Climate change and the Security Council

Last week’s UK-sponsored debate on climate change in the Security Council this week was always going to be contentious, as the Guardian and the Times of India reported (see also a letter to the FT yesterday from UK special representative on climate change John Ashton). As China put it: “The developing countries believe that Security Council has neither the professional competence in handling climate change — nor is it the right decision-making place for extensive participation leading up to widely acceptable proposals.”

The G77 group of developing countries, together with China, have long been acutely sensitive to any perceived encroachment of the Security Council into non-security areas. ‘Soft’ issues like climate change, they argue, belong in the UN’s Economic and Social Council, or indeed in the full General Assembly; but emphatically not in the Security Council, which is seen as an exclusive great powers’ club.

From the perspective of the Foreign Office in London, by contrast, the Security Council debate was an example of ‘disruptive political action’ that could highlight the extent to which climate change is becoming a security issue. As Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett put it, “an unstable climate will exacerbate some of the core drivers of conflict — such as migratory pressures and competition for resources”.

Both China and the UK have a point. For last week’s squabble illustrates a crucial point: that just because climate change doesn’t belong in the Security Council, isn’t to say that it sits any more comfortably anywhere else.

Officially, future action beyond Kyoto’s expiry in 2012 is supposed to be discussed at meetings of Parties to the UN’s 1992 Framework Convention on Climate Change. But in practice, this gathering of environmental ministers is badly configured to yield solutions. The awesomely difficult challenge of forging consensus on a way ahead on climate change is intensely political, and requires the direct engagement of heads of state of key emitter countries. So while UNFCCC meetings may be the forum in which a future deal gets signed, that deal will almost certainly be negotiated elsewhere.

True, the UN does have an Economic and Social Council that is theoretically charged with oversight of such issues. But in reality, the forum is a talking shop. As for the UN’s General Assembly, its paradox is that the very thing that gives it its legitimacy – the fact that every one of the world’s 192 countries has a vote – is the very thing that makes it unwieldy and ineffective.

What then about the G8, where Tony Blair placed so much emphasis on climate change at Gleneagles in 2005? The G8 meets the heads of state requirement, yes. But in the decade since the G7 became the G8, the group has proved much better at agreeing initiatives on action to take internationally (like cancelling third world debt, fighting nuclear proliferation or increasing aid to Africa) than action that implies significant action at home – like climate change.

More fundamentally, the G8’s key failing is that it doesn’t include key developing countries, above all China and India, without whom no solution to climate change is imaginable. True, these countries are – together with Mexico, Brazil and South Africa – part of the ‘plus 5’ group that has been attending G8 summits since 2005. But they are, nonetheless, invited guests rather than members. And the G8’s even larger ‘dialogue’ on clean energy and climate change has been largely limited to apolitical, technical areas.

The real problem is that international institutions fail to reflect today’s power balance. New institutions are usually only created in the aftermath of major crises. So the wake of the Second World War saw the formation of the UN, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund – plus a little later the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (now the World Trade Organisation) and the European Economic Community. The G7 and the International Energy Agency, meanwhile, date from the wake of the oil shock of 1973.

But since then, a new cadre of powers has arrived on the world stage – and found that their new power is not reflected in the world’s multilateral institutions. Yet a new cadre of global risks – like energy security, HIV, ‘flash epidemics’ like avian flu, terrorism, arms proliferation and above all climate change – can only be managed with these new global players as co-architects of the solution.

And so, for now, the world’s states – and people – find themselves in a global game of ‘chicken’. The older generation of great powers are reluctant to move up and make room at the top table for the new kids on the block. Until they do, we should expect to see scant progress on managing global risks.