Craft and the Council: Will Kelly Knight Craft end climate action at the UN Security Council?

An Arria Formula debate at the Security Council in 2017

In late February, Donald Trump announced Kelly Knight Craft, a 57-year-old Kentucky native, as his pick to succeed Nikki Haley as US Ambassador to the United Nations.

Kelly Knight Craft

Craft’s international experience is pretty limited: two years as the US ambassador to Canada. Even so, while the dates of her confirmation hearing have yet to be announced, it is likely that she’ll be confirmed by a Senate that already cleared her for the Canada post in 2017 and is somewhat overwhelmed by the historically high turnover in the Trump administration.

The new ambassador will represent the US as one of five permanent seats on the UN Security Council, the UN’s most powerful body, with the power to authorise coercive action on real and present threats to international peace and security.

Craft will likely aim for a lower profile than Nikki Haley, the former governor of South Carolina, who riled Trump by hinting at her ambitions for higher office and demonstrating a degree of independence from the White House – on occasion even publicly contradicting the president.

One of the many contentious topics facing the Security Council is what, if anything, it should be doing about climate change, which many political and military analysts argue threatens international peace and security. This begs the question of what Craft’s time on the Council might mean for the prospect of action on the security impacts of climate change. 

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On paper it doesn’t look very promising.

Craft is a political newbie. Her main ‘qualification’ for the role is that she is a major Republican donor and was an early supporter of Trump’s campaign. She is married to Joe Craft, a billionaire coal miner, who donated a million dollars to Trump’s inauguration committee and was a vocal critic of Obama’s climate policies.

Now Nikki Haley was no climate justice warrior—she did preside over the US pulling out of the Paris Agreement, after all—but she did at least agree that the climate is warming and humans are to blame. Craft, for her part, has stated that she believes in “both sides of the science”, the sort of false equivalence in the depiction of the debate on climate change that is much beloved by the climate sceptic crowd.

Nevertheless, the growing realization that the scope, pace and severity of climate change could have drastic impacts on international security means the issue has become a repeat visitor on the agenda of the Security Council.

The UK sponsored a first open and exploratory discussion (known in the jargon as an Arria formula debate) on the issue in April 2007. This was followed by more such debates in 2011, 2013, 2015 and 2018. Most recently, the Dominican Republic hosted another debate in January 2019. Each debate has helped to create ‘political space’ and acceptance that this is an issue the Security Council should tackle. But they’ve been also been very low on the Security Council food chain – non-binding, investigative discussions that don’t commit countries to anything.

More recently, there has been a trend towards geographically specific Security Council resolutions. In March 2017 the Council passed resolution 2349, which highlighted the need to address climate-related risks as part of conflict resolution in the Lake Chad basin, and in resolution 2408 in 2018, which recognised the destabilising impacts of climate change in Somalia.

Over the past five years, several European nations have pushed the issue of climate security during their rotating membership of the Council. The Dutch started the Planetary Security Initiative in 2015 as part of their preparation for their 2018 seat on the Council. Sweden made climate security one of its priority issues during its period on the Council in 2017-2018 and pushed for the creation of a Climate Security Mechanism: a three-way partnership between UNDP, UN Environment and the Department for Political and Peacebuilding Affairs (DPPA) to advise the Council on climate-related risks.

In August 2018, Germany and Nauru set up an informal “Friends of climate change and security” group, which more than 40 countries have joined. In January of this year, Germany took its temporary seat on the Council with high hopes of driving resolute action on climate and security. One option for the Council is to adopt a general resolution on climate security, perhaps akin to resolution 1325 on women, peace and security. That resolution, adopted in October 2000, helped to reframe and energise international action on addressing the disproportionate impact of conflicts on women.

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Unlike Haley, Craft’s ambassadorship will probably not be a cabinet-level position. Her lack of experience and her debt to Trump mean she is likely to channel the Trump administration’s policy positions more directly than Haley ever did. These positions are nativist, populist and deeply suspicious of collective action through international organisations. Let’s not forget that Trump famously called climate change a “hoax” perpetrated for the benefit of China.

Craft will likely be heavily influenced by John Bolton, himself a former US ambassador to the UN, who is antagonistic towards anything he sees that might curtail America’s freedom of action. After years in which China and Russia were considered the major stumbling blocks, Trump’s administration is now seen as a potential hindrance to collective action on many issues, including climate change.

Moreover, Craft will be grappling with an enormously steep learning curve: The Security Council deals with dozens of complex, tricky matters all the time. She will have to master a brief that is way more challenging than being the Ambassador to the US’s rather predictable, northern neighbour. And she’ll probably be busy channelling some of the other very questionable US foreign policy positions: deflecting criticism of human rights abuses by Saudi Arabia and Israel, unravelling some of the agreed limits to the US and Russian nuclear arsenals, and so on.

A permanent member to the Security Council has a thousand ways to shape the work of the Council. Often, they can kill new ideas before they are ever officially discussed, or they can punt the agenda to another, weaker forum. If it comes to it, they can simply block a decision by exercising their veto.

So, without wanting to sound defeatist, I’m doubtful that Craft’s time on the Security Council is going to move this issue forward in any significant way. Hopefully those ‘friends’ of action on climate security can find ways nonetheless to plug away at the practical realities of what it means to tackle climate insecurity, putting language into geographically specific resolutions (such as 2349 and 2408), supporting the new climate security mechanism and continuing to make the case for the international community, which is collectively facing a serious, emerging threat, the true extent of which we are realizing more every day.

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