The state of play
In early 2017, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres called onto the international community to rethink its approach to peace and security. He deplored that far more time and resources are spent responding to crises rather than preventing them, and he encouraged world leaders to step up preventive action. Pointing out the role of climate change in exacerbating the factors that fuel conflicts, from competition for resources and sectarian divides to poor governance, Guterres stressed that the world simply cannot afford the cost of inaction.
Over the past decade, the notion that anthropogenic climate change, otherwise known as man-made global warming, is becoming a ‘threat multiplier’ in the EU’s neighbourhood and beyond has gained increasing traction. As early as 2008, the EU released a joint paper entitled ‘Climate Change and International Security’, which identified several climate change-induced security risks threatening EU interests, and advocated they be placed at the centre of EU security policy.
To help contextualise, the impact of climate change on agrarian lands is a case in point. In the African continent at large, climate change is already drying up significant portions of land, and scientists predict further desertification, leading to more intense and recurrent droughts, famines, and displacement. This year alone, famine is stalking Nigeria, South Sudan and Somalia, and this trend will only aggravate: 40 million across the continent are surviving off degrading land. How does this relate to conflict? In the Laikipia region of Kenya and the central and southern states of Nigeria for example, climate stresses are currently contributing to undermine traditional semi-nomadic pastoralism and aggravate violence in the competition for resources with sedentary farmer communities.
To this day, however, practical follow-through to the EU’s 2008 paper and later declarations has been lacking, and the impact of these statements on EU policy remains to be seen. At a time when the U.S. executive has taken two steps back on climate change, the EU has a vested interest in identifying early-on and easing the political, social and economic tensions exacerbated by climate change in third countries, to prevent humanitarian crises and conflict spill-overs.
The way forward
It is time the EU takes the full measure of the cross-cutting impact of climate change on conflict, and enlists the support of the European youth. Climate change is an inter-generational issue, and younger generations should be enabled to feed into a dialogue that may shape the geopolitics they will inherit. Building on consultations with youth representatives on this topic over the past year, 1989 Generation Initiative recommends that, in upgrading its conflict architecture, the EU should follow a three-fold course of action to widen its strategic framework, build institutional capacity, and hone its early-warning instruments
- Strengthening the conflict prevention strategy
Despite acknowledging the growing impact of climate change on conflict, the EU currently lacks a long-term climate security strategy. To allow for a preventive rather than reactive approach, the EU should consult with expert individuals in both policy circles and the academia, ensure the strategy is regularly updated to reflect new findings and problematics, and embed this work within its next Global Strategy to enable coordinated early-warning and action.
EU Member States have previously collaborated in other fora with international research organisations to design strategies on climate-related risks, for example within the context of the G7 to develop strategies on building resilience to climate-fragility risks. This approach could be emulated to devise a common EU approach to climate risks and conflict prevention.
- Building institutional capacity and partnerships
In order to implement this strategy, the EU should make use of already existing resources. It could for example establish an inter-agency taskforce combining the expertise of several EU organisations, to be coordinated by a Special Representative on climate security. The EEAS’s conflict prevention division would be a natural contributor to this effort, as would be the European Union Institute for Security Studies, and Commission experts from a wide range of directorate-generals.
A more original contribution could be made by the European Environment Agency’s ‘Copernicus’ programme, several component of which would prove of particular relevance if directed towards the EU’s neighbourhood. Its ‘Climate Change’ programme, for example, helps the EU monitor and predict climate change, and supports adaptation and mitigation measures, and its ‘Emergency Management Service’ programme provides geo-spatial information on man-made emergency situations and humanitarian crises. The ‘Support to External Action’ strand of the security component would also be of interest, as it supports the EU’s effort in assisting third countries in situation of crisis or emerging crisis and to prevent global and trans-regional threats having a destabilising effect.
This taskforce should work in synergy not only with EU representations, but also with local partners, including African regional Communities such as ECOWAS (which possess their own conflict early-warning systems), and the African Union’s Peace and Security Council, which already holds a yearly session on climate change, peace and security.
- Revamping the early warning system
One of the key instruments the EU has at its disposition to pursue conflict prevention is early-warning systems. Several of them exist already, including the one operated by the EEAS naturally, but also the Climate Risk Early Warning Systems envisioned in the Paris Agreements, and the European Flood Awareness System operated by the EEA’s Copernicus programme. However, none currently integrates the intersection between climate change and conflict prevention.
The EU should supplement its early warning mechanisms with a new facet integrating climate change security risks that would display an understanding not only of how climate change affects the environment, but also of how changing weather patterns impact the economic, political and cultural fabrics of at-risk areas. A successful early-warning system should be tailored to each of the situations it monitors, which implies mainstreaming climate security considerations across all relevant policy areas, from humanitarian aid and development policy to agriculture.
The paradoxes of climate change securitisation
Admittedly, however, securitising climate change comes with its own set of issues. In the context of conflict prevention for instance, inflating the importance of climate change would risk overshadowing the very factors it exacerbates, and influencing the perceptions of actors to the conflicts, precipitating self-fulfilling prophecies.
And yet, often enough articles and books covering the intersection between climate change and conflict lead with sensationalistic headlines and titles. From Robert Kaplan’s dystopian forecast ‘The Coming Anarchy’, to Al Jazeera’s sombre warning ‘The Climate Wars Are Coming’ and Gwynne Dyer’s somewhat histrionic ‘Climate Wars: The Fight for Survival as the World Overheats’, many publications strive to conjure up a sense of impending doom, which does not always reflect the state of our knowledge in this field.
Conflict research and climate research have not yet been fully integrated. This research gap means that debate is very much alive and fast-evolving, and several (sometimes paradoxical) questions remain unanswered, such as when situations of scarcity may lead populations to develop cooperative rather than conflictual behaviours.
In the meantime, the contrasting voices that recently challenged the link between climate change and the Syrian civil war – often held as conventional wisdom – invite to exert greater caution and favour rigorous research as the debate moves forward. It will be particularly relevant, in this context, to follow how discussions revolving around nascent reports that climate change impacted the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq will be conducted and substantiated.