Climate change, security, the UN – and EVIDENCE

All eyes are on the Covid-19 pandemic and the unfolding crisis it is causing, whose full dimensions are not yet clear. Meanwhile, there’s the climate crisis. It too has multiple, unfolding impacts about whose full details we cannot yet be sure. We should not lose sight of it, of course, and not only because it is very, very important. Some of what we are are (or should be) learning from the pandemic is relevant to the climate crisis, not least the widespread deficiency in resilience that Covid-19 is revealing.

At French initiative, the UN Security Council held what is known as an Arria Formula debate on 22 April. This is a relatively informal meeting so the Council can be briefed on and discuss major issues. The meeting was virtual and I joined Under-Secretary-General Rosemary DiCarlo and International Crisis Group President, Robert Malley, to provide the initial briefings, after which some 23 representatives of member states plus the representatives of the African Union and the European Union also spoke.

Here, in more formal tones than I normally use in this blog but rather less formally than my last UNSC briefing in February, is what I said.

Thank you for the opportunity to join this important Arria Formula debate and offer you a briefing based on the work of my institute, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI).

Screenshot 2020-04-23 at 10.25.17

The evidence

I will start from two months ago because it was my honour in February to brief the Security Council on the impact of climate change on peace operations in Somalia. I outlined how persistent change in the climate of Somalia since about 1960 has increased the incidence of both drought and flooding. I showed how this offers opportunities to the extremists and threatens to undermine the work of both the Federal Government of Somalia and the United Nations Assistance Mission in Somalia (UNSOM).

That briefing drew on one of a number of research studies conducted at SIPRI in recent years. Other countries and regions where we have assessed climate-related security risks include the Lake Chad Basin, Central Asia, Iraq and the region of the Middle East and North Africa.

Add these studies to those of the International Crisis Group, about which we have just heard, and others conducted by other research centres, and a convincing and undeniable picture emerges of climate-related insecurity and potential instability.

Where the impact of climate change combines with the consequences of violent conflict, there lie the greatest dangers and the severest impact on human well-being.

The urgency of responding adequately to this as well as the scale of the task are illustrated by noting that eight out of the ten countries hosting the largest multilateral peace operations are located in areas highly exposed to the impact of climate change.

They and other countries face the double burden of climate change impacts and conflict.

The kind of research that is needed

Thinking about how best to respond, I will start with two general points about the research at my institute and other research centres.

First, it is not our argument – indeed, I do not think it is anybody’s argument – that climate change explains the whole problem. Sometimes it is the trigger, sometimes it is the final straw, sometimes it is simply part of the background – along with economic weakness, social inequalities and weak or arbitrary governance – in establishing the pre-conditions for instability and violent conflict.

Climate change is never the whole story but the evidence repeatedly confirms that if you leave nature out of the analysis, your analysis is incomplete. The obvious implication of this is that if you leave nature out of policy, then proposed solutions are also incomplete and consequently will fail.

The second general point I would like to make is that the research I am drawing on here comprises fine-grained studies of many locations. It is not desk-based, generic or quantitative research that has revealed the climate-related security risks that many countries face. It is, rather, extensive country-specific research.

While these studies  aggregate up to explain the prevalence, nature and seriousness of climate-related security risks, they also show that each situation is different. How the problems are addressed must, therefore, also be specific.

The best way to address these problems arises straight out of these general points about our research findings. To address the problem, you must understand it. To understand the problem, you must analyse it, including nature in the frame and keeping the analysis attuned to searching out the specifics of each situation.


Against that background, I will outline three categories of response for consideration, focussing, not surprisingly perhaps on analysis of the evidence as the basis for action. The three areas are:

  1. To promote climate risk awareness within the UN;
  2. To develop a systemic approach to managing climate-related security risk; and
  3. To embed climate issues in conflict prevention and peacebuilding.

First, climate risk awareness: For the UN to be climate risk aware throughout its work, it requires analytical capability. A great start has been made with the Climate Security Mechanism, hosted in the Department of Political and Peacebuilding Affairs. My institute has a close working relationship with this team. What I will say about the CSM, apart from praising the work of its staff, is that it needs to be bigger so that it can meet the demand for analytical support that is already there and will inevitably grow. This demand is coming from the field and from other actors such as the African Union. It does not need to be a very large team but it needs to be bigger than the handful of staff it now has.

But if the enhancing of climate risk awareness is confined to UN headquarters, it will be inadequate. Training for staff and capacity building in UN agencies and missions is required. The far-sighted decision was taken some months back to finance the post of climate security adviser for UNSOM in Somalia; to date it has not proven possible to fill the position. A larger pool of candidates is required. In December of 2019, through the Swedish peacebuilding agency, the Folke Bernadotte Academy, my institute was able to provide training in climate security issues to 11 UN Peace and Development Advisers. That was fine as far as it went but we need to do it again so more can get the training. And working with the Peace and Development Advisers is only the start.

Second, a systemic approach: The United Nations as a whole faces challenges and risks driven by climate change. These include issues that emerge as security risks because they have an impact on its peace operations and will increasingly do so. They also include impact on water and food security, and thus not only on general security and stability issues but also and thus on both humanitarian and development operations of the UN through the World Food Programme, the Food and Agriculture Organisation, the UN Higher Commissioner on Refugees and others.

Managing these risks and ensuring they do not escalate into becoming direct conflict risks begins with analysis. What I want to stress here is how important it is that the analysis is not held within single institutional boundaries. As much as the need for operational coordination on the ground has been recognised, so also there is a need for analytical coordination. The different entities in the UN system can thus learn from each other, avoid duplication of effort, and will be better placed to appreciate the way the impacts of climate change flow from sector to sector, implicating all. That in turn will strengthen the response and its effectiveness.

Lastly, conflict prevention and peacebuilding: The evidence shows that, today and as we look ahead through this decade and into the next, addressing the impact of climate change is an inescapable part of building and sustaining peace and of preventing violent conflict. It can be threaded into the development and humanitarian work of the UN, of course, and also into its direct security agenda. In our research we increasingly hear voices from conflict-affected countries insisting that increased resilience in the face of climate change is a necessary part of the peace process they need. That is a consideration that can and should be taken on board by those working to bring conflicts to peaceful resolution. Beware the risk that an otherwise sound peace settlement is destabilised by inattention to the aspect of climate change.

To conclude

Science tells us that , even with decisive action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the pace of climate change and the intensity of its impact are going to increase in the coming period. This will have direct and indirect negative consequences in many fields including political stability, peace and security.  By building its analytical capacities, taking a systemic approach to risk, and embedding climate action into peacebuilding, the UN will make a direct and urgently needed contribution to sustaining human well-being.

Thank you.

7 thoughts on “Climate change, security, the UN – and EVIDENCE

  1. Great timing Dan. Thanks. A leadership intervention very well made. Worth considering also inviting business to be part of the three areas outlined.

  2. Borell’s approach to our appeal for focus on Libya was quite confusing this week. Did you follow Dan?

  3. Are you following Libya? The Maltese made a proposal that was discussed on Wednesday. May I connect you with my friend the Permanent Rep in Brussels for the insight?

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