Contested legitimacy: The UN Security Council and climate change
Martin Binder and Monika Heupel, in: Shirley Scott und Charlotte Ku (Hrsg.), Climate
Change and the UN Security Council. Cheltenham, Edward Elgar Publishing, 2018,
Over the past 25 years, the United Nations (UN) Security Council has discovered new
threats to international peace and security. No longer are mainly interstate conflicts
deemed to be threats to peace and security, but also domestic and transnational threats
such as civil wars, gross human rights violations, coup d’états, terrorism and proliferation
of weapons of mass destruction. Moreover, making use of its rediscovered capacity to
act, the Security Council revived long-dormant instruments like sanctions and
peacekeeping and developed new, intrusive instruments including ad hoc tribunals and
legislation to address these threats. Parallel to the revival of the Security Council, in
academia a debate emerged on the security implications of climate change. While scholars
have thus far not found strong evidence for the effects of climate change on armed
it is widely acknowledged that climate change constitutes a threat to human
security and can be regarded as a ‘threat multiplier’ that aggravates pre-existing tensions.
With the international climate change regime suffering from low commitment and lacking
powers of enforcement, it was obvious to think about a role for the reinvigorated Security
Council to address the security implications of climate change. But on what conditions
would Security Council engagement with climate change be effective – and legitimate?
When scholars discuss the potential and desirability of the Security Council in addressing
climate change, they tend to suggest that the effectiveness of the Council depends on the
legitimacy UN member states ascribe to this engagement. Penny suggests that the
unbalanced composition of the Council, namely, the institutional privileges that the
Ole Magnus Theisen and others, ‘Is climate change a driver of armed conflict?’ (2013), 117 Climatic Change 3, 613.
Shirley V. Scott and Roberta C.D. Andrade, ‘The global response to climate change: Can the Security Council assume a lead
role?’ (2012), 18 Brown Journal of World Affairs 2, 215, 216.
Council’s permanent members enjoy, raises questions concerning the legitimacy of the
Council when dealing with unconventional security threats, like climate change.
Focusing on one particular instrument, Scott argues that the Council has the legal
authority for legislative action on climate change, but whether this is effective would in
fact depend on the perceived legitimacy among UN member states.
also focusing on the instrument of legislative action, cautions: ‘It is not currently clear
that the Council possesses the requisite legitimacy to engage in climate regulation.’
Whether and to what extent states confer legitimacy to the Security Council to address
climate change has yet not been systematically examined, however. We know that there
are more states that support the idea of the Security Council addressing climate change
than there are states that reject Council involvement; we also know that support has
marginally grown over time.
That being said, how states evaluate the legitimacy of the
Council when addressing climate change – rather than looking into the related concept of
support – has not been systematically investigated. Nor is there a systematic analysis of
the sources of legitimacy that inform states’ positive and negative assessments of the idea
of the Security Council tackling climate change.
The objective of this chapter is to address this gap and to systematically assess whether
states legitimate or delegitimate the UN Security Council’s authority to address climate
change. For this purpose, we draw on, but extend, a conceptual framework we had
previously developed during a more general study on the legitimacy of the UN Security
The data we use are the two open debates in the Security Council on climate
change from 2007 and 2011. On the basis of a qualitative content analysis of the two
debates, we conclude that the Security Council’s legitimacy is contested. The Council
cannot draw on a sufficient reservoir of legitimacy, given that statements with which
states confer legitimacy to the Council to address climate change (55 percent of all
evaluative statements) only slightly outnumber statements with which states detract
Christopher Penny, ‘Greening the Security Council: Climate change as an emerging “threat to international peace and security”’
(2007), 7 International Environmental Agreements 1, 35, 68.
Shirley V. Scott, ‘Climate change and peak oil as threats to international peace and security: Is it time for the Security Council to
legislate?’ (2008), 9 Melbourne Journal of International Law 2, 495.
Declan Conway, ‘The United Nations Security Council and climate change: Challenges and opportunities’ (2010), 1 Climate Law
3, 375, 384.
Stephanie Cousins, ‘UN Security Council: Playing a role in the international climate change regime?’ (2013), 25 Global Change,
Peace & Security 2, 191.
Martin Binder and Monika Heupel, ‘The legitimacy of the UN Security Council: Evidence from recent General Assembly debates’
(2015), 59 International Studies Quarterly 2, 238.
legitimacy from the Council for this purpose (45 percent of all evaluative statements).
This suggests, at least for the time being, a rather modest and cautious approach among
member states when confronted with the security implications of climate change. When
it comes to the sources of legitimacy states draw on when making legitimating or
delegitimating statements, we observe that the legitimacy of the Council in addressing
climate change derives primarily from the perception that this would fall within the
mandate of the Council and, to a lesser extent, the perception that the Council possesses
sufficient expertise for this undertaking. States that deny the Council legitimate authority
to address climate change primarily question that the body’s mandate encompasses such
action, but also argue that the Council lacks relevant expertise and is a less suitable body
to address a global threat such as climate change than a more representative body would
The chapter will be structured as follows. The second section introduces the concepts of
legitimacy and legitimation while the third section introduces different sources of
legitimacy. The fourth section gives a brief overview of the existing research on the
legitimacy of the Security Council addressing climate change. The fifth section introduces
the data and approach to coding we use. The sixth section presents and interprets the
results. The final section concludes.
LEGITIMACY AND LEGITIMATION
Legitimacy is a fuzzy concept. It usually refers to rightful, moral, or justified rule.
Research on legitimacy distinguishes between normative and empirical (or sociological)
approaches to legitimacy. The former relies on standards to assess whether an order, an
institution, or a decision should be considered legitimate. The latter examines whether
actors perceive something as legitimate, treating legitimacy as a matter of an actor’s
In this chapter we are interested in the Council’s empirical legitimacy
when it comes to addressing climate change. In doing so we use Suchman’s definition
according to which legitimacy is a ‘generalized perception or assumption that the actions
of an entity are desirable, proper, or appropriate within some socially constructed system
Max Weber, Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft. Grundriss der Verstehenden Soziologie (Mohr Siebeck, 1980; first published, 1921).
of norms, values, beliefs, and definitions.’
Legitimacy is not a stable property of an actor or an institution.
In fact, it is frequently
emphasized that legitimacy is subject to practices of legitimation and delegitimation.
Such practices can be comprehended as ‘moral recategorization processes’ as they
involve the ‘acceptance of a claim or claimant into the domain of moral acceptability and
obligation’ (legitimation), or their exclusion from it (delegitimation).
of power is a contested political process that brings together power-holders and their
Legitimation practices are a means to protect existing power relations
against competing claims to authority, to enlarge the authority of a power-holder, and to
dissipate legitimacy deficits. They encompass both the justification of authority claims
and their acceptance.
Delegitimation practices are means to unravel existing authority
relationships and proclaim rival demands for authority. Unlike legitimacy beliefs,
processes of legitimation and delegitimation are observable. Barker, for example, argues
that legitimation is an ‘activity which can be observed[;] it is something that people do,
just as they challenge legitimation.’
As such, processes of legitimation and
delegitimation are conducive to empirical research.
For the analysis of this chapter, we have selected one specific practice through which
states confer legitimacy on international organizations (IOs) or detract it from them,
namely discursive (de)legitimation. We analyze public evaluative statements on the
subject of the Council’s authority to address climate change made by UN member states
in open Security Council debates. The importance of evaluative claims in the process of
(de)legitimation has been emphasized in the literature.
Marc C. Suchman, ‘Managing legitimacy: Strategic and institutional approaches’ (1995), 20 The Academy of Management Review
3, 571, 574.
For a more detailed discussion of the concept see Weber (n. 8); David Beetham, The Legitimation of Power (Humanities Press
International, 1991); and Jürgen Habermas, Communication and the Evolution of Society (Heinemann, 1979). For international
relations research on legitimacy see Ian Hurd, ‘Legitimacy and authority in international politics’ (1999), 53 International
Organization 2, 379; Ian Clark, Legitimacy in International Society (Oxford University Press, 2005); and Jens Steffek, ‘The
legitimation of international governance: A discourse approach’ (2003), 9 European Journal of International Relations 2, 249.
Peter L. Berger and Thomas Luckmann, The Social Construction of Reality (Penguin, 1967); Beetham (n. 10); Clark (n. 10).
Herbert C. Kelman, ‘Reflections on the social and psychological processes of legitimization and delegitimization,’ in John T.
Jost and Brenda Major (eds), The Psychology of Legitimacy: Emerging Perspectives on Ideology, Justice, and Intergroup Relations
(Cambridge University Press, 2001), 57–9.
Rodney Barker, Legitimating Identities: The Self-Presentations of Rulers and Subjects (Cambridge University Press, 2001), 24–
Dominik Zaum (ed.), Legitimating International Organizations (Oxford University Press, 2013).
Barker (n. 13), 24.
For example, Christian Reus-Smit, ‘International crises of legitimacy’ (2007), 44 International Politics 2–3, 157, 159.
SOURCES OF LEGITIMACY
States may refer to different sources of legitimacy when they make evaluative statements
in Security Council debates. We take into account theories that emphasize three different
sources of IO legitimacy: (1) legal legitimacy that highlights state consent; (2) procedural
legitimacy that is based on the fairness of decision-making rules; and (3) performance
legitimacy that is derived from an IO’s ability to fulfill the mandate for which it was
From the perspective of legal legitimacy, legitimacy depends upon whether individuals
have consented to the transfer of authority. According to traditional
interpretations of international law, state consent is the primary source of legitimacy in
international relations. Applied to IOs, their legitimacy depends on two factors: (1) on
whether states have consented to its creation;
and (2) on the extent to which they act in
compliance with their own secondary rules, to which states have given their consent and
which decide who can exercise authority, according to which procedures, and within
which limits. In contrast, if institutions fail to rest on state consent or go beyond their
mandate, they forfeit their legitimacy.
Accordingly, the Council’s legal legitimacy to
address climate change depends on whether addressing this issue is covered by its
mandate (to which all UN member states have consented when they joined the UN) or
whether other legal texts provide such authority.
According to the theory of procedural legitimacy the legitimacy of an institution depends
on the quality of its decision-making procedures.
In particular, four procedural
standards are considered to apply to IOs: (1) equal participation of all of member states
John A. Simmons, Justification and Legitimacy: Essays on Rights and Obligations (Cambridge University Press, 2001).
Louis Henkin, International Law: Politics and Values (Martinus Nijhoff, 1995), 26; Jeremy A. Rabkin, Law Without Nations?
(Vol. 1, Princeton University Press, 2005), 266–7.
Daniel Bodansky, ‘The legitimacy of international governance’ (1999), 93 American Journal of International Law 3, 596; Allen
Buchanan and Robert O. Keohane, ‘The legitimacy of global governance institutions’ (2006), 20 Ethics & International Affairs 4,
Bodansky (n. 19), 605, 608.
Law always needs to be interpreted when it is applied to specific situations, yet there are limits to the leeway actors can have
when interpreting legal documents because the relevant interpretive community determines the boundaries to plausible legal
arguments. Overstepping such limits can entail legitimacy problems given the reputational costs that come along with putting
forward implausible legal arguments; Ian Johnstone, ‘Security Council deliberations: The power of the better argument’ (2003), 14
European Journal of International Law 3, 437, 451, 476.
Tom R. Tylor, ‘Psychological perspectives on legitimacy and legitimation’ (2006), 57 Annual Review of Psychology 1, 375.
when it comes to formal decision-making;
(2) transparency that makes it possible for
interested states and stakeholders to follow the decision-making process;
accountability, meaning that states and other actors affected by IO decisions can hold said
and (4) the extent to which an IO is dominated by great powers capable
of compelling weaker states to comply with the interests of great power agendas and
conform to their values.
Applied to the Security Council, its legitimate authority to
tackle climate change depends on whether it provides decision-making procedures that
secure the participation and representation of all UN member states and other
stakeholders, especially those particularly affected by climate change.
Finally, a third theory of legitimacy stresses the importance of performance or output.
Scharpf argues that output legitimacy stems from the ability of an institution’s ‘problem-
In this sense, states create institutions to fulfill a specific purpose; if
they do not fulfill their purpose or if they create negative externalities, they are not
perceived to be legitimate. In light of IOs frequently not being disposed towards fair
procedures, it has been stated that good performance is the most important, if not the only
source, of an IO’s legitimacy.
According to this account, the Security Council’s
legitimate authority in addressing climate change hinges on its ability to provide the
required expert knowledge to effectively deal with climate change and to secure state
compliance with their obligations to prevent climate change.
EXISTING RESEARCH ON THE LEGITIMACY OF THE UN SECURITY COUNCIL
ADDRESSING CLIMATE CHANGE
In this chapter we examine empirically to what extent states confer legitimacy to or
withhold legitimacy from the Council’s role in addressing climate change and which, if
Klaus Dingwerth, The New Transnationalism: Transnational Governance and Democratic Legitimacy (Palgrave, 2007).
Simon Caney, ‘Cosmopolitan justice and institutional design’ (2006), 32 Social Theory and Practice 4, 725, 748–9.
Ruth W. Grant and Robert O. Keohane, ‘Accountability and abuses of power in world politics’ (2005), 99 American Political
Science Review 5, 29.
Jean-Marc Coicaud and Veijo Heiskanen (eds), The Legitimacy of International Organizations (United Nations University Press,
Fritz W. Scharpf, Regieren in Europa. Effektiv und demokratisch? (Campus, 1999), 6, 11.
Tamar Gutner and Alexander Thompson (2010), ‘The politics of IO performance: A framework’ (2010), 5 The Review of
International Organizations 3, 227.
For a good summary of the state of the art on the UN Security Council and climate change see Dane Warren, ‘Climate change
and international peace and security: Possible roles for the U.N. Security Council in addressing climate change’ (Columbia Law
School, Sabin Center for Climate Change, 2015), accessed 22 September 2016 at
any, of the three sources of legitimacy we have outlined in the previous section they refer
to. As such, our analysis adds to existing scholarship on the Council’s role in addressing
climate change in important ways.
The growing body of literature on the UN Security Council and climate change has
addressed the issue of legitimacy thus far indirectly at most. Scholars frequently concern
themselves with the question of whether the Council has the legal authority to address
climate change or they propose potential measures the Council could take to address the
issue effectively. Given that legality and performance are key sources organizations can
derive legitimacy from, we can say that these scholars implicitly engage in normative
legitimacy research, that is, they assess whether the Security Council, if it did address
climate change, would conform to commonly accepted standards of legitimacy.
One of the key questions asked in this regard is whether the Security Council has the legal
authority to address climate change. Most authors suggest that the answer to this question
is yes, arguing that the Council’s legal authority to address climate can be derived from
the UN charter and is additionally fostered by past practice. Accordingly, Article 39 of
the UN Charter empowers the Security Council to determine the existence of a threat to
international peace and security. The interpretation of what a threat to peace and security
is falls to the Council and there are no legal limits that would constrain the Council’s
leeway in this regard.
Scholars also point out that since the end of the Cold War there
have been many precedents of the Security Council determining unconventional threats
– that is, threats not related to interstate conflict – to be threats to international peace and
security. Moreover, after the terrorist attacks of 9/11 in 2001, the Security Council also
began to define generic threats such as terrorism per se
and any instance of proliferation
of weapons of mass destruction by non-state actors
as threats to peace and security.
Importantly, the Council frequently invoked its Chapter VII powers to authorize
enforcement measures – sanctions, military interventions and legislation – to address the
novel threats to peace and security it had discovered.
Scott (n. 4); Trina Ng, ‘Safeguarding peace and security in our warming world: A role for the Security Council’ (2010), 15
Journal of Conflict & Security Law 2, 275, 281–2.
UNSC Res. 1373 (28 September 2001), UN Doc. S/RES/1373.
UNSC Res. 1540 (20 April 2004), UN Doc. S/RES/1540.
Penny (n. 3).
Another key question of this strand of research is what instruments the Security Council
could and should adopt to effectively address climate change, a question directly relating
to the issue of output legitimacy. Some authors recommend comparatively modest
measures such as monitoring, early warning and peaceful conflict resolution according to
Chapter VI of the UN Charter.
Others suggest that the Security Council, invoking its
Chapter VII powers, could adopt sanctions against multinational companies whose
actions or commodities production are vastly detrimental to the mitigation of climate
Another suggestion is to integrate the Security Council with the international
climate change regime. According to this reasoning, the Council would complement the
existing instruments of the climate change regime that focus on the provision of
information on compliance with emission reduction commitments by providing its
Finally, scholars propose two further measures, acknowledging,
though, that there is at present not enough political will to make these measures feasible.
First, while the Council has the legal authority to authorize the use of force against states
whose failure to substantially reduce their CO2 emissions it deems to constitute a threat
to peace and security, such a step is still no plausible scenario given that three of the five
permanent Council members (P5) – the United States, China and Russia – are among the
world’s largest emitters.
Second, the Security Council could draw on the precedents of
Resolutions 1373 and 1540 and adopt a quasi-legislative resolution that would compel all
states to take measures to prevent and mitigate climate change; again, however, lack of
will among the P5, which would also be required to take these steps, makes this scenario
Normative legitimacy research that assesses whether an organization conforms to general
standards of legitimacy is a worthwhile undertaking in its own right. Although, it does
not tell us anything, however, about whether states perceive the idea of the Security
Council addressing climate change to be legitimate. We do not know, thus, whether UN
Cousins (n. 6).
Shirley V. Scott, ‘Implications of climate change for the UN Security Council: Mapping the range of potential responses’ (2015),
91 International Affairs 5, 1317, 1324.
Ng (n. 30).
Bruce Gilley and David Kinsella, ‘Coercing climate action’ (2015), 57 Survival 2, 7, 13–14.
Conway (n. 5); Scott (n. 2), 224; Trudy Fraser, ‘From environmental governance to environmental legislation. The case of
climate change at the Security Council,’ in Vesselin Popovski and Trudy Fraser (eds), The Security Council as Global Legislator
member states acknowledge the legal authority of the Council to address climate change.
Likewise, we do not know whether UN member states believe that the Council could
make a valuable contribution to addressing climate change. And we do not know whether
UN member states believe that the Council, despite its membership rules and decision-
making procedures that give privileges to the P5, is a legitimate body to address a global
problem such as climate change.
Scholars who investigate state perceptions related to the idea of the Security Council
addressing climate change normally investigate the level of support for the Council taking
on this role, the specific instruments envisioned for the Council, and the concept of
security states implicitly or explicitly adhere to when commenting on the issue. Looking
at one (2007) or both (2007 and 2011) of the two public debates in the Security Council
on the issue of climate change, scholars have shown that the states that welcome a role
for the Council in addressing climate change outnumber the states that do not want the
Council to take on such a role.
Scholars have also shown that support has grown over
time, with the difference of the number of states voicing support for and those rejecting
Council engagement with climate change increasing between 2007 and 2011.
have also discovered that different groups of states support or reject the idea of the
Council addressing climate change to a varying extent, with developed countries (and
especially European Union member states) and Small Island Developing States (SIDS)
displaying significantly more support than members of the Group of 77 as well as Russia
and China who tend to reject Council involvement.
Others have looked into what
concepts of security states adhere to when speaking on the issue of the Security Council
addressing climate change, that is, whether they believe that climate change leads to
increased violent conflict over resources or whether they believe that climate change has
negative implications for human security.
Finally, scholars have examined what role
states envision for the Council if it did engage with the issue of climate change and have
found that states mostly favor an advisory role, focusing on monitoring, early warning
Nicole Detraz and Michele Betsil, ‘Climate change and environmental security: For whom the discourse shifts’ (2009), 10
International Studies Perspectives 3, 303, 312; Cousins (n. 6) 202–3.
Cousins (n. 6), 202–3.
Detraz and Betsil (n. 39).
and peaceful conflict resolution.
Empirical research that investigates state support for a
role of the Security Council in addressing climate has generated valuable insights. It does
not necessarily tell us much, however, with regard to whether states consider Council
engagement with climate change to be legitimate. After all, a state might voice its support
for the Security Council addressing climate change for reasons other than perceived
legitimacy. Hence, while support is usually to some extent related to legitimacy, it is still
a broader and rather vague concept.
Some scholars who examine state perceptions also investigate the arguments states make
when justifying their support for or their rejection of the idea of the Security Council
addressing climate change. Inasmuch as these justifications relate to sources of
legitimacy, these scholars engage in empirical legitimacy research. In this regard, scholars
have found that states that welcome a role of the Council in addressing climate change
frequently argue that such an engagement would be authorized by the mandate of the
Council, while states that are less open for the Council to take on this role often view
Security Council engagement with climate change as an encroachment on the mandates
of other UN bodies.
Others have found that states justify their rejection of the idea of
the Security Council addressing climate change by pointing to the democratic deficit of
the Council, while they defend their support for Council involvement by suggesting that
the Council could make an effective contribution to this undertaking.
What we still lack,
however, is a systematic analysis of whether states legitimate or delegitimate the Security
Council’s authority to address climate change, which of the different sources of
legitimacy they refer to, and how legitimacy perceptions evolve over time. This chapter
will address this gap and complement existing (explicit and implicit) research on the
legitimacy of the Security Council addressing climate change.
DATA AND CODING
To analyze the process of legitimation and delegitimation of the Council’s authority to
address climate change, we focus on the positive and negative evaluative statements that
Francesco Sindico, ‘Climate change: A Security (Council) issue?’ (2007), 1 Carbon and Climate Law Review 1, 26, 32; Cousins
Detraz and Betsil (n. 39).
Sindico (n. 43), 31–3; Gerrit Kurtz, ‘Securitization of climate change in the United Nations 2007–2011,’ in J. Schaffran and
others (eds), Climate Change, Human Security and Violent Conflict (Springer, 2012), 676.
UN member states have made during public debates of the Security Council. More
specifically, the data we use consist of the two open debates in the Council on the issue
of climate change that have taken place thus far, namely in 2007 (5663th Meeting,
) and 2011 (6587th Meeting,
). All UN member states,
that is, both Council members and states not represented in the Council, were invited to
take part in the debates and voice their views on the relationship between international
peace and security and climate change. During the 2007 debate, 32 states made at least
one evaluative statement relating to the legitimacy of the Security Council addressing
climate change; during the 2011 debate, 38 states made at least one such statement. If we
take both debates together, we can see that 57 states made at least one statement
evaluating the legitimacy of the Security Council addressing climate change in at least
one debate. Overall, we coded 118 evaluative statements.
To identify statements on the perceived legal legitimacy of the Security Council
addressing climate change, we developed two indicators. Mandate refers to statements
that assess whether addressing climate change is covered by the mandate of the Security
Council. Resolutions relates to statements that evaluate whether existing General
Assembly or Security Council resolutions empower the Council to address climate
change. To capture statements on the perceived procedural legitimacy of the Council
addressing climate change, we also developed two indicators. State participation refers
to statements that assess whether the composition and voting rules of the Security Council
make the Council a body that can represent the international community as a whole and
especially those countries most affected by climate change. Stakeholder participation
relates to statements that evaluate whether the Council allows non-state stakeholders, that
is, civil society organizations, to impact on Council decision-making relating to climate
change. Finally, to be able to find evaluative statements on the perceived performance
legitimacy of the Security Council addressing climate change, we likewise developed two
indicators. Expertise refers to statements that assess whether the Council disposes of the
necessary expert knowledge to effectively deal with climate change and its security
implications. Enforcement powers relates to statements that evaluate whether the Council
UNSC Provisional Verbatim Record (17 April 2007), UN Doc. S/PV/5663.
UNSC Provisional Verbatim Record (17 April 2007), UN Doc. S/PV/5663 (Resumption 1).
UNSC Provisional Verbatim Record (20 July 2011), UN Doc. S/PV/6587.
UNSC Provisional Verbatim Record (20 July 2011), UN Doc. S/PV/6587 (Resumption 1).
has effective mechanisms at hand to induce compliance with commitments in order to
prevent or mitigate climate change (see Table 3 below).
The following evaluative statement by the representative from Brazil in 2007 serves as
an example of our coding procedure: ‘The global nature of climate change and its multiple
dimensions suggest that any relevant international debate on the issue should take place
at a forum of universal representation, such as the General Assembly.’
receives one code for the year in which the statement was made (‘2007’), one code for
the indicator the speaker addressed (‘state participation’), and one code for the evaluation,
that is, whether the speaker makes a positive or negative statement (‘negative’). If the
same speaker subsequently applauded the Council’s reforms with regard to state
participation, we would treat this as a new evaluative statement and would assign the
codes ‘2007’, ‘state participation,’ and ‘positive’. When coding the debates, we consider
only one positive and one negative evaluative statement on each indicator per speaker and
debate. We do so because it is difficult to say whether multiple positive or negative
assessments with regard to the same indicator in the same debate are a function of
emphasis or lack of structure of the statement.
RESULTS AND INTERPRETATION
Out of all 118 evaluative statements on the legitimacy of the UN Security Council
addressing climate change in the open Council debates of 2007 and 2011, 65 have been
positive and 53 have been negative. Thus, the share of positive statements only slightly
outnumbers the share of negative statements: 55 percent of all statements are positive
while 45 percent of all statements are negative (Table 1). This discrepancy is more or less
constant over time, with only a slight increase of the share of positive statements between
2007 and 2011. In the 2007 debate, 53 percent of all 55 statements have been positive
while 47 percent have been negative. In the 2011 debate, 57 percent of all 63 statements
UNSC (n. 47), 21.
Binder and Heupel (n. 7), 243.
have been positive while 43 percent have been negative. This suggests that the Council’s
legitimacy in addressing climate change is contested.
Table 1 here
Which sources of legitimacy do UN member states refer to when they legitimate or
delegitimate the idea of the Security Council addressing climate change? (See Table 2)
Clearly, the idea of the Security Council addressing climate change primarily derives
legitimacy from states suggesting that the Council would act legally if it did address
climate change. In fact, 71 percent (46 of 65) of all positive statements relate to legal
legitimacy. Among these statements, most statements (38 of all 65 positive statements)
relate to the Council’s compliance with its mandate when addressing climate change.
Indeed, we find many statements similar to the following statement by the representative
“Notwithstanding what the other forums, including the General Assembly, already deal
with, the Security Council is well positioned to incorporate that new dimension of threat
perception into its considerations and ad hoc discussions, while remaining within its
Or as well, the statement by the representative of Fiji:
“In asking the Council to deal with the issue of the security implications of climate
change, we do not consider that there has been any encroachment on the mandates of the
relevant organs and bodies of the United Nations that already deal with climate change.
What we are asking the Council to do is to fulfill its responsibilities as conferred upon it
by the Charter.”
Some statements (8 of all 65 positive statements) suggest that states believe that
previously adopted General Assembly or Security Council resolution provide some form
UNSC (n. 46), 4.
UNSC (n. 49), 36.
of legal authority for the Security Council to address climate change. Invoking a General
Assembly resolution of 2009, the President of Nauru, for instance, stated:
“In the 2009 General Assembly resolution on climate change and its possible security
implications (Resolution 63/281), we agreed that all relevant organs of the United
Nations, within their respective mandates, should intensify their efforts to address climate
change, including its possible security implication.”
Referring to a Security Council resolution of 2005, the representative of Luxembourg
“As early as 2005, the Security Council stressed the need to adopt a comprehensive
conflict prevention strategy addressing globally the underlying causes of armed conflict
and political and social crises. By this logic, it is critical that the security implications of
climate change be factored into the Council’s reflections and mandates.”
Only 21 percent of all positive statements (14 out of 65) on the legitimacy of the Security
Council addressing climate change refer to performance legitimacy. Of these, all but one
statement (13 out of 14) highlight the Council’s evolving expertise in addressing climate
change. The representative of Switzerland, for example, made the following statement:
“Where environmental factors are elements explicitly affecting security, the Council may
wish to consider creating a specific environmental capacity for conflicts and thus
strengthen its own abilities in this area. Above all, we see added value in that the Security
Council, when debating a specific conflict, would have recourse to environmental
expertise that could help it understand the drivers of conflict or provide assessments of
the environmental impact of the conflict.”
Others, like the representative of the United States, point to the more general ability of
the Council to adapt to new threats:
UNSC (n. 48), 23.
UNSC (n. 49), 4.
UNSC (n. 46), 26.
“The Council has shown an impressive ability in the past to embrace its responsibilities
to combat new peace and security threats, as it has done over the past 20 years in adapting
traditional peacekeeping tools to address new and more complex political and security
crises around the world.”
The remaining one statement relating to performance legitimacy indicates that a state
believes that the Council’s enforcement powers make it a suitable body to address the
issue of climate change. Accordingly, the representative of Papua New Guinea argues:
‘[w]e do expect the Security Council to keep the matter under continuous review so as to
ensure that all countries contribute to solving the climate change problem and that their
efforts are commensurate with their resources and capacities.’
Finally, only 8 percent of all positive statements (5 out of 65) on the legitimacy of the
Security Council addressing climate change refer to procedural legitimacy. All of these
statements are positive statements on the issue of state participation. On the one hand,
states make the argument that the Security Council represents the interests of the larger
UN membership. The representative of Fiji, for instance, states:
“All Member States agreed under the Charter that in carrying out its duties and
responsibilities, the Security Council acts on our behalf. We rely on the Council’s wisdom
to represent the interests of all Members of the United Nations and its organs in the
fulfilment of its mandate. We urge the Council to deliver on its part.”
On the other hand, states argue that the Council acts especially on behalf of Small
Developing Island States (SIDS), that is, those states whose security is most threatened
by climate change. The US representative, for example, states:
UNSC (n. 48), 7.
UNSC (n. 46), 29.
UNSC (n. 49), 36.
“We have dozens of countries represented in this body and in this very Chamber whose
very existence is threatened. They have asked the Council to demonstrate our
understanding that their security is profoundly threatened.”
Similarly, the representative of Germany underlines:
“Over one year ago, the Pacific small island States urged the Security Council to consider
the security implications of climate change. They appealed to the Security Council to
fulfill its mandate for the maintenance of international peace and security.”
No state makes the argument that the Council is a legitimate body to address climate
change because it is open to input from civil society stakeholders.
On what sources do states draw when they delegitimate the Council addressing climate
change? (See Table 2 below.) About half of all negative statements refer to a perceived
lack of legal legitimacy (51 percent or 27 out of 53 negative statements). Most of these
statements (23 out of all 53 negative statements) suggest that states believe that addressing
climate change does not fall within the mandate of the Security Council. As India states
“We of course know the obvious: climate change is not a threat in the context of Article
39 of the Charter.”
Egypt argues along similar lines:
“What concerns us more is the deliberate encroachment of the Security Council on the
mandates and primary responsibilities of other principal United Nations organs and
subsidiary bodies, as defined by the Charter. This reflects clear and deliberate neglect of
the provisions of the Charter. We are also concerned by the Council’s indifference to the
UNSC (n. 48), 7.
UNSC (n. 47), 21.
repeated demands of Member States to put an end to this dangerous and unjustified
The remaining four negative statements refer to the second indicator we developed to
capture statements on legal legitimacy, that is resolutions, and suggest that some states
do not believe that previous General Assembly or Security Council resolutions provide
legal authority to the Security Council to address climate change. Referring to the above-
mentioned General Assembly resolution, the representative of Russia stated:
“As a compromise, we agreed to join the consensus when General Assembly Resolution
63/281, on climate change and its possible security implications, was adopted. While we
recognize the Security Council’s prerogatives as the body that has primary responsibility
for the maintenance of international peace and security, we believe that referring to that
resolution to justify consideration of this issue in the Council is not right. The resolution
was the outcome of months of difficult negotiations in which all States Members of the
United Nations participated and reflects the fact that many countries are not prepared to
see the issue of climate placed on the agenda of the Council.”
Similarly, referring to the above-mentioned Security Council resolution, the
representative of Argentina argued:
“Security Council Resolution 1625 (2005) reaffirmed the need to adopt a broad strategy
of conflict prevention that addresses the root causes of armed conflict and political and
social crises in a comprehensive manner, including by promoting, inter alia, sustainable
development and poverty eradication. . . In our view, this must not lead, under any
circumstances, to the question of climate change being incorporated into the agenda of
the Security Council.”
Approximately a quarter of all negative statements on the legitimacy of the Security
Council addressing climate change (26 percent or 14 of all 53 negative statements) relates
UNSC (n. 48), 13.
UNSC (n. 47), 26.
to performance legitimacy. Of these statements, all but one statement (13 out of 14) refer
to a perceived lack of expertise of the Security Council with regard to addressing climate
change. See in this regard the statement by the representative of Brazil:
“Security tools are appropriate to deal with concrete threats to international peace and
security, but they are inadequate to address complex and multidimensional issues such as
Consider also the statement by the representative of China:
“Climate change may affect security, but it is fundamentally a sustainable development
issue. The Security Council lacks expertise in climate change and the necessary means
Only one state considers that the Council may be unlikely to make a valuable contribution
to combatting climate change because it lacks the necessary enforcement powers to
enforce commitments for the reduction of CO2 emissions. See the statement by the
representative of Bolivia:
“[. . .]while we recognize the security dimension of this issue [climate change], we do not
believe that the issue should be addressed by the Security Council because the
representatives of the largest emitters of greenhouse gases are precisely those States with
permanent seats in the Council and the right to veto.”
Slightly less than a quarter of all negative statements (23 percent or 12 of all 53 negative
statements) refer to procedural legitimacy. All of them relate to a perceived failure of the
Council to represent the entire UN membership if it did address climate change. Indeed,
we find a substantial number of statements where states deplore the exclusiveness of the
Council and underline that a global issue such as climate change should be addressed by
a more representative body. The representative of Qatar, for instance, argues:
UNSC (n. 48), 8.
UNSC (n. 49), 26.
In our view, the Security Council, because of imbalances in its power hierarchy, is not
the optimal mechanism to address the question of climate change.
Less diplomatically, the representative of Bolivia states:
“The security aspect of climate change should be dealt with in a forum where the guilty
States do not possess permanent seats or the right to veto. It should be discussed in a
forum where the main victims are adequately represented: the island States threatened
with disappearance, countries with glaciers, the countries of Africa, and all of the
developing countries that have to pay for damage that they did not cause. Today, the only
forum with this level of participation is the General Assembly. For that reason, all aspects
of climate change should be addressed comprehensively by that body.”
No state makes the argument that better civil society stakeholder participation would
enhance the legitimacy of the Council’s involvement in climate change.
Table 2 here
Table 3 here
We can summarize the results as follows (and as shown in Table 3). The Council’s
legitimacy to tackle climate change is contested. While a slight majority of evaluative
statements (55 percent) confer legitimacy to the idea of the Security Council addressing
climate change, there is still a substantial minority of statements (45 percent) that
delegitimate this idea. While this pattern is rather constant over time, the share of positive
statements has slightly grown over time, with the distance between positive and negative
statements growing from 53 percent to 47 percent in 2007 (6 percentage points) to 57
percent to 43 percent in 2011 (14 percentage points). Both positive and negative
assessments of the legitimacy of the Security Council addressing climate change are
UNSC (n. 46), 10.
UNSC (n. 49), 26.
primarily driven by evaluations of the legal authority of the Council to address climate
change and especially the question as to whether the Council complies with or supersedes
its mandate if it did address climate change: 38 out of all 65 positive statements and 23
out of all 53 negative statements refer to the indicator mandate alone. Again with regard
to both positive and negative statements, the second most often coded indicator is
expertise: in both cases, 13 statements refer to either a belief in the expertise of the
Council to address climate change or a belief in the perceived lack of such expertise.
Beyond that we can observe differences. When it comes to positive legitimacy
assessments, perceived legal authority derived from existing General Assembly and
Security Council resolutions ranks third (8 of 65). By contrast, when it comes to negative
legitimacy assessments, perceived unfairness of Council composition and decision-
making rules, that is, lack of representativeness, ranks third (12 of 53).
How can we interpret these results? Most importantly, we believe that the results suggest
that the legitimacy of the Council when it comes to addressing climate change is tenuous.
While it is true that states more often confer legitimacy to the idea of the Council dealing
with climate change (55 percent of all statements), there are nearly as many evaluative
statements (45 percent) that delegitimate this idea. The Security Council depends on the
perceived legitimacy among UN member states because it is the individual states that
implement its decisions. This applies all the more so to its coercive powers: To conduct
military interventions the Security Council depends on states providing troops; for
sanctions to be effective, they must be implemented and enforced by national authorities;
and to make states implement far-reaching quasi-legislative sanctions, the Council can do
little more than appeal to the good will of states and facilitate capacity building. At
present, thus, states do not confer to the Security Council the required legitimacy to
effectively engage with climate change based on Chapter VII resolutions.
Some states suggest that given the magnitude of the threat emanating from climate
change, the issue of legitimacy is of secondary importance and doubts concerning the
legitimacy of the Council addressing climate change should not prevent the Council from
engaging with this issue. The following statement by New Zealand is an example of this
“[F]or those low-lying small island States. . .for which climate change poses the ultimate
security risk – that of ceasing to exist as States and as communities – debates about
whether this constitutes a legitimate topic for discussion cannot but seem rather abstract
and deeply divorced from the severity and urgency of the challenges they face.”
Such an assessment is shortsighted. For a response by the Council to climate change to
be effective, it needs to be legitimate in the eyes of a substantial number of UN member
states. One may argue, as the editors of this volume do in the introduction, that, if certain
conditions are given, not Security Council action but Security Council inaction on the
issue of climate change may be illegitimate. According to this reasoning, there may be
tipping points at which climate change leads to dramatic and irreversible consequences.
If these conditions are given and the Council does not use its power to mandate the
necessary adaptation and mitigation measures, its inaction would be illegitimate. This
reasoning is plausible. Yet, at present we are not sufficiently close to such tipping points
to warrant Council intervention that is not fully backed by UN member states.
Hence, our analysis suggests that if the Security Council does address climate change
now, it should, at least for the moment, take modest, cautious measures rather than
pressing ahead with coercive measures. Looking at the same data we have used for our
analysis, others have shown that states, when proposing specific measures they would
like the Council to take to address climate change, tend to propose comparably
uncontroversial measures such as monitoring, early warning and peaceful conflict
resolution rather than more controversial and intrusive measures such as sanctions,
military interventions or quasi-legislative resolutions based on Chapter VII of the UN
Moreover, taking modest steps first might have a socializing effect and generate
support among those states that at present do not ascribe legitimacy to the idea of the
Council addressing climate change. Those states that strongly welcome a role for the
Cousins (n. 6).
Council in addressing climate change seem to be aware of the unfeasibility of coercive
measures. At least, we did not find a single state openly advocating for coercive measures
such as sanctions, military interventions or sweeping legislation that are so often debated
in the academic literature. States seem to acknowledge that most states would not consider
the adoption of coercive measures to be legitimate and that openly campaigning for them
would run the risk of detracting the tenuous existing legitimacy of the Security Council
adopting modest measures to address climate change.
At the same time, that the legitimacy of the Council addressing climate change at present
is not sufficient for the Council to take on a strong role in addressing climate change does
not imply that this might not be different in the future. We know that legitimacy is
something that is ascribed and withdrawn and that it is constantly in flux. And we know
that IOs constantly engage in self-legitimation to bolster their claim to authority.
sense, if applying the right approach, the Council can do a lot to increase the perceived
legitimacy of its engagement with climate change. Our results, which have unearthed
three main concerns states hold, suggest that the Council would have to make a better job
in explaining why it believes that the way it would like to address climate change falls
within its mandate. It would also have to convince states that it disposes of the relevant
expertise to address the security implications of climate change. Last, the Council would
have to respond to the criticism that it is an elite club that does not represent the entire
international community, for instance by providing better input opportunities for non-
All this will not be enough, however, to increase the legitimacy of the Security Council
addressing climate change in the eyes of UN member states, as long as the P5, but also
other major emitters, continue to be reluctant to substantially reduce their greenhouse gas
emissions, as evidenced by US President Trump’s recent announcement to withdraw from
the Paris Agreement. Indeed, in the debates we examined, states do point to the
contradiction in the position of many major emitters between deploring the negative
effects of climate change on security and advocating for the Security Council to take on
an active role in addressing climate change, on the one hand, and their failure to
Zaum (n. 14).
substantially reduce their emissions. Some states, like Egypt, for example, even consider
the idea to involve the Security Council in addressing climate change to be an attempt of
developed countries to evade their responsibility for complying with promises to reduce
greenhouse gas emissions:
Thus, the developing countries, including Egypt, view this open Security Council debate
as an attempt by the developed countries to shrug off their responsibilities in that regard.
The right path to combat this dangerous phenomenon is clear and lies in the fulfillment
by all parties – developed and developing – of their commitments according to the
principle of common but differentiated responsibilities.
The contradictory behavior of states that advocate for the Security Council to address the
security implications of climate change while failing to honestly commit to preventing
climate change in the first place is indeed rife with double standards. Avoiding these
double standards will, however, be necessary to make UN member states, and especially
developing countries, more likely to perceive the idea of the Security Council addressing
climate change to be legitimate.
Our analysis of the two open debates on climate change in the Security Council of 2007
and 2011 has shown that the legitimacy of the Council to address climate change is
contested. Only a slight majority of all evaluative statements on the Council’s authority
to address climate change are positive (55 percent) while nearly as many are negative (45
percent). When states ascribe legitimacy to the Security Council addressing climate
change, they primarily refer to the Council’s mandate, but also to the Council’s expertise
in this matter and its authority derived from previous Council and General Assembly
resolutions. States that deny the Security Council legitimacy when it comes to dealing
with climate change primarily hold that the Council’s mandate does not cover climate
change, but also that the Council lacks expertise and representative decision-making
rules. Based on these findings, we have suggested that the Council, if it does address
UNSC (n. 47), 5.
climate change, should, at least for the time being, opt for a modest approach, focusing
on consent-based measures.
A more intrusive approach would require powerful Council members but also developed
countries outside the Council to be responsive to the allegation of double standards raised
by many countries in the analyzed debates. Indeed, we agree with many states’ assessment
that the best way to reduce the risk of climate change–induced conflicts or alleviate the
climate change–induced negative implications for human security would be for the major
emitters to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. In this sense, it seems somewhat
schizophrenic on the side of many developed countries to argue for the Council to play a
powerful role in mitigating the security-related effects of climate change without being
ready to substantially reduce their emissions and prevent climate change in the first place.
The following sarcastic statement by Bolivia can be understood against this background,
“Allow me to end my statement with a question. Would it be possible for the Security
Council to adopt a resolution establishing a reduction of some 10 or 20 percent in defense
and security expenditures, and directing that money to efforts to address the effects of
With this statement, the representative of Bolivia tries to hold a mirror up to the powerful
countries dominating the Security Council, suggesting that if these countries really would
like to do something to prevent climate change and its negative security-related
implications, they could take action – but that taking action is costly for them and
The last open debate in the Security Council on climate change has taken place in 2011,
that is, more than four years before the Paris Agreement of last December. Unlike any
other global climate change agreement before, however, the Paris Agreement is based on
commitments by all major emitters to reduce their CO2 emissions. For sure, the
Agreement suffers from the uneven ambitiousness of the national commitments to
UNSC (n. 49), 26.
emission reduction, from the Agreement’s weak enforcement powers and may be severely
weakened if the current US government follows through with its announcement to
withdraw from the Agreement. Nonetheless, the Paris Agreement is a signal of the past
and present major emitters that they accept, to some extent, a responsibility for the
prevention and attenuation of climate change. If there will be a further open debate in the
Council on the role of the Council in addressing climate, this signal might well be
acknowledged, and the legitimacy of the Security Council addressing climate change
might be evaluated more positively.