ECC Platform Library


Climate change, instability and migration: forging a positive, sustainable response

25 January, 2016
Benjamin Pohl

The climate conference that took place in Paris last month has repeatedly been billed as a crucial global summit, and even as a decisive moment in human history – and its results have been judged as historic, too.

To emphasize that the conference must not fail, Paris has seen the greatest ever gathering of leaders of state and government. And indeed, because anthropogenic climate change involves a huge range of risks – for human health and well-being, water and food security, and international security – it is fitting that the leaders who carry overall responsibility for their nations’ wellbeing engage on this issue.

Important as climate change is, however, migration clearly dominates the political agenda in Europe, also in Germany. Pride of place goes to the influx of refugees and the challenges, imagined and real, that this entails for Europe’s security and social cohesion. What is less discussed are the links between large-scale displacement and climate change – although the German Minister for the Environment recently emphasized this connection in an interview.

A new EU Trust Fund on addressing root causes of irregular migration…

When the European Union launched an “Emergency Trust Fund for stability and addressing root causes of irregular migration and displaced persons in Africa” in November 2015, though, climate change was nowhere to be found in the nine-page decision. This is despite the fact that the three target regions in which the ‘root causes’ of irregular migration are to be addressed comprise the Sahel and Lake Chad region, the Horn of Africa, and North Africa. Due to a confluence of human (low adaptive capacity, reliance on rain-fed agriculture, climate-sensitive livelihoods, poverty, state fragility) and environmental factors (above-average temperature rises in Africa, pre-existing water stress, the vulnerability to droughts of semi-arid areas), these areas are extremely vulnerable to climate change already today.

The semantic loss of one ‘climate change’ not uttered in 2015 is bearable. Yet the omission arguably reveals something disconcerting about the thinking underlying this decision.

The Fund was launched at the last European Council (the regular gathering of the Union’s heads of state and government) before COP 21 in Paris. Why wouldn’t the EU use the opportunity to emphasize the links between the two topics?

…and a missed opportunity in terms of policy integration

There would have been several good reasons to highlight the connection: first, the Union invested a lot into climate diplomacy to make Paris a success, and the Fund’s launch could have been another high-profile opportunity to emphasize the urgency of an ambitious agreement in Paris – and to showcase Europe’s commitment to financially support climate adaptation in Africa. Second, the European Commission, which so far provides the lion’s share of the funding (some 3 billion Euros) to the Fund, has been seeking contributions from Member states. In the run-up to the Paris climate conference, appealing to the link with climate change could have helped increase these contributions. Third, and most importantly, the links between environmental degradation and migration in these regions are very real, even as other key factors play a role. Tackling the root causes of migration will require securing and improving livelihoods in the region, the majority of which are climate-sensitive

So, why not make that link explicit in the decision or fact sheet? I can only think of two plausible explanations, and both are troubling.

The first is that no one considered the connection (or that it was eventually deleted due to its perceived irrelevance). This would be troubling because it would reveal to what extent policy-making is still siloed: climate change is for the climate community, development and migration for the development community – and given how complicated and differentiated each policy field has become, why would the two systematically interact? If that was indeed the reason, it would chime with the assessment of our report A New Climate for Peace that mainstreaming climate change into the development, humanitarian and peacebuilding sectors is often more ambition than reality, particularly when it comes to systematic implementation. Given widespread consensus that climate change threatens to un-do decades of development progress, however, climate adaptation needs to become a crucial piece of the development agenda.  

The second explanation is that the EU lacks the ambition or confidence to drill down to the real ‘root causes’ it purports to target. That explanation could be rooted in political context of the Fund’s emergence in 2015 as pictures emerged of refugees drowning in the Mediterranean on their way from Africa to Europe, dominating media attention until even greater numbers started arriving via Turkey. Given the pressing immediacy of such images, the focus on short-term measures might seem natural.

Ambitious structural foreign policy needed

And yet: even if that were the explanation, it would still be worrying if the Union were to focus its ambition on strengthening third-party border security agencies in the hope that those measures will stem the flow. This reading would misrepresent the Commission’s decision which repeatedly refers to employment opportunities, food security, the rule of law, and governance (and yes, it mentions ‘environmental stress’ in the opening paragraph). However, in reading the decision in its entirety, it is hard to escape the feeling that the EU’s emphasis is on addressing symptoms rather than underlying drivers. For example, ‘border management’ is mentioned three times, ‘sustainable development’ just once – and the former is more clearly operationalized in the decision. Is that truly the appropriate emphasis for a decision purporting to address the ‘root causes’ of instability?

To be clear: there are good reasons for seeking to improve state capacity in Europe’s Southern neighbourhood. There may also be good reasons for emphasizing collaboration with government security agencies in the region, even though some of them are closer to the problem than the solution when it comes to migratory pressures. However, by limiting itself to paying whoever has the greatest capacity to stop migrants, the EU not only fails to address the root causes of illegal migration, it sells itself short in terms of the ethical global power it wants (and claims) to be.

The ‘realism’ that has led Europe to embrace authoritarian governments for the sake of stability might buy time; but as developments in the Middle East and North Africa since 2011 have shown, that approach comes at the expense of delaying, and potentially aggravating, the ensuing crises. Opportunism can be a hallmark of good foreign policy, but it is rarely enough.

So, this is where we are. What is to be done?

The way forward

In one way, the decision is a missed opportunity to highlight the interconnected nature of climate change, instability, and migration and the resulting need to respond with integrated policies. But in another way, many of the right elements are already there. The Fund’s objective of promoting resilience, economic and equal opportunities, and security and development is certainly broad enough to incorporate projects and programmes that generate co-benefits for climate adaptation, development and peace.

The emphasis should be on identifying or designing programmes which pursue these objectives in an integrated fashion: climate adaptation that is conflict-sensitive and climate finance that simultaneously builds resilience to state fragility, development and humanitarian efforts that are cognizant of climate risks, and peace-building programmes that are climate-resilient. A key resource around which such programmes could emerge is water, another word that goes unmentioned in the decision but constitutes a vital link between environmental change, migratory pressures, state fragility, inter-state tensions, and development efforts in the region. Such programmes could fit well into the Fund’s remit as they would support objectives like employment opportunities, food security, and rule of law. To ensure that they are considered, however, the omission regarding climate change in the decision must be compensated for by political guidance from the Commission and/or Member states at the implementation stage.

The Fund’s objectives do not only contain the right elements; in fact, these have already been embraced by the EU. The Union has developed a comprehensive EU Action Plan for Resilience in Crisis Prone Countries for the region. After its 2014 reform, the Union’s Instrument contributing to Stability and Peace (IcSP), which is to disburse 2.3 billion Euros between 2014 and 2020 on the eponymous purpose, has explicitly taken security threats emanating from climate change on board. And the security policy community has taken notice: the 2008 update of the European Security Strategy lists climate change among the key threats.                                                                                                 

In other words, there is no need for revolution, despite the oblique reference to Lenin above. What is needed, however, is more systematic recognition of the links between climate change, development and humanitarian efforts and peacebuilding so that crucial omissions such as the one in the decision on the Emergency Trust Fund are prevented. A simple mention of the link does not guarantee climate-sensitive expenditure, of course; but without such acknowledgement (especially in programmatic funding documents), the chances of integrated responses and a systematic search for cross-sectoral co-benefits are even smaller.

Systematic recognition in the abstract is only the beginning. What is even more important is cultivating widespread awareness about practical ways to address the root causes of migration and links to climate change – beyond the obvious challenge of reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

There are numerous entry points for the EU to tackle the real root causes of illegal migration and strengthen stability in North Africa, the Sahel and the Horn of Africa, taking into account the slow-onset disaster that climate change presents for many communities there. They range from leveraging natural resource management as a tool for peacebuilding within and across borders, to integrating environmental impact assessments into humanitarian and development interventions, to reinforcing technical and financial cooperation in support of water sector reform and agricultural water use efficiency programs, to name just a few.

If the EU stood ready to invest in addressing climate-fragility links at a scale similar to its investments in defence measures vis-à-vis migratory pressures, it would not only achieve more sustainable effects, but also strengthen its standing and influence in a world in which Europe still articulates the ambition to be a significant force for human progress. It would also help millions among the most marginalized. This would not only counteract migratory pressures, but would also weaken the arguments of those intent on overturning rather than adjusting the current, post-Cold War order – a key to long-term stability, and a crucial European interest.

Of course, such measures have long-term effects and, therefore, are not substitutes for shorter-term policies of more defensive character. But it is far more likely than not that the upheavals of Europe’s Southern and South-Eastern neighbourhood are not going to end anytime soon. Repeated Western efforts to impose short-term solutions in the region have visibly gone wrong. So we are in it for the long game anyway. That calls for strategic patience – and for getting started on building a positive, sustainable legacy that comprehensively addresses the root causes of instability and displacement.

BlogA New Climate for Peace





Tags climate change European Union migration peacebuilding resilience security


Adaptation & Resilience

All countries will need to adapt to some of the environmental, social and economic impacts of climate change that are already unavoidable. Food security, livelihoods, water resource availability and public health are some affected areas. People living in poverty are more vulnerable, having a lower capacity to adapt. Thus, it is essential to promote resilience building. The adaptation and resilience aspects need to be mainstreamed into planning by policy makers and the private sector as well as integrated into development strategies.

Biodiversity & Livelihoods

Nature protection is most sustainable if it essentially contributes to the long-term stability of human needs. Today many regions around the world are confronted with increasing destruction of the natural foundations of life. The consequences of wide-ranging resource destruction are no longer regionally limited, but rather represent a global threat. Those affected are mainly rural populations, who find the sources of their income and the foundations of their way of life swept away. The depletion and destruction of natural resources goes hand in hand with decreasing agricultural yields and increasing poverty, which in turn forces the affected populations to deplete the remaining resources.

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Capacity Building

On the one hand, conflicts are caused by structural factors, such as economic and social inequality or environmental destruction. On the other hand, conflicts are fuelled by a lack of democratic structures, deficient mechanisms of non-violent conflict settlement, inadequate rule of law, the destruction of social and cultural identity and the disregard of human rights. Against this backdrop, development policies have been dedicated to a broad concept of security, which comprises political, economic, ecological and social stability. As a consequence, development cooperation agencies and actors have developed a broad spectrum of approaches for conflict prevention and transformation as well as for sustainable use of natural resources.

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Civil Society

Civil society is the first victim of environmental pollution, under-development and conflicts. Economically disadvantaged and politically marginalized population groups are particularly affected by violent conflicts as well as increasing resource degradation. Simultaneously, civil society is a fundamental pillar for implementing sustainable development. It contributes in many ways to strengthening conflict prevention and plays a significant role in the peaceful and democratic development of states. It must be supported to strengthen civil rights, adherence to human rights in general and democratic participation.

Climate Change

Climate change resulting from the emission of greenhouse gases represents one of the vital challenges for international environmental policy. Flooding, droughts, shifting of climate zones and increasingly frequent and intense extreme weather events will have serious economic and social consequences for entire regions. The climate problem is also directly linked to the question of future energy generation.

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Climate Diplomacy

To address the challenges posed by climate change, a new profile of climate diplomacy is evolving. This utilises a full range of policies, including development cooperation, conflict prevention efforts, and humanitarian assistance, in addition to more traditional measures of climate change adaptation and mitigation. Moving from a risk analysis of climate-related threats to well-timed preventive action requires a greater commitment to integrating climate change concerns into development, foreign, and security policies. Examples include strengthening diplomatic networks, building new alliances with partners, and raising awareness – not only of potentially negative climate change impacts, but also of opportunities to embark on a sustainable transformation of our societies.

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Climate action entails an array of economic, social, political and environmental co-benefits. It provides an opportunity for economic growth and new jobs. Many investments can take into account climate considerations without becoming more costly. Further important co-benefits include: improved energy security, less local air and water pollution, health benefits as well as ecosystem and biodiversity protection.

Conflict Transformation

In order to overcome the structural causes of violent conflicts and thus bring about an improvement in the framework conditions for peaceful and fair development, it is essential to have long term and broadly planned peace development and peace advancement. Various governmental and non-governmental, national and international actors and groups are involved in these processes.

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Climate change and development are inextricably linked. Climate change endangers the development agenda and has the potential to reverse development goals. Furthermore, successful mitigation of climate change heavily depends on development choices around the world. Therefore, development strategies need to be climate-compatible to provide long-term success, and there are viable policy options that support this compatibility. Many mitigation and adaptation activities can present development opportunities to developing countries and avoid the lock-in to environmentally damaging technologies.

Early Warning & Risk Analysis

The reasons for the development and escalation of conflicts and the incidence of risks are multifaceted and complex. Simultaneously, the assessment of the specific causes in the form of risk and conflict analyses can contribute to a better understanding of these processes and make it possible to provide warning of negative developments, or ideally help prevent them. In the context of natural resource use, risks and conflicts have gained increasing attention in the past years. The debate on possible future water wars is merely one example.

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The well-being of individuals, communities and nations depends on the availability of energy resources. The gap between energy supply and demand appears to be growing, making the world vulnerable to serious economic shocks. At the same time, the burning of fossil fuels causing climate change is one of the vital challenges of international environmental policy. So far, only rudimentary approaches exist for shaping climate and energy security in a sustainable way. The components of a strategy that can contribute to reducing vulnerabilities related to climate change and energy policy include a greater role for renewable energies, the improvement of energy efficiency and a stronger decentralisation of energy supply.

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Environment & Migration

The economic, social and environmental consequences of climate change aggravate the breakdown of eco-system-dependent livelihoods and are likely to become dominant drivers of long-term migration. Natural disasters already cause massive shorter-term displacement and the number of temporarily displaced people is likely to further increase with climate change. For vulnerable populations in vulnerable regions, such as the Sahel zone or the Ganges delta, migration often becomes the sole survival strategy. In order to address climate-related displacement and migration successfully, knowledge of effective adaptation and an improved understanding of how environmental change affects human mobility is essential. 

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Climate finance, from all sources, plays a key role in supporting and enabling adaptation and mitigation action as well as climate and energy innovation. The Paris Agreement ensured that the Green Climate Fund and the Global Environment Facility are at the core of climate finance architecture as entities entrusted with the operation of the Financial Mechanism of the UNFCCC. Increasing climate finance from all relevant public and private sources is crucial. Furthermore, much needs to be done to redirect finance flows to sustainable paths, e.g. reducing fossil fuel subsidies, introducing maritime and air transportation taxes. The conditions for green investment in developing countries should also be improved.


Forests are disappearing at an alarming rate. Competition for forest resources triggers, exacerbates, or finances numerous crises and conflicts in tropical developing countries. Illegal logging and timber trade foster instability and sometimes violent conflict by strengthening illegal and armed groups, increasing corruption and exacerbating use and claim conflicts among local communities, the state and the business sector. Forests are a vital resource to poor people but they can also become areas of conflict. Sustainable management of forest resources is therefore key to preventing violent conflict over and within forests.

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Gender plays an important role as a category of conflict for many reasons. The interlinkages between gender, environment and conflicts are complex and much research is still needed. Existing insights suggest that conflicts may worsen gender inequalities that existed before the outbreak of violence. The unequal distribution of land property rights in many parts of the world serves as an example. Moreover, women (and children) are among those most affected by both violent conflict and natural disasters. At the same time, women carry much of the burden of trying to implement rehabilitation measures after crisis events.

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Land & Food

Increasing water scarcity, desertification and crop failures due to extreme weather events are becoming more and more of a threat to global food production. While the world’s population continues to grow rapidly, food production is unable to keep pace. Due to the global food crisis in 2008, the number of hungry people reached the symbolic one billion threshold for the first time – corresponding to about 16 percent of world population. Food insecurity may be a consequence or cause of conflicts. Violent conflicts often lead to the destruction of agricultural infrastructure and means of production, as well as to the displacement of local communities.

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Minerals & Mining

In the past, the discovery and tapping of valuable or strategic resources like valuable minerals, oil and natural gas, particularly in developing and emerging countries, has often led to large scale environmental contamination and negative development. The "resource curse" of some countries shows that the wealth from resource yields is frequently unfairly distributed; instead of serving development it advanced the formation of corrupt elites and in some cases even led to conflicts and civil wars. Measures in various sectors and at all levels are important in order to use the potential of these natural resources in a manner that is sustainable and prevents conflicts.

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Private Sector

The spread of violent conflict not only affects people but also companies located in such regions. Destruction of investments and infrastructure, collapse of markets and trade partnerships, flight and expulsion of employees are phenomena of conflicts and environment-induced crises that directly affect companies in unstable regions. Almost all branches of the economy thus have a clear interest in a stable and peaceful environment for their activities. Conversely, the business sector plays an important role in the interaction of economic growth, social development and a healthy environment, all of which can advance peace and sustainable development. 

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Environmental issues have a significant security dimension. Access to, and overuse of, natural resources often play a key role in civil wars or other forms of internal domestic conflict. This is compounded by climate change and environmental degradation. Climate change is now widely recognised as a non-traditional, risk-multiplying threat that will have increasing security impacts. Key risks with possible implications for human and national security include water scarcity, food crises, natural disasters, and displacement. More preventive diplomacy and advocacy is needed to address the strategic implications of climate and environmental change.

Sustainable Transformation

Sustainable Transformation allows societies to profit from a growing, environmentally sustainable and socially inclusive economy – especially in emerging and developing countries. This requires a higher up-front investment, but the benefits of a sustainable transformation in the medium and long term are significant. For instance, energy cost savings and reducing the impact of price volatility offer major incentives for deploying renewable energies and promoting energy efficiency. Such benefits exist in all key sectors of the economy.

Technology & Innovation

Innovations and technologies are already readily available and affordable but their global diffusion and uptake remains a challenge. Innovation and technology are crucial to achieving ambitious climate change mitigation and adaptation targets. However, research and development often do not receive appropriate public support. Developing countries can leapfrog high-carbon industrialisation phases by adopting, deploying and improving existing innovations and technologies. For this, it is essential to minimise financial, administrative and political barriers.


The availability of freshwater resources in sufficient quantity and quality is essential for the preservation of human health and sound ecosystems. The use of water resources is also vital, however, for economic development: whether for agriculture, industrial production or for electricity generation. The world's freshwater resources are distributed very unevenly in terms of geography and seasons. In addition, water shortage is becoming more prevalent in several regions due to population growth, economic development, urbanisation and increasing environmental pollution. Thus, water resources can hold potential for conflicts between parties who have different interests and needs.

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The environment in Asia is already under tremendous pressure as a result of the unsustainable use of land, forests, water and even air in many regions. Climate change will only exacerbate these challenges. Rising sea levels will likely endanger densely populated areas, changes in the monsoon patterns can strongly impact agriculture, melting glaciers will increase long-term water scarcity, and extreme weather events such as heavy rainfall and cyclones can pose further hazards.

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Central America & Caribbean

Natural disasters and water scarcity are key challenges for most of Central America and the Caribbean. These challenges will become even more pronounced as the climate changes. Weak resource and disaster risk management and land disputes pose additional security challenges for large parts of the region. Several countries of Central America and the Caribbean have limited adaptive capacities as they face political instability caused by high social inequality, crime, corruption, and intra-state conflicts.

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As one of the most developed and most densely populated regions in the world, Europe makes heavy use of its resources, resulting in difficult trade-offs and negative consequences for the environment and ecosystems. Land is used for settlements, agriculture and dense infrastructure, creating problems of soil degradation. Water resources are stressed due to unsustainable agricultural practices. Despite nature protection policies, Europe continues to lose biodiversity at an alarming pace. Some of these trends are exacerbated by climate change, which is expected, for instance, to lead to shifts in water availability.

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Global Issues

Resource scarcities, environmental pollution and climate change are not limited by national borders, but often have a transboundary or even global impact. These issues interact with political stability, governance structures and economic performance, and can trigger or worsen disputes and violent conflicts. Exacerbating some of these trends, climate change is likely to lead to the degradation of freshwater resources, declines in food production, increases in storm and flood disasters and environmentally induced migration. All these developments pose potential for conflict.

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Middle East & North Africa

The geopolitical position of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), its fossil fuel resources, high population growth and the political changes spurred by the Arab Spring all make the region one of the most dynamic in the world. Nevertheless, it is also one of the most arid and environmentally stressed. Dwindling water resources, limited arable and grazing land, high pollution from household and industrial waste, remnants of conflicts and increasing desertification are key environmental challenges.

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North America

Climate change has various impacts on the three North American countries of Canada, Mexico and the US. Canada and the US have well-developed adaptive capacities and foster the strengthening of capacities in other regions as well. With high per capita emissions, these two countries also bear a greater responsibility for a changing climate. Mexico has a sound national strategy for climate change adaptation, yet fewer capacities than Canada and the US. The poorer and rural populations of Mexico are especially vulnerable to climate change, due to an increased sensitivity and a lower adaptive capacity.

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Oceania & Pacific

In Oceania, population growth and economic development trends put a strain on oceanic and island ecosystems. Freshwater scarcity, overexploitation of fisheries, loss of land biodiversity, forests and trees, invasive species, soil degradation, increasing levels of settlement, poor management of solid and hazardous waste and disproportionate use of coastal areas are some of the problems. Climate change exacerbates most of these trends, while also raising questions about the future sovereignty of some island states.

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South America

South America has diverse and unique ecosystems and is very rich in biodiversity. Weak natural resource management, land disputes and extreme weather events bring about significant challenges for the region. While South America accounts for relatively few CO2 emissions, the changing climate will alter its ecosystems and greater climate variability will lead to more hurricanes, landslides, and droughts.

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Sub-Saharan Africa

In many African states, environmental security issues rank high on the political agenda. Throughout the continent, countries suffer from water scarcity, food insecurity and energy poverty. These chronic and worsening resource scarcities have severe livelihood implications and are exacerbated by political conflicts over access to and control over these resources. Climate change may seriously threaten political and economic stability in Africa. It may also put a severe strain on the capacities of states and societies to co-ordinate activities, to communicate and to organize.

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