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Kennedy School Review

Topic / International Relations and Security

Global Governance, Climate Change, and International Security: Aligning Issues to Compel Action

“Humanity is waging war on nature. This is senseless and suicidal.” These are the beginning words of the United Nations’ seminal report, Making Peace with Nature.”1

The consequence of this war is the “triple environmental crises.” Greenhouse emissions continue to exceed safe limits, biodiversity loss rivals periods of mass extinction, and pollution kills more people today than ever. 

Between 2021 and 2023, several flashpoints within the climate-security interplay have been identified in Afghanistan, Somalia, Central African Republic, Columbia, Ethiopia, Sudan, Iraq, South Sudan, Sahel, and Mali.2 Similar analyses have also been carried out for Syria, Egypt, and Yemen.3

For instance, Iraq is on the verge of another human-induced disaster because it is facing the triple environmental threats of extreme weather, biodiversity loss, and pollution. Droughts and water scarcity undermine agriculture and food security. As a result, close to 70,000 people have already been displaced, creating pressure on social and political systems in more densely populated areas.4

Climate, Peace, and Security at the UN: Silos and Friction

Within the UN and beyond, there is a growing conversation on the intersection between climate change and violent conflict. Given the UN’s central role as the global convenor and arbitrator on these topics, the conversation is simultaneously influencing and being influenced by realities on the ground. Climate change is already shaping the future of the global peace and security landscape.

The United Nations Security Council (UNSC) first considered climate-related security risks in 2007.5 It has since recognized climate change as one of several factors affecting global and national stability, and has called for more in-depth analysis, reporting, and risk assessments on the links between environmental shifts and insecurity. During the course of its deliberations until June 2022, the UNSC has held 10 open debates on climate change and security, and issued seven presidential statements on climate change and security.6 In addition, until now, it has also held 22 open debates on climate change related impacts.7

The discussion between climate change and peace and security is a crucial development within the global governance landscapes of climate and security. Climate change has traditionally been placed within the development pillar of the UN, whereas peace and security is a pillar itself. However, the structure and decision-making processes at the UN have not traditionally enabled such linkages. This highly politicized discourse is further complicated by competing views about the Security Council’s mandate, its reform process, and the general division of work within the UN.8

Additionally, several countries have expressed reservations about these developments. They fear it could undermine the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, which is the current global regime for addressing climate change. Further, they worry it would falsely securitize a sustainable development issue by placing it under the purview of the Security Council. They believe this would create a democratic deficit on global climate action, as the Security Council does not include all UN members and gives disproportionate powers to the five permanent members on an issue that has traditionally been placed in a universal decision-making setting.9

Engaging Non-State Actors

Officially, the Security Council has no mechanism to engage non-state actors. However, since the initiation of the Arria Formula meetings in 1992, the UN has tried to work around the issue. These meetings are not part of the UN Charter or the rules of the Security Council. Instead, they are confidential informal discussions on peace and security between interested members of the Security Council and non-state actors, including other international organizations.

Between February 2013 and June 2023, the Security Council held seven Arria Formula meetings on topics related to climate change and peace and security; all included non-state actors as key participants.10 This indicates the increased use of informal governance processes and engagement of non-state actors related to the topic.

Simultaneously, other organs of the UN such as the Secretariat,11 the General Assembly,12 and the Economic and Social Council13 have all maintained the momentum by initiating deliberations at the intersection of climate and peace and security, which have also included non-state actors.

The Political Discussion  

The discussion on the issue is evolving and remains open to several scenarios with varying degrees of securitization. The current scenario frames climate change as a threat multiplier for global security.[14] All actions are conceived as conscious but measured responses to the security risks made worse by climate change.15

However, the potential practical implications at the extreme ends of this conceptual spectrum include highly securitized and non-securitized scenarios.

  • On the highly securitized end: What happens if a county fails to address climate change or proactively accelerates it? The Security Council would suspend a country’s national sovereignty and enable the collective use of force from the international community.16 This treats climate change similarly to other international crimes: genocide, crimes against humanity, and crimes of war.
  • On the non-securitized end: The Security Council would take no action on climate change and dismiss it as a non-issue for international security. Nothing would happen.

While the political discussion on various scenarios is ongoing, the need to better understand the implications of climate change for peace and security has caught on significantly,17 and so has the conversation on the possible roles of the Security Council.18

These developments also provide several opportunities for accelerating action on climate change. Unlike other organs of the UN, the resolutions of the Security Council are legally binding, and the framing of climate in the context of security could lead to heightened interest and incentive for countries to act, including through increased resource allocation.

Moving the Conversation Forward

While there has been significant work on studying the interplay between climate change and violent conflict, scholars are divided on the causal link between the two.19, 20, 21, 22 This paradoxical situation has led to policymakers and diplomats being misaligned with scholars in their discussions concerning climate change and the Security Council.23

Yet, despite the uncertainty, concerns about climate change impacting peace and security have generated traction with academics, practitioners, activists, and policy experts.24

Further, there is a growing convergence on the view that climate change can be a risk multiplier in relation to threats associated with insecurity, overburdening state capacity, and exacerbating vulnerability in already vulnerable communities.25 Additionally, the mechanisms by which these risks manifest tend to be highly context-dependent. They are a function of the localized interaction of climate stressors with exposure factors and society’s sensitivity and coping capacity. 

Certain aspects of the impact of climate change on human security are more evident. For example, several small island developing states are particularly susceptible to displacement and existential threats associated with sea-level rise.26

Other consequences are more complex and play out in various ways, including food insecurity, spiraling poverty, and inequality. These all also have negative effects on displacement, global food prices, and geopolitical stability.27

However, the security implications of these interactions are not confined to traditional conceptions of violent conflict; they can manifest as other forms of insecurity, such as organized crime, armed group activity, and sexual and gender-based violence.28 A context-specific thorough risk analysis could help determine whether or not a particular circumstance meets the conditions under which the effects of climate change can exacerbate insecurity issues.

As evidenced by the growing literature and real-life manifestations, some interlinkages between climate change and peace and security are compelling. A large portion of the population and/or extensive land areas in fragile states face high climate risks with “70% of the bottom quartile of countries most vulnerable to cliamte change are also in the bottom quartile of the most fragile countries in the world.”29, 30

What Could Be Done

Given the current literature and practice, the question is not what is the causal relation between climate change and peace and security. Instead, it is now more important to understand how climate change interacts with existing and emerging conflict dynamics and how to address these challenges. Hence, it is imperative to better understand how these factors manifest in various geographical, sectoral, and temporal contexts and how global governance can effectively respond.

To make progress, several actions could be undertaken across relevant global governance processes: 1) issue framing and agenda setting, 2) norm creation and dissemination, and 3) capacity building. In addition, any meaningful action would need to account for and engage with recent global governance trends, including the emergence of non-state actors and the rise of informal governance processes.

Being able to effectively link these processes and trends will enable meaningful progress on the issue of climate change and peace and security. Such an effort will only happen by addressing divergent views among diverse stakeholders and including more perspectives. Keeping this in mind, the following steps could offer a coherent way forward.

Independent Commission on Climate Change and Peace and Security

Depending on the support within the UN, the Secretary-General, the General Assembly, or the Security Council should consider establishing an independent multistakeholder commission to further deliberate this issue. It should engage a diverse range of stakeholders, including academics, policymakers, legal professionals, practitioners, indigenous leaders, knowledge holders, civil society, and impacted communities.

The commission will allow diverse perspectives to dive deeper into different aspects of the issue and generate more conceptual and practical clarity. More specifically its work could include the following streams:

  • Subject Matter Review. It would study the divergence and convergence in the academic and policy analysis literature. Establishing this understanding is essential to ensure an evidence-informed and data-driven comprehension of the topic. More specifically, the mandate could focus on developing a better substantive and practical understanding of the interplay between climate change and peace and security issues across various contexts.
  • Mapping Institutional Scenarios: It would undertake research on outlining various institutional arrangements within the UN and the broader global governance architecture for addressing the interplay between climate change and peace and security.

This exchange of ideas could enable creative and innovative ways to address the issue or offer suggestions for interim measures until an ideal set-up can be implemented.

It could become the basis for renewed issue framing and agenda settingto initiate both formal and informal governance processes involving a broad range of state and non-state stakeholders. Following progress on the matter, additional actors could be brought on board to further norm creation and dissemination.


While progress has been made in better understanding the interplay between climate change and peace and security, we have also realized the limits of our knowledge. Additionally, given the contextual nature of climate change, its influence is determined, in part, by the localized interplay of a wide range of elements and presents itself in diverse ways in real-world settings. This, in addition to other factors, makes it all the more complicated to calibrate the most appropriate global institutional arrangement to address the issue.

Failure to recognize and manage the nexus of the relationship between climate and security could have significant ramifications in the future between and within countries and communities. Without considering these, efforts to promote sustainable development and peace may fall short.

This is a new era for war. Countries aren’t just fighting with each other; they are also fighting the planet, and with it, the very fabric of what sustains life. Our survival and that of future generations demands new thinking, and the Independent Commission might just be the answer.

Photo credit: Neptuul via Wikimedia Commons

[1] United Nations Environment Programme. (2018). Making Peace with Nature: A Scientific Blueprint to Tackle the Climate, Biodiversity and Pollution Emergencies.

[2] Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, “Climate-related Peace and Security Risks,” SIPRI,

[3] Dan Smith and Florian Krampe, “Climate-related Security Risks in the Middle East,” in Routledge Handbook on Middle East Security, ed. Anders Jägerskog, Michael Schulz, and Ashok Swain (London: Routledge: 2019).

[4] Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, “Climate, Peace and Security Fact Sheet: Iraq,”

[5] United Nations Security Council, “5663rd meeting,”

[6] Cesare M. Scartozzi, “Climate Change in the UN Security Council: An Analysis of Discourses and Organizational Trends.” International Studies Perspectives 23(3): 290-312.

[7] Security Council Report, “Energy, Climate and Natural Resources,”

[8] Ken Conca, Joe Thwaites, and Goueun Lee, “Climate Change and the UN Security Council: Bully Pulpit or Bull in a China Shop?” Global Environmental Politics, 17(2), 1–20.

[9] Ken Conca, “Is There a Role for the UN Security Council on Climate Change?,” Environment: Science and Policy for Sustainable Development, 61(1), 4-15.

[10] Security Council Report, “Arria-Formula Meetings,”

[11] United Nations Department of Political and Peacebuilding Affairs, “Strategic Plan 2020-2022,”

[12] United Nations General Assembly, “Resolution 63/281: Climate Change and its Possible Security Implications,”

[13] Joint Meeting of the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) and the Peacebuilding Commission, “The Impact of Cross-border Transhumance on Sustainable Peace and Development in West Africa and the Sahel,” December 3, 2019,

[14] United Nations General Assembly, “Climate Change and Its Possible Security Implications,” file:///Users/sly/Downloads/A_64_350-EN.pdf

[15] Shirley V. Scott, “Implications of climate change for the UN Security Council: Mapping the Range of Potential Policy Responses,” International Affairs, 91(6), 1317–1333.

[16] Ken Conca, Joe Thwaites, and Goueun Lee, “Climate Change and the UN Security Council.”

[17] Cesare M. Scartozzi, “Climate Change in the UN Security Council.”

[18] Stephanie Cousins, “UN Security Council: Playing a Role in the International Climate Change Regime?,” Global Change, Peace & Security, 25(2), 191–210.

[19] Nicola Jones, “Heating Up Tensions,” Nature Climate Change 1, 327–329.

[20] Idean Salehyan, “Climate Change and Conflict: Making Sense of Disparate Findings,” Political Geography 43, 1–5.

[21] Jürgen Scheffran, Michael Brzoska, Jasmin Kominek, P Michael Link, and Janpeter Schilling, “Climate Change and Violent Conflict,” Science 336(6083), 869–871.

[22] Idean Salehyan, “Climate Change and Conflict: Making Sense of Disparate Findings.”

[23] Ken Conca, Joe Thwaites, and Goueun Lee, “Climate Change and the UN Security Council.”

[24] Ibid.

[25] United Nations Climate Security Mechanism, “Toolbox: Briefing Note,”

[26] Louise van Schaik, Stefano Sarris, and Tobias von Lossow, “Fighting an Existential Threat: Small Island States Bringing Climate Change to the UN Security Council,”

[27] United Nations Climate Security Mechanism, “Toolbox: Briefing Note.”

[28] United Nations Environment Programme, UN Women, UNDP and UNDPPA/PBSO, “Gender, Climate and Security: Sustaining Inclusive Peace on the Frontlines of Climate Change,”

[29] United Nations Climate Security Mechanism, “Toolbox: Briefing Note.”

[30] Climate Security Expert Network, “Climate Change in the United Nations Peacebuilding Commission and Fund,”