Climate Change Debate at Security Council

An estimated 11.6 million people at the Horn of Africa region are facing severe food shortage with rates of malnutrition and related deaths having reached alarming levels, the United Nations sounded the alert the famine on July 20th.

However, extreme weather due to climate change resulted not only the terrible drought at Somalia, but also abnormal massive rainfall in Beijing, the city traditionally famous by its dryness. And as the whole area of China is experiencing the weirdest weather ever, people on some pacific islands are obsessed by the threats of losing their homeland.

In December 2008, for example, the Republic of the Marshall Islands, whose economy totaling only US$161 million, were forced into the state of emergency and lost US$1.5 million because of the rising sea-level washing out roads and low-lying houses.


And the United Nation Security Council had an open debate on the security implication of climate change following the 20th media briefing on the Somalia famine. The discussion was convened by Germany, which holds the Presidency of the Council for the month of July, and started before the meeting by an open statement from Nauru representing small island countries.

“It is a threat as great as nuclear proliferation or terrorism… neither have ever led to the disappearance of an entire nation, though that is what we are confronted with today… I often wonder where we would be if the roles were reversed. What if the pollution coming from our island nations was threatening the very existence of the major emitters?”

And this moment, all countries, including the United States, addressed the great urgency to tackle the climate threat and their commitment to work with their colleagues at table.

“Because of the refusal of a few to accept our responsibility, this council is saying, by its silence, in effect, ‘tough luck,’ ” The U.S. delegate actually said in response to Nauru.”This is more than disappointing. It’s pathetic. It’s shortsighted, and frankly it’s a dereliction of duty.”

However, the harmonious rhythm was broken by Russia and major developing countries led by China and India. “No Business of UN Security Council”, on behalf of the G77 and China, Ambassador Jorge Argüello of Argentina addressed the concern that the Security Council lacks of expertise and may undermine the existing specified mechanisms like UNFCCC and ECOSOC. Moreover, developing countries argued on the equity issue and railed against the attempt to negotiate the survival of the 193 nations by only 15 members in the council.

Therefore, Russia blocked on the any actions for days before some contacts between Berlin and Moscow. And the debate later ended up with a presidential declaration adopted by all countries unanimously, which was mostly regarded as an important achievement as German ambassador Peter Wittig commented, “This was a good day today for climate security.”


What may depress the Chinese delegates were, however, the news headlines in tones of blame and criticism next day. In fact, journalist may dismiss that this actually is not the first time that countries put climate change on the agenda of Security Council. Two years earlier, 2007, Britain also initiated the open debate on the same issue, which encountered by a protest letter representing more than 100 countries. China and other developing countries held the same position, however, they refused to adopt any document or follow-up action. “Discussions in today’s meeting should be regarded as an exception, with neither outcome documents, nor follow-up actions.” Ambassador from China, Liu Zhenmin, added after sharp arguments.

So if we take this into account, the presidential declaration adopted this time shall be seen as a signal of changing attitude of developing countries toward non-traditional security threats.

And from a even boarder perspective, non-traditional security issues ranging from climate change to HIV/AIDS are not new to diplomats and decision-makers. The concept to bridge climate change and national security can be traced back to a report named as “Redefining National Security” done by Lester R. Brown in 1977. And discussions of “climate security” with other concepts like “human security” heated up from the end of Cold War, and were written into the U.S. military strategy document (“A National Security Strategy of Engagement and Enlargement”) in 1994. For China, scholars started to talk about “climate security” from the beginning of this century. And there recently came out a book called “Climate Change and National Security”, which is authored by Zhang Haibin, a top scholar on International Environmental Politics.

Further, non-traditional security issues were discussed at the platform of Security Council over years. The first time was on children and armed conflict (August 1999), and later, women, peace and security (October 2000), climate change (April 2007) and for the second time earlier this July, HIV/AIDS. Beside, the Council adopted its first resolution in 1999.


Finally, if we put the attempt by Germany this time into a bigger picture of climate politics, it’s not hard to understand that Germany, the key player to spur the negotiation, was trying to prioritize this issue for international cooperation and up-shift it on agenda of governments by tactic of issue linkage. It was used last time when the British administration just released the Stern Report and was moving to a more progressive position.

However, regarding to the Durban negotiation this December, it remains unclear how will this dispute affect trust and transparency in need for an alliance between EU and BASIC countries.


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