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Speech by Foreign Minister Heiko Maas at the General Debate of the 74th session of the General Assembly of the United Nations

27 September, 2019
German Federal Foreign Office

Heiko Maas, Germany, UN 74 General Assembly, speech

Heiko Maas, Germany, UN 74th General Assembly,  speech
Heiko Mass, Minister for Foreign Affairs of Germany, addresses the general debate of the General Assembly’s seventy-fourth session. | © UN Photo/Kim Haughton.

“It is time to do more than just talk about sustainability. It is time to act sustainably,” said Heiko Maas during his speech at the General Debate of the 74th United Nations General Assembly.  Germany’s Minister for Foreign Affairs highlighted the need for multilateral cooperation to achieve worldwide sustainability, as well as Germany's focus on climate-security, women, and disarmament and arms control as part of its agenda in the UN Security Council.

Here in New York over the past few days, you have all heard a great many speeches – at the Climate Action Summit, at the SDG Summit, at countless side events, and of course here, at the speech-making marathon known as the General Debate.

If you were to analyse all these speeches, you would probably find that one word crops up more often than any other: sustainability. Some people think that this word is nothing but hype. A marketing trend. A bit of greenwashing for the post-material elite.

And while we do nothing more than talk about sustainability, none of that will change. Because while we are talking about sustainability here in New York, we risk losing the race against climate change. The earth is ablaze. While we are talking about sustainability, women, men and children are suffering starvation and epidemics. While we are talking about sustainability, people are dying as a result of wars and conflicts that we have been trying to resolve for years, without success. Syria, Mali, Ukraine, the Middle East, Afghanistan, Yemen, Iran, Myanmar, North Korea: the list is far too long.

It is time to do more than just talk about sustainability. It is time to act sustainably – including in foreign and security policy. A sustainable foreign policy is one that seeks lasting solutions to conflicts. One that involves all stakeholders, in order to ensure both acceptance and stability. One that focuses on prevention, instead of just reacting to events. One that relies on viable agreements, not speedy deals at the expense of others.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Anyone who loves their country will be committed to cooperation. Because only if we work together will we all have a future. Sustainable foreign policy is multilateral foreign policy. It is this very concept that underpins the United Nations. It is also the guiding principle for German and European foreign policy. I would like to give you four examples that make this clear.

Firstly: the situation in the Middle East. The attacks on two oil facilities in Saudi Arabia have shown us how fast things can escalate. Iran bears the responsibility, as we Europeans have made clear – publicly and at our meetings in recent days with the Iranian Foreign Minister. The only way towards an easing of tension is talks between the United States and Iran. But that will only happen if no unrealistic preconditions are placed on such a dialogue.

There is something else we emphasised today at our meeting with Iran, Russia and China: we want to continue to adhere to the JCPoA and the goal of an Iran with no nuclear weapons. Because it creates security and a basis for further-reaching talks about other issues of importance in this context. Even if it is difficult. When it comes down to it, diplomacy means not following and getting bogged down in black-and-white logic. It also means sticking to mutual agreements.

And that is why we expect Iran to meet the obligations it entered into vis-à-vis us and the entire international community. And to respond to our ongoing European efforts to embark on a diplomatic solution.

Secondly: Afghanistan. We very much regret that the terrible attacks by the Taliban sabotaged the talks with the United States in Doha. Germany closely followed and supported these talks from the outset. Because we are convinced that a sustainable solution to the conflict can only come about through political compromise. Only in this way can we ensure that peace endures in the long term.

We owe this to all those who, over the past 18 years, have been engaged for a peaceful Afghanistan, in some cases even paying with their lives. For this reason, an agreement with the Taliban can also only be a first step. What we then need are intra-Afghan peace talks.

Germany is ready to support these – not least in order to ensure that all that the United Nations and the entire international community have worked for over almost two decades is not lost: a constitutional order, a minimum of stability, human rights and in particular the rights of women and girls.

Thirdly: Ukraine. In the past two years, the Minsk process has more or less come to a standstill. In the middle of Europe we are seeing aggression that has cost over 13,000 lives. We will not simply sit back and accept this. We must not. The people in Ukraine want peace. President Zelensky has made this very clear and has said it is a priority. And that has provided a new impetus.

Let’s look, for example, at the bridge in Stanytsia Luhanska. For four years, it was destroyed; now it is being rebuilt. Military equipment and soldiers are being withdrawn. At first glance, this is a small step, an example of the disengagement called for by the Minsk process. But it is a huge step for the people who use the bridge each and every day.

We want to seize this momentum. Together with France, we are working hard in the Normandy format to find solutions at last to the issues that have been on the table for almost four years. After all, pursuing a sustainable foreign policy also means doggedly pursuing a goal, step by step. Standing still is not an option!

And finally: Syria. In what is now the ninth year of war, the idea of sustainable peace seems almost naive. And yet there are grounds these days for cautious hope.

The creation of a constitutional committee is a first important step towards a political process. It is important that the committee begins work quickly and implements Resolution 2254 at last. Because only if we finally tackle the causes of conflict – namely the Syrian people’s desire for social, economic and political participation – can there be lasting peace. And only when political progress is visible is reconstruction sustainable. Until then, we, Germany, will not take part.

Something else that is at least as important is justice. How can thousands of traumatised, tortured, displaced Syrians, how can victims of poison gas attacks, believe in peace, if their tormentors go unpunished? The predominant impression now, not only in Syria, is that even the severest crimes are not being punished. International criminal law is under massive pressure.

That is why, before the week is out, we will establish an Alliance against Impunity, designed to strengthen international criminal jurisdiction. Because without justice there can be no reconciliation and no peace.

Ladies and gentlemen,

These four examples show that sustainable foreign policy demands stamina, resilience, resolve. Above all, though, it means working together reliably. And where we do cooperate, things are progressing – often beyond the glare of the spotlight.

In the Sudan, after 30 years, there is at long last hope of a truly new beginning. We were there recently. We spoke with those in positions of responsibility and assured them that we will continue to support the transformation – through mediation, in the Security Council, as a UNAMID troop contributor, and as a donor. And it is not only in the Sudan that we are supporting peace processes. I am therefore pleased to announce that Germany is doubling its contribution to the Peacebuilding Fund this year, from 15 to 30 million euros.

In Mali, United Nations blue helmets, including almost 1000 Germans, are securing the fragile peace day by day. The prerequisite for lasting stability is that the people regain confidence in the local security forces. That is why we, along with France, have established the Partnership for Security and Stability in the Sahel. And we call upon all Member States to join.

A solution has yet to be found in the conflict in Libya, too. We support the United Nations and its tireless Special Representative, Ghassan Salamé. An international process involving supporters of the parties to the conflict is the only way forward. Here, too, we want to take on responsibility, and together with the Special Representative we have launched a process intended to lead to peace.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Germany has now been a member of the Security Council for nine months. And my impression is that, far too often, crises and conflicts are not discussed in that body until shots have been fired and people have died. Yet that is the very opposite of sustainable policymaking! Because then it is too late. The Security Council must move from being a crisis response body to being a crisis prevention body! At long last, it must also look at the causes of conflicts.

That’s why we put “Climate and Security” on the agenda right at the start of our term. And we will ensure that it stays there. Because climate change has long ceased to be merely an ecological challenge for humanity. More and more often, it is a matter of war and peace. Climate change is nothing other than a question of the survival of humanity.

If people no longer have access to clean drinking water, if entire harvests are ruined by persistent drought, and if conflicts erupt over the few remaining resources, the wars of the future will be climate wars. Climate protection therefore needs to become an imperative in a sustainable foreign policy.

During our Security Council membership, we are also focusing on the role of women. Sexual violence is still being used as a tactic of war. This is abhorrent and perverse. With the adoption of Resolution 2467 in April we were able to help ensure better support for survivors of sexual violence.

But more is at stake here. A stable peace is a third more likely if women are involved in the process. So we are committed to seeing an increase in the number of women peacekeepers. Currently only eight in every 100 seats at peace talks are occupied by women. That is more than negligent. It simply will not work if 51% of the world’s population is excluded! So we will continue to do whatever we can to fight for an equal world. This is not only a matter of justice; it is a matter of human reason.

We will also continue to fight in the Security Council for disarmament and arms control. It was thanks to us that the subject of nuclear arms control was put back on the agenda in April, for the first time in seven years!

Even though one thing is utterly clear: we can build security only if we work with each other, not against each other. That is why many states are calling strongly and increasingly impatiently for a return to concrete, realistic steps towards disarmament. Especially in the nuclear sphere. That’s why those states which have not yet ratified the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty must finally do so! With the Stockholm initiative, we want to anchor nuclear disarmament issues firmly on the international agenda prior to the NPT Review Conference. And I am looking forward to welcoming the supporters of this initiative to Berlin next year.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Cooperation. Compromise. Defence of our joint rules and institutions. That is what we understand by sustainability when it comes to foreign policy. More than virtually any other country, Germany has benefited from the rules-based order over the past seventy years. Peace, prosperity, free trade, a world open to the outside, but also a liberal society within, are inextricably linked with multilateralism. Never again going it alone – that is a lesson from our, from German, history.

Precisely because it was Germany that 80 years ago unleashed fire and destruction in Europe and the world, today we must assume a special responsibility for an order which secures peace. That is why we launched an Alliance for Multilateralism last year. Because we do not agree with the logic that claims that “if everyone thinks of themselves, then everyone has been thought of”. Because ultimately that logic means nothing other than that everyone is pitted against everyone else.

However, not one of the major issues of the future confronting us today can be resolved by one country acting alone. Only if we work together will we find answers to globalisation, the digital revolution, migration or human-induced climate change! Cooperation is anything but a betrayal of one’s own country. Rather, it creates the preconditions for our countries’ security and prosperity.

In the past 12 months, countries from all parts of the world that share this view have joined together. An Alliance for Multilateralism. Tomorrow more than 50 of my colleagues will be meeting here at the United Nations in New York to agree on concrete steps to strengthen international law and human rights, and for disarmament, crisis prevention, peacebuilding and global issues for the future such as cyber technology and climate change. This is multilateralism in practice. This is sustainable foreign policy.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Sustainability is not a lofty discourse; it is not an elite approach that only the wealthy can afford. On the contrary. We can no longer afford not to act sustainably.

Thank you very much.


[This speech originally appeared on]

ArticleClimate Diplomacy
Climate Change
Climate Diplomacy

Global Issues


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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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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