By Chris Penny
Canada’s United Nations Security Council bid presents an extraordinary opportunity to highlight the global security threat posed by climate change, not only advancing this issue within the UN’s most powerful body but also distinguishing Canada from rival candidates.
Prime Minster Justin Trudeau recently announced that Canada is seeking a two-year Council term beginning in 2021, kicking off a multi-year election campaign. To win, Canada cannot simply claim it deserves a seat. Instead, it must show why. This necessitates continued attention to hard security concerns and, likely, a larger Canadian peacekeeping presence. However, campaigning for further council engagement with climate change could provide an important additional platform.
Climate change is now beyond a reasonable scientific doubt, and it does pose serious security concerns. Although not causally linked to violent conflict, it is a significant threat multiplier. Projected effects include increased drought and disease, and more extreme weather events, exacerbating food insecurity in vulnerable regions. Rising seas threaten coastal populations worldwide, posing an existential crisis for low-lying island states. These factors can also all propel large-scale population displacement, further destabilizing affected regions.
More 100 states already link climate change and security. This includes three of the council’s permanent members: France, the United Kingdom and the United States. Indeed, the U.S. Department of Defense recently identified “climate change as a present security threat, not strictly a long-term risk.”
While many states support further Security Council engagement with climate change, others remain opposed, arguing it is better addressed solely as a sustainable development issue by other (less powerful) UN actors.
Nonetheless, climate change does fit the council’s mandated “primary responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security.” The UN Secretary-General has already characterized it as a “threat to international peace and security,” in a 2011 Council address.
This concept has evolved substantially since the UN’s establishment, reflecting changing global security needs. Although its authority was initially limited to interstate conflict, the council now frequently also reacts to civil wars, along with terrorism and weapons proliferation.
While most council attention remains focused on armed violence, this is no longer always true. It has addressed numerous humanitarian crises, some posing minimal international threats beyond cross-border migration, notably with respect to Haiti. In 2015, it even recognized the Ebola outbreak as a security threat.
Given these precedents, addressing climate change would not require a particularly novel interpretation of existing council legal authority. In responding to Ebola, the council noted that it was “undermining the stability of the most affected countries concerned and, unless contained, may lead to further instances of civil unrest, social tensions and a deterioration of the political and security climate” as well as the reversal of “peacebuilding and development gains.”
These concerns all apply to climate change too, which, unlike Ebola, also threatens the very existence of some states.
Council “securitization” of climate change would not necessitate a militarized response to its causes, nor would it preclude concurrent engagement by other UN bodies, which also continued with Ebola. Instead, it would be an important symbolic step, which could spur further voluntary state action to address the causes and consequences of climate change (recognizing that the newly-adopted Paris Agreement will be five years old in 2021.)
Building a Canadian campaign around climate change would highlight its continuing importance. A thematic underpinning would also build upon previous Canadian council success. Notably, in its last appearance, Canada advanced a “protection of civilians” agenda that continues to shape council action.
Now Canada can help bring climate change within the global security architecture, nudging the council further into the 21st century and providing another lasting Canadian legacy.
This post was originally published by the Ottawa Citizen.