Shirley V. Scott and Charlotte Ku eds. Climate Change and the UN Security Council, (Cheltenham: Edward Elgar Publishing, 2018) 272pp.

Reviewed by: Simon Dalby (Wilfrid Laurier University)

As climate change accelerates and its consequences in terms of severe weather events, droughts, and storms become ever more evident the question of if, and when, the United Nations Security Council will be called upon to act has been raised repeatedly in recent years. Is climate change a security issue as opposed to an environmental one? Or is it more directly related to sustainable development? Even if it is agreed that there are security dimensions to the issue, should the General Assembly, and the existing framework convention on climate change (UNFCCC), not be the primary UN vehicle for addressing the issue? If so, what role will be played by the Security Council? These are the questions that the dozen chapters in this timely volume address from a variety of perspectives.

Secretary-General Briefs Press on Paris Climate Agreement. photo credit: UN Photo/Rick Bajornas

There is a long-standing scholarly literature on the questions of environmental security going back to the Brundtland commission and its report on Our Common Future, published in the 1980s. This discussion has been revived in the last decade with a much more direct focus on climate. A number of states, starting with the United Kingdom, have wished to draw the Security Council into the discussion because climate change is a global issue with profound consequences for many places, in particular for the vulnerable small island states facing inundation as sea levels rise and storms increase in intensity. More generally, climate change is increasingly understood as a destabilizing phenomenon, one that threatens effective governance in many places. Hence, it is surely a matter for consideration in terms of security.

Historically, the Security Council has predominantly considered matters of immediate urgency that threaten international peace. While it has considerable powers, only most obviously under chapter 7 of the United Nations Charter, many of these are aimed at responding to emergencies or taking preventative action on imminent threats, rather than at considering long term changes. Other UN bodies, such as the environment programme, have responsibilities for climate. The UNFCCC with its annual conferences, its subsidiary Kyoto protocol and, most recently, the 2015 Paris Agreement are obvious UN institutional fora for addressing the climate issue. And yet the urgency of dealing with the issue, given its long-term implications for all members, keeps pushing the issue onto the Security Council agenda.

The editors summarise this changing context and the evolution of the Council in their introduction. Christopher Penny then traces the rise of climate change disruptions as a threat to peace and security and poses the question of whether climate change itself, rather than just its indirect consequences, might yet become something that the Council addresses directly. Francesco Sindico and Mallory Orme ponder whether the Council might engage climate issues through economic measures and if it may sanction states whose policies exacerbate climate disruptions. The volume editors, writing with Patrick Keenan, investigate the possibilities of the Security Council to establish a climate crimes tribunal, which would in turn generate statutes that define aspects of ecocide, geocide or some similar formulation as a crime. But, as existing legal climate cases have suggested, such an initiative would not be easy.

General Assembly Discusses Climate Change, Sustainable Development Agenda. photo credit: UN Photo/Rick Bajornas

Migration caused by climate change has garnered numerous headlines in recent years. Frederic Megret and Benoit Mayer tackle this issue by wisely pointing to the complex causes of migrations, only some of which are at best partly caused by climate change. Alan Boyle, Jacques Hartmann, and Annalisa Savaresi look at the legislative and enforcement powers of the Security Council. Because the implementation processes of the Paris Agreement on Climate Change are so slow and cumbersome, they wonder about a possible role for the Council in speeding up responses designed to address climate change. In the end, their lengthy analysis concludes that this is unlikely, even if the Council may have a role in responding to political difficulties that result from climate enhanced disasters.

Paul Diehl discusses how climate change adaptation could be incorporated into peace missions, noting that a frequent key to success lies in paying attention to local conditions. Sustainable development is already a key theme in the UN system, so any plan that incorporates it into peace missions builds upon existing concerns. However, preventative deployments in anticipation of climate-induced conflict are still unlikely in most circumstances. Shahrazad Far and Richard Youngs focus on the European Union’s approach to climate security and its focus on development rather than militarization. The diverse strands in the European debate on the issue of climate mean that, despite Europe’s awareness of the issue, the European Union has not pushed the Security Council to deal with climate change.

Citing the Sendai Framework for disaster reduction, Charlotte Ku suggests that a coordinating function might be a useful role for the Security Council in thinking about managing climate risks rather than the one focused on responding to disasters. But a role in mitigating the causes of climate change seems like a stretch; after all, that is what the Paris Agreement does. Martin Binder and Monika Heupel look at the question of the legitimacy of the Council in dealing with non-traditional security issues. By focusing on the 2007 and 2011 Council debates on climate security, they argue that there are serious doubts about both its mandate and expertise in dealing with climate as a security issue. Hence, they suggest that action by the Council on climate change is now premature, not least because the permanent members of the Council are among the largest emitters of greenhouse gases. Until the permanent members act on this key cause of the problem within their own territories, their credibility in acting through the Council is limited.

Shirley Scott’s chapter focuses on this in terms of the attitudes of the permanent five members to the Council’s role in governance of climate change. While France, Britain, and the United States (at least until the accession of the Trump administration) have not been averse to a Council’s role in mitigating climate change, Russia has not favoured an expansion of its role and China usually sees climate as a matter of sustainable development, rather than a security issue. But, as disasters increase in severity and frequency, perhaps these attitudes will change and a more active role will emerge for the Council. Whether the elimination of a number of the small island states in coming decades, an entirely predictable matter that will terminate members of the United Nations, will galvanize the Council to act remains to be seen.

High-level Event: on Climate Change. photo credit: UN Photo/Devra Berkowitz

What is now clear, as the conclusions to this volume suggests, is that there is an emerging discussion, not about whether the Council has a role, but what that role might be. Given the urgency of tackling climate change and the slowness of the UNFCCC and the Paris Agreement process in tackling the cause of contemporary transformations, one can only hope that when the members of the United Nations once again take up the issue at the Council they will find ways to use its offices to accelerate the pace of economic innovation and to rapidly phase out the use of fossil fuels. Given the clear warnings from climate scientists about what will transpire if states do not act comprehensively to tackle the causes of climate change, it is obvious that numerous security challenges will arise in a climate disrupted world. Whether the Council is the most appropriate UN forum to address these issues will continue to be debated, but what should not be doubted is the need to act quickly and comprehensively to forestall climate disruptions, which would cause the kinds of crises that the Council certainly does have a clear mandate to address.