• Climate change poses escalating risks to stability and security, with potentially far-reaching consequences, write three experts.
  • The Biden administration's presidency of the UN Security Council in March is a historic opportunity to raise the profile of climate security concerns.
  • But the US cannot address the security risks of climate change alone.

In 2006, Syria entered into a multi-year drought that had a devastating impact on the country’s agricultural harvest and farm animals. Hundreds of thousands of farming families ultimately moved to Syria’s slums to try find a better life.

When the United Nations put out emergency appeals for modest amounts of money to help Syria with the drought, they were dramatically under-funded—member states only provided a quarter of the amount requested in 2008 and a third in 2009. The United States did not contribute.

Scholars believe the displaced were among those who ultimately joined the protests and revolution that the Syrian government violently suppressed.

While early intervention on its own may not have prevented the conflict in Syria, suppose small investments in drought preparedness and response could help us avoid such catastrophes in the future. Would that not be money well spent?

How the landscape of global risks has evolved.
Image: World Economic Forum Global Risks Report

Climate change 'existential threat' to security

We live in an age of “actorless threats” – where challenges to peace and security come not only from agents intentionally trying to do us harm, but also from climate change and pandemics whose impacts are no less severe.

Climate change poses escalating risks to stability and security, with potentially far-reaching consequences, from the risks to fragile states from more volatile weather to the combined effects of rising sea levels and storm surge on the survival of island nations and coastal populations.

coronavirus, health, COVID19, pandemic

What is the World Economic Forum doing to manage emerging risks from COVID-19?

The first global pandemic in more than 100 years, COVID-19 has spread throughout the world at an unprecedented speed. At the time of writing, 4.5 million cases have been confirmed and more than 300,000 people have died due to the virus.

As countries seek to recover, some of the more long-term economic, business, environmental, societal and technological challenges and opportunities are just beginning to become visible.

To help all stakeholders – communities, governments, businesses and individuals understand the emerging risks and follow-on effects generated by the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, the World Economic Forum, in collaboration with Marsh and McLennan and Zurich Insurance Group, has launched its COVID-19 Risks Outlook: A Preliminary Mapping and its Implications - a companion for decision-makers, building on the Forum’s annual Global Risks Report.

The report reveals that the economic impact of COVID-19 is dominating companies’ risks perceptions.

Companies are invited to join the Forum’s work to help manage the identified emerging risks of COVID-19 across industries to shape a better future. Read the full COVID-19 Risks Outlook: A Preliminary Mapping and its Implications report here, and our impact story with further information.

President Biden has said climate change is an “existential threat” to national security. He appointed former Secretary of State John Kerry as special presidential envoy for climate, with a seat on the National Security Council. The president has already issued a series of executive orders directing the country’s intelligence agencies to assess the risks and for other parts of government to examine the links between climate change and migration.

While these are important actions, the security risks of climate change, like the broader problem itself, cannot be addressed by the United States alone – nor are the solutions solely or even primarily military ones. Ultimately, the United States will need partners.

Historic opportunity to highlight climate security

In March, the United States will serve as the rotating president of the UN Security Council for one month. The UN Security Council is the right place to start, given its key role in managing peace and security in the international system. The Biden administration’s new team at the United Nations has an historic opportunity to raise the profile of climate security concerns, but it needs a strategy.

In the past few years, the Security Council has paid more attention to climate security concerns. Prompted by Sweden the UN created a small Climate Security Mechanism in 2018 to help the United Nations more systematically address climate-related security risks and devise prevention and management strategies.

The Security Council also recognized the role of climate change in complicating peace operations in African conflicts, including those in Mali, Sudan and Somalia.

In July 2020, Germany led a high-level debate on climate change and security at the Security Council and proposed several new measures to raise the profile of climate and security concerns, including creating the post of a special representative, developing an enhanced early warning system, and incorporating climate security in all peace operation mandates. However, the Trump administration quashed any hopes of a joint Security Council resolution.

Beyond mitigation to prevention

The Biden administration has an opportunity with elected members Security Council members like Ireland, Kenya and Norway to propose new policies that would bring visibility and build capacity to address these gathering risks. These could include reviving the German proposal but going beyond them.

For example, the Security Council thus far has been reluctant to talk about the risks posed by climate change to low-lying island countries. The United States could seek to bring that issue to the fore. Moreover, we know that climate change and wider environmental damage are increasing the risks of disease transmission from animals to humans. The United States could spur on conversation on ecological security and how to protect the basic life-sustaining functions of the planet.

Terrestrial and marine organisms under differential thermal pressures.
Most of the world is warming.
Image: Council on Strategic Risks

To date, the Security Council has primarily focused on ongoing conflicts and how climate change might have had a role in causing or extending them. Prevention of climate-related security risks has received relatively little attention.

The US should initiate a dialogue on what capacities are needed to prevent climate-related conflicts, building on the recently released strategy for the 2019 Global Fragility Act which is intended to identify problems early and diminish the risks of escalation.

While the Biden administration’s ambassador may be chairing the Security Council’s work this month, success will require building support and overcoming scepticism from Russia and China that the Council is the right place to discuss climate change at all.

A version of this article appeared in the Washington Post.