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European Union steps up its efforts to become the global leader on addressing climate-related security risks

09 March, 2018
Niklas Bremberg and Malin Mobjörk

[This article originally appeared on]

On 26 February 2018 the European Union (EU) adopted its latest Council Conclusions on Climate Diplomacy following a Council Meeting of Foreign Ministers in Brussels. These Council Conclusions are much more action-oriented than those adopted previously. They illustrate not only that the EU is stepping up its efforts to become a leading global actor when it comes to fulfilling the 2016 Paris Agreement on Climate Change, but also that the EU is now placing far greater emphasis on the need to address and mitigate security risks posed by climate change. This essay discusses what is new in the recent Council Conclusions and puts these updates into context. It also discusses the key steps required for the EU to strengthen its work to mitigate climate-related security risks. 

The Council Conclusions adopted in February 2018 are the latest in a series of conclusions on climate diplomacy adopted by the EU since 2011. For the EU, climate diplomacy chiefly refers to actions undertaken by the European Commission, the EU Foreign Affairs Council and the European External Action Service (headed by the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy) to shape international cooperation on climate change. A key area in the EU’s work on climate diplomacy relates to the security risks posed by climate change. The EU acknowledged relatively early on that climate change also has security implications. The European Security Strategy of 2003 mentions climate change, but it was not until the report in 2008 by the High Representative and the European Commission that the EU explicitly identified climate change as a ‘threat multiplier’ for security and stability across the globe.[1]

The EU Global Strategy of 2016 frequently refers to climate change and stresses that it ‘exacerbate[s] potential conflict’ due to desertification and land degradation, as well as its impact on water and food security.[2] In addition, the Global Strategy notes that the EU should assist partner countries in terms of climate action, for example through the development of renewable energy and technological transfers, as well as climate change mitigation and adaptation. In 2017 a joint communication from the High Representative and the European Commission suggested that the EU should integrate environmental, climate and disaster risk assessments into its conflict prevention early warning systems.[3] Thus, the recently adopted Council Conclusions can be seen as the latest step in a process through which the EU seeks to identify security risks posed by climate change and tailor policy responses to address and mitigate those risks. Two aspects of this are worth further consideration here: the emphasis in the Council Conclusions on multilateralism and the more nuanced and action-oriented discussion on the security risks posed by climate change.

The Paris Agreement is crucial to understanding the latest Council Conclusions, and especially the strong wording in defence of multilateralism. Multilateralism as a principle has been frequently mentioned in past Council Conclusions on Climate Diplomacy, but now the EU ‘underlines […] the crucial importance of a shared rules-based global order, with multilateralism as its key principle and the United Nations at its core’ and ‘emphasises the unprecedented urgency to step up global efforts to halt and reverse climate change’.[4] There is little doubt that these statements are directed towards the administration of US President Donald J. Trump specifically with regard to its announcement in 2017 that the United States (the world’s second largest emitter of greenhouse gases—responsible for around 14 per cent of global emissions) would seek to withdraw from the Paris Agreement, and its general dismissal of the multilateral system (with the UN at its core).[5] By contrast, in the recently adopted Council Conclusions, the EU pledges to deliver on its commitments to the Paris Agreement and to help partner countries to do so as well—therefore emphasizing the need for multilateralism. 

The Council Conclusions also show a clear qualitative shift in the EU’s statements on the security risks posed by climate change. The EU ‘recognises that climate change has direct and indirect implications for international security and stability’ and that climate change acts as a threat multiplier.[6] While this wording is not new, the Council Conclusions add more refined and nuanced statements than issued previously on how the impacts of climate change can contribute to loss of livelihoods, reinforce environmental pressures and disaster risk, force displacement of people, and exacerbate the threat of social and political unrest. Moreover, the Council Conclusions provide concrete suggestions on how to respond to climate-related security risks. They note, for example, that development responses need to become more conflict sensitive, while security policies need to become more climate sensitive. Furthermore, they point to the need to integrate effective responses to climate-related security risks across EU policy areas (ranging from climate action and resilience building to preventive diplomacy and improved risk assessment). In addition, the Council Conclusions support strengthening the UN Security Council’s role in climate risk assessment and even suggest that institutional changes to the UN system should be explored in order to achieve this.[7] Interestingly, these suggestions to a large extent echo recent policy recommendations developed by the research community.[8]

The Council Conclusions adopted in February 2018 represent a welcome step towards closing the gap between identifying climate-related security risks and taking action to respond to and mitigate these risks. A strong voice from the EU in global climate politics and diplomacy is needed—perhaps now more than ever. Nonetheless, the EU needs to deliver on the promise of making its conflict prevention and early warning systems ‘climate sensitive’. The EU’s focus on resilience building in partner countries seems promising in this regard, although it is too early to assess the effects. The EU also needs to consider how to strengthen the cooperation with other regional organizations and local partners since much of the relevant work in terms of risk assessment and mitigation will most certainly be done at the regional or local level. Finally, the Council Conclusions firmly support the initiative of the High Representative, Federica Mogherini, to hold a high-level meeting in Brussels in June 2018 on climate and security. This could be a good opportunity for participants to discuss practical solutions on how to make the EU and its partners better equipped to deal with climate-related security risks.       


[1] Council of the European Union, ‘European security strategy: a secure Europe in a better world’, 12 Dec. 2003; and High Representative of the Common Foreign and Security Policy and European Commission, ‘Climate change and international security’, Paper from the High Representative and the European Commission to the European Council, S113/08, 14 Mar. 2008. For further detail see Bremberg, N., ‘European regional organizations and climate-related security risks: EU, OSCE and NATO’, SIPRI Insights on Peace and Security no. 2018/1, Feb. 2018.

[2] European External Action Service (EEAS), Shared Vision, Common Action: A Stronger Europe: A Global Strategy for the European Union’s Foreign and Security Policy (EEAS: Brussels, June 2016).

[3] European Commission and High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, ‘Joint communication to the European Parliament and the Council: a strategic approach to resilience in the EU’s external action’, JOIN(2017) 21 final, 7 June 2017.

[4] Council of the European Union, ‘Council Conclusions on Climate Diplomacy’, 6125/18, 26 Feb. 2018, p. 2.

[5] Shear, M. D., ‘Trump will withdraw US from Paris Climate Agreement’, New York Times, 1 June 2017. For further detail on US emissions of greenhouse gases see e.g. Freidrich, J., Ge, M. and Pickens, A, ‘This interactive chart explains world’s top 10 emitters, and how they’ve changed’, World Resources Institute Blog, 11 Apr. 2017.

[6] Council of the European Union (note 4), p. 3.

[7] Council of the European Union (note 4), p. 3.

[8] Born, C., ‘A resolution for a peaceful climate: opportunities for the UN Security Council’, SIPRI Policy Brief, Jan 2017; Mobjörk, M. et al. Climate-related Security Risks: Towards an Integrated Approach (SIPRI: Stockholm, Oct. 2016); and Rüttinger, L. et al., A New Climate for Peace: Taking Action on Climate and Fragility Risks (adelphi: Berlin 2015).

ArticleClimate Diplomacy



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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