Bridging Needs and Amplifying Voices: The Peacebuilding Commission and Climate-Related Security Risks

16 February 2021   ·   Jake Sherman, Florian Krampe

To include climate change permanently in the UN’s peace and security pillar, Germany should reinforce the Peacebuilding Commission’s role. By fostering the Commission’s cross-pillar mandate and identifying political opportunities to strengthen its advisory role to the UN Security Council, Berlin can support the UN system in adapting to climate-related security challenges.

Given that climate change can exacerbate existing risks of conflict and violence, it is hardly surprising that deliberations in several key UN organs routinely consider the issue of climate-related security risks. Diplomats, government officials from affected states, UN representatives, and civil society briefers in the Security Council and the Peacebuilding Commission have highlighted the devastating effects of climate change on peace and stability. However, the issue has not yet found an institutional “home” within the UN peace and security architecture, resulting in a debate about which body is most appropriate to respond.

The UN Peacebuilding Commission (PBC) appears to be a strong candidate to take a greater role. As a champion of the climate-security agenda at the UN and a major UN donor, Germany is uniquely positioned to strengthen the commission’s role in this important field.

UN Member States Disagree on What the Security Council’s Role Should Be

At the UN, different intergovernmental bodies are responsible for addressing different aspects of climate change and its impacts. These include the Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), the Second Committee of the General Assembly, and the Security Council. Of these, only the Security Council addresses the intersection of climate change with peace and security.

Efforts to approach climate-related security risks at the UN have so far focused overwhelmingly on the Security Council. Germany has played a notable role in this as one of the countries that successfully pushed for the establishment of the Informal Expert Group on Climate Change and Security in 2020. Yet, while the Security Council needs to be better informed about how climate-related security risks impact security situations on its agenda, these are limited to a relatively small number of countries and regions facing serious crises. Moreover, many member states worry that debating these issues in the Security Council risks framing climate change as a threat to security, for which interventionist responses are appropriate. Many are also concerned that it would broaden the council’s role on what they regard as primarily a development issue, which should be addressed in other, more representative fora.

The Peacebuilding Commission Bridges Sectors, Uses Inclusive Approaches, and Empowers Affected Countries

The Peacebuilding Commission has some key advantages that should make it one of the leading UN fora for discussing questions of climate and security, particularly to prevent and mitigate risks before they warrant attention by the Security Council. For one thing, the Peacebuilding Commission exists to bridge the UN’s work on peace and security, human rights, and development. It has a mandate to promote integrated, strategic, and coherent approaches to peacebuilding and to coordinate across the UN system, including at national level. The commission is thus able to examine the multidimensional impact of climate change, allowing interested climate-affected countries to mobilize support and attention across the full range of consequences. The 2020 review of the UN Peacebuilding architecture further supported this mandate. For another, member states already use the Peacebuilding Commission to discuss issues such as the consequences of climate change for conflict prevention and peacebuilding, particularly in the Sahel, the Lake Chad Basin, and the Pacific Islands. The PBC's open meeting July 2020 on the implications of the COVID-19 pandemic for peacebuilding in the Pacific Islands is one of the most explicit discussions on climate-related security risks to date. This underscores the Commission’s growing role as a forum for discussion of these issues by member states, including countries and regions which are not on the Council’s agenda.

Furthermore, the Peacebuilding Commission emphasizes national ownership. Climate-affected countries such as Chad are empowered to highlight their own challenges and successes in grappling with climate-related security risks knowing that they have a say in the response. Notably, the Commission mitigates some of the reluctance of some member states in the Security Council. 

UN member states can use it to generate high level political attention and mobilize funding. Its mandate allows it to convene diverse groups of stakeholders, both within and beyond the UN system, enabling affected states to raise political awareness and spur financial support, including from the UN’s Peacebuilding Fund, development and humanitarian agencies, and international financial institutions.

Five Steps to Strengthen the Peacebuilding Commission’s Role on Climate-Security Risks

The PBC is well-placed among UN bodies to be a forum for states affected by climate-related conflict risks and champions of this issue to highlight that climate change is an increasingly important driver of instability. To help it to secure this role, Germany should focus its efforts on the following five areas: 

1. Use the Commission to Discuss the Effects of Climate-Security on Other Issues

Germany, along with other PBC members, should reinforce the Commission’s cross-pillar mandate to examine the multidimensional facets of climate-related risks for the development, human rights, humanitarian, and peace and security spheres in country and regional settings. Rather than calling for an explicit thematic meeting in the Commission on climate-related security, as some countries urged during a closed door meeting on climate change organized by Germany and France during the 2020 peacebuilding review, Germany should actively organize meetings on other thematic issues. For example, climate-security is crucial for sustainable recovery from conflict, forced migration, food security, and their gender dimensions. The majority of Peacebuilding Commission members favor this gradual, creative approach. They assume it will encourage more countries to seek support from it in relation to climate and security in the long run. This could create a center of gravity within the constellation of the UN’s intergovernmental processes.

2. Push for a Greater Role of the Group of Friends on Climate and Security

As the co-chair of the Group of Friends on Climate and Security, Germany should encourage the Group to take a greater role in the Peacebuilding Commission, not just in the Security Council. It should urge Commission members in the Group of Friends to align their policy positions, encourage countries facing climate-related security risks to utilize the PBC, and build political support for the PBC as a forum for these discussions. 

3. Strengthen the Peacebuilding Commission’s Role Vis-à-Vis Other UN Bodies

The German government should also strengthen the Peacebuilding Commission’s advisory role to the Security Council and other UN bodies. Drawing on its familiarity with the Security Council’s procedures and approaches, Germany should identify political opportunities for the Commission to provide expertise and recommendations on how to address climate-related security risks in countries on the Council’s agenda or to help prepare for visits to affected countries. For this, Germany can take advantage of the growing number of the PBC’s mandates that recognize the adverse effects of climate change. Moreover, the Peacebuilding Commission could have a greater advisory role with ECOSOC, for example, to inform development programs that can mitigate and respond to these risks.

4. Support the UN’s Climate Security Mechanism

Germany should also increase its political and financial support for the UN’s Climate Security Mechanism, strengthening its capacity to provide guidance and advice to the Peacebuilding Support Office on climate-related security risks. Where requested, this information could thus be included in concept notes for formal discussions or to inform briefing documents ahead of Peacebuilding Commission trips to countries affected by climate change, like the one to the Lake Chad Basin in 2017.

5. Invite Experts From Other UN Bodies, Local Governments and NGOs for a Reality Check

It is relatively easy to invite outsiders to address the Peacebuilding Commission. Germany should capitalize on this to draw on a range of expertise from across the UN system, including Resident Coordinators, the most senior representatives of the UN development system in a country, and beyond: regional organizations, nationally based civil society organizations, and local government officials. The utility of this approach was notably demonstrated in discussions on the Sahel and Pacific Islands, where it provided a larger base of “lived experience.” It also narrows the political space for member states that are skeptical about climate science.

In the coming years, climate change will inevitably continue to amplify drivers of violence, displacement, inequality, and marginalization, affecting a growing number of countries. Since its establishment in 2005, the Peacebuilding Commission has taken time to find its place amid the constellation of other, more powerful, more established, or more operational entities. As the UN system adapts to climate-related security challenges and to the needs of member states and their societies, the PBC will have a critical role to play – but it needs the support of member states like Germany to do so.

This article is based on a recently published report by IPI and SIPRI.

Vereinte Nationen Friedensförderung Climate

Jake Sherman

Jake Sherman is Senior Director for Programs for the International Peace Institute.

Florian Krampe

Dr. Florian Krampe is a Senior Researcher and Director of the Climate Change and Risk Programme at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI).