The United Nations Security Council (Photo courtesy of the United Nations).

Charged meaningless by some and pathetic by others, yesterday’s debate in the United Nations Security Council on the security implications of climate change disappointed the hopes of those in the policy community who, for years, sought action on climate change by the Security Council in absence of any effective multilateral agreement by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

Yesterday’s debate, under the German Security Council presidency, was the second on the topic. The first was held in 2007 under a British presidency, two years before the Pacific Small Island Developing States achieved a hard-won General Assembly Resolution on climate and security in June 2009.

Among the hopes for the debate were, at the least, a Presidential Statement on the matter, and, as Nauru’s President Marcus Stephen wrote in a New York Times op-ed July 19, the appointment of a special representative on climate and security to raise awareness about connections between the two issues and possibly to track ongoing threats. Members of the Pacific small island community such as Nauru have been keen to see the Security Council take a role as their security becomes increasingly compromised by rising sea levels.

Coming to agreement on a Presidential Statement, which in the end simply acknowledged the risks climate change poses to international peace and security, was not easy.  Opposition came from countries such as China and Russia, as well as members from the so-called Non-Aligned Movement, who were mainly concerned about the implications of the powerful Security Council involving itself in matters traditionally reserved for the larger General Assembly. Countries in favor, on the other hand, were said to include the United States, where military leaders and academics alike have examined the intersection of climate change and international and national security issues. Hours after the debate, before any agreement had been reached, the United States Ambassador to the UN, Susan Rice, said the lack of outcome was “pathetic and short-sighted.”

Short-sighted is a fair assessment. The rising sea levels inundating parts of small island states in the Pacific not only affect their own citizens – frightening already as that is – but will affect citizens around the world as islanders search for a safe haven, should the seas continue to rise. Meanwhile, if the increase in extreme weather events affecting food supply, homes and human safety across the world, has not become clear this year, as well as the ongoing mounting evidence that the climate is warming, then it is quite frightening to contemplate what will be enough for policymakers to see that the islands are likely only the beginning of this story.

It is easy to understand skeptics who question what the Security Council, a body more readily able to impose sanctions than to deal with scientific complexities with widespread and uncertain implications, could possibly do for climate change. At the same time, it is precisely the power and small size of the Council that could make it far nimbler, more creative and more effective than the UNFCCC, or even the GA. While an advisor at the Micronesia Mission to the UN, I proposed breaking down the climate change and security issue into more manageable topics, such as territorial sovereignty, for study by working groups or for consultations by expert panels. While neither of these options would result in climate mitigation, they would at least provide the Council with a greater understanding of how climate interacts with issues it is more familiar with (a key distinction, since climate generally does not cause conflict on its own), and give it the ability to step in with greater authority should the need arise.

None of this fully explains precisely what those needs may be in the future – and therein lies another argument for opposition: urgent issues such as a nuclear Iran, for example, must be dealt with before possible future threats in unforeseen locations are examined. Indeed, experts argue a nuclear Iran should be a top priority. Yet another top priority is brewing, as natural resources dwindle due to hotter temperatures and raging wildfires and as the Arctic continues to melt. While tsunamis are not climate-related, one only need look as far as Japan to see the significant policy implications of a massive natural disaster. If an event happens once, it can be seen as an isolated incident. If it becomes commonplace, it can weigh down on a country’s domestic and international obligations, which can have wider ramifications. In the case of atoll nations that will become inundated if sea levels continue to rise, once is all they have.

Policymakers who wished to see the Security Council take up these issues yesterday in their support expressed their  disappointment over the outcome. Nauru’s President Marcus Stephen said, “Let history report that again we have sounded the alarm and the world chose not to act.” Yet he also questioned in his op-ed whether the United Nations is even capable of addressing this issue at all.

Given that the Security did eventually agree on a historical, albeit weak, Presidential Statement, let us hope he is not right.

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