In December 2021, the UN Security Council (UNSC) failed to pass a resolution defining climate change as a threat to international peace and security. Such a resolution would have allowed the UNSC to take a more active leadership role in addressing climate change and opening the door for bolder policies including economic sanctions in response to harmful climate practices.
Why won’t the UNSC address climate change? More generally, why do countries sometimes push to re-frame problems as security threats, and which countries stand to benefit when this occurs? In new research, I show that in UN debates, the permanent members of the UNSC - who would gain institutional power from a larger UNSC mandate - refer more to the security dimension of climate change than the countries who are actually the most threatened by the problem. On the other hand, the Permanent 5, or P5, members - namely, the United States, Russia, China, France, and United Kingdom - are concerned with the perceived legitimacy of the Council. For this reason, we are unlikely to see the UNSC play a large role in climate policymaking until a majority of UN member states are willing to give up their control over the issue of climate change.
UNSC attention leads to global focus, funding, and tools, but also political cost
It matters which UN body addresses an issue. Moving an issue from the agenda of the General Assembly, where all states are represented, to the more exclusive UNSC determines whether and how an issue is addressed by the international community.
When the UNSC takes up a new issue, international attention is focused, funding is increased, and new legal tools to address the issue - including sanctions and the use of force - become available. For example, the UNSC took up the issue of HIV/AIDS in 2000, resulting in dramatic increases in global attention and funding. Other deadly diseases such as Ebola, malaria, and tuberculosis which did not receive the attention of the UNSC, did not receive the same nearly as much international attention and funding.
Yet this increase in attention comes with costs. Once the UNSC takes up an issue, it becomes more narrowly defined within the security agenda, and can become more intensely politicized. In the case of HIV/AIDS, the economic and human rights dimensions of the crisis were sidelined in the UNSC’s approach after most developing states lost their seat at the table.
Redefining issues as security concerns also increases the power of the states that control the security agenda - the members of the UNSC. Consequently, states that are not members of the UNSC - which represents only 15 of the 193 United Nations member states - lose their ability to influence the outcome. Non-UNSC members, then, are unlikely to support redefining issues as security threats. UNSC members - and the Permanent 5 in particular - have concerns about eroding the UNSC’s special legitimacy, and are wary of being perceived as overreaching. This discourages UNSC members from attempting to turn new issues such as climate change into security issues unless there is broad support from other member states.
Securitizing Climate Change?
We would expect that the states most threatened by climate change would have the greatest incentive to “securitize” the problem to raise attention and commitment. Small island developing states like Kiribati, Tuvalu, and the Maldives face the most severe threat. Yet these states also care deeply about the implications of climate change for international law, human rights, and development. If the UNSC took up the issue of climate change, it could focus international attention, it would also give important decision-making power to a small group of states that may not represent advocate for the preferences of the most vulnerable countries
While UNSC members - particularly the P5 - would gain additional power, they may be unlikely to try to expend political capital in forcing a securitizing move, if they perceive that other member states would not be on board.
Indeed, my research based on a machine learning model to examine all speeches on climate change given at the General Assembly’s annual meetings from 1970-2014 shows that the P5 states are 5.4 percentage points more likely to securitize climate change than other states, whereas small island developing states are 6.4 percentage points less likely to do so. While security concerns make up more than 15 percent of the climate debate, most member states do not discuss climate change as a security threat. States do raise security implications of climate changes - for example, the threat of rising sea-levels - but they do not do so in a way that suggests the UNSC should play a role in addressing the matter.
This suggests that most member states would not be in favor of a security-centric approach to addressing climate change, and can explain why some of the Permanent 5 members - namely Russia - blocked the December 2021 resolution. Indeed, Russia stated that expanding the UNSC’s authority to address climate change would neglect other important dimensions of the climate crisis, including socio-economic development.
Failed securitization of climate strengthens non-security dimensions
Though the failed climate security resolution had more support from the non-UNSC members than any similar initiative in the past, the political incentives of agenda control can help us understand why the resolution was nevertheless rejected. The fact that the climate discourse is not securitized suggests that most UN members would not support a substantial role for the UNSC in addressing climate change. Policy responses from inclusive institutions like UNFCCC that highlight the non-security dimensions of climate change - like financing and human rights - may have a better chance.
The conservative position taken by the UNSC also suggests a concern for its perceived legitimacy. Particularly for France and the United Kingdom - P5 states whose international political influence has declined in recent decades - shoring up the UNSC’s authority is increasingly important. Balancing legitimacy and boldness will be a key challenge for the UNSC addressing new non-traditional security problems like global pandemics and cybercrime.
About the author:
Sabrina Arias is a PhD candidate at the University of Pennsylvania researching international organizations, diplomacy, and climate policymaking. Her book project examines how diplomatic expertise can make small states influential in agenda-setting at the UN. Find her on Twitter @sabrinabarias. This think-piece is based on the author’s essay “Who Securitizes? Climate Change Discourse in the United Nations” in the International Studies Quarterly.
The views and opinions expressed in this think-piece are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of SIPA or Columbia University.