandem with the Arab League, covering North Africa, it should consider establishing a mechanism for monitoring and reporting global warming’s threat to peace, security and stability in their regions. Such assessments could be used to make fragile states more robust.

Cop27 must remind the world that climate change is not a future risk: it is already bleeding countless livelihoods dry. Without the necessary machinery to tackle climate security, the UN Security Council will remain toothless in the face of the world’s largest existential threat.

[See also: What is on the agenda at Cop27 in Egypt?]

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