Climate Change and Security: 3 Key Insights




Global Governance, Sustainability and Climate Protection

By Sabrina Schulz and Diego Osorio

As GDLers, we are acutely aware of the need to look beyond disciplinary boundaries and institutional silo structures to address pressing global issues. Much like 2021, which was a year full of key events linking global governance and the climate change crisis, 2022 is a year of reckoning regarding the shortcomings of our international governance system and the implications for the climate crisis. Our failures and tactical successes can serve as reminders of humanity’s collective task to throw our knowledge, experience and networks together to fight climate change and its consequences, in particular in the realm of security.

Last year, we, GDL members Sabrina Schulz and Diego Osorio¹ connected on the issue of climate change and security and designed institutional mechanisms for the purpose of applying the diplomatic toolbox and bringing more political prominence to the climate/food/conflict nexus – a phenomenon that many decision makers tend to find too complex to address in traditional siloed decision-making structures. As surprising as it might sound, our collaboration happened under the aegis of a research-based global food science institution, CGIAR, previously known as the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research. We brought together a range of academic disciplines, policy communities and political decision-makers to inspire a new debate – and ultimately action – on climate security. We want to share with you some of the key insights from this collaboration and our involvement in the file at large.

Conflict, both between states and at more localised levels, is taking on new forms in the 21st century. Past experiences and conventional wisdom seem to suggest that violence, in its various iterations, is rooted in political, economic, geo-strategic or ideological frameworks. However, we now see that conflicts are also increasingly linked to climate and environmental degradation. At the macro and micro scales, conflicts between communities, armed groups, and even military groups are increasingly affected by the impacts of climate irregularity, soil degradation, food insecurity, and the struggle to control a finite pool of natural resources. Conflict and security are now connected with climate in one single narrative that is playing out too often in many parts of the world. A certain degree of regularity in climate and basic living systems (water, food, etc.) is necessary for peaceful development and stability, and this is applicable globally. Unfortunately, absence of these basic circumstances is becoming commonplace, and potential for conflict is increasing everywhere, even if not everyone is interpreting the situation in the same way. Here, one must mention that thresholds of proof on causalities are different for academics and policy-makers, which is sometimes misinterpreted as disagreement and is wrongly highlighted by sceptics as evidence to the contrary. Yet, those overseeing security and conflict files cannot deny that climate and conflict are overlapping and connected, and the emerging result is undeniably a major source of concern.

Climate security was first put on the international diplomatic agenda in 2007 by the UK Government in the UN Security Council. Then UK Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett relentlessly emphasised that climate had “to be taken out of the environment box and put into the security (and finance etc.) box”. Germany picked up on this issue as a non-permanent member of the Security Council in 2011/12 and then again in 2019/20. There is a sense of inter-mandate coordination, as now Norway, along with other countries such as Ireland and Kenya, is pushing for the topic to be at the centre of Security Council discussions. Norway in particular is very conscious about legacy and coordination, seeking out future non-permanent members who can pick up the flag on this priority, with Finland as a potential candidate. Very recently, a Security Council resolution connecting Climate Change and Security was rejected on a 12-2 vote (Russia and India voting against it). Efforts will continue, since the realisation of the intrinsic connection between climate change and conflict is now mainstreamed in key circles. Overall, there has been some progress, but it is not enough. Taking stock of how the file has evolved during the past one and a half decades, we would like to share three key insights here.

First, to many security policy-makers, water levels, hybrid seeds, rice varieties or land/water/food security belong solely in the task column of international development actors, and this is woefully inadequate and no longer justifiable. Many decision-makers are convinced that the complexity of these phenomena makes it hard to tackle them with conventional political and diplomatic instruments. Equally, for some others, the truth is perhaps too burdensome. However, the disruptive potential of these phenomena makes the current COVID-19 pandemic a mere preview of the future type of protracted crises humankind will experience unless we change the way we deal with complex issues around climate and security. Securitisation of climate-change issues, because of its conflict impact, is just a reflection of how the topic is becoming, or rather finally being perceived, as a pressing and a major threat to global security. 

Second, the climate security agenda also reflects current imbalances in the global order. It is largely focused on the developing world, yet it is “owned” by Western states. After all, the debate is led by the US, the UK, Germany, and other members of NATO, and climate security has become an important issue for NATO and plays a role in the relevant policies. NATO is rapidly adapting its structures and conceptual frameworks to the situation. Canada has offered to the alliance to lead and implement the NATO Centre of Excellence on Climate and Security, creating a very unique interface and convener between different communities of practice (scientists, policy- makers, security actors and, civil society). The UN is also moving in that direction by establishing the Climate Security Mechanism, which connects political, peace-building, environmental and development efforts focused on the climate change-conflict axis. Until recently, the lead on this file was very much being taken by the Global North, but recent developments show that change is in the air. After the disappointing outcome at the Security Council in 2021, the African Union is now showing a proactive mobilisation, and a recent statement shows a different stance, calling for (a) capacity building “among member states on the nexus between climate, security and development,” (b) inclusion of “the climate dimension in national and continental early warning activities,” and (c) stepping up “climate-sensitive planning in peacekeeping and post-conflict reconstruction and development efforts.” Yet, policies and strategies in the Global South where the impacts of climate change are the worst are still largely absent. This needs to change. By making voices from the Global South heard, the climate security agenda and its priorities will be more conducive to a sustainable, long-term outcome. Many of the countries bearing the brunt of climate variability would benefit disproportionately from a stronger focus on climate security in international programming, since it is mainly in these regions of the world that climate-linked events such as hurricanes, drought and harvest failure can bring unstable political situations to a tipping point and trigger violent conflict. However, the second and third-order effects of these policies will benefit everyone.

Finally, our cognitive preference for rapid solutions to tangible threats is also shaping how we address the compounded effects of climate and political instability and environmental degradation, resorting too often and too soon to the military/security/political toolkit just to deal with the symptoms, instead of mapping root causes which would uncover practical solutions in the most unexpected places. To tackle this effectively, the issue needs to be understood from a systemic perspective, where cross-disciplinary collaboration can connect land-water-food security scientists with policy-makers, regional expertise, geo-strategic experts and civil society leadership. Parallel tracks, a too narrow focus and the wrong timescale can dangerously yield wrong assessments and misguided policy paths. As an example, can a new crop that can resist higher temperatures bring influence to bear on social fragmentation and radicalisation in the Sahel? The answer could be a resounding “perhaps” – and this is enough to revamp the way we address the climate security problem by embracing its multidisciplinary nature. 

As mentioned before, novel initiatives build on that inclusive, systemic, and multidisciplinary approach and are meant to contribute to this change. Canada’s offer to implement the NATO’ Centre of Excellence on Climate and Security, current climate diplomacy efforts, the World Food Programme working group on Climate Security, the UN Climate Security Mechanism, the CGIAR Climate Security initiative, and many other efforts are shaping a whole new approach, with a new rulebook that will bridge the gaps between the silos in which policy, science, and political decision makers operate. One example of this is the, high-level webinar series that seeks to weave a new integrated narrative, connecting security, policy and science experts. In this webinar series, GIAR Climate Security highlighted key arguments on why we need to understand climate security in the broadest sense of the term². One must also mention training, capacity building and academic efforts and the great emphasis that key security forums such as the Munich Security Conference (2022) have put on the topic.

Here, we are dealing with a new type of problem. Cognitively diffuse, or as it is referred to by Sherri Goodman, an “actorless” threat, our security and policy frameworks must evolve to be able to address the respective issues effectively. Science needs to be complemented with appropriate policy measures and institutional arrangements that give government officials, including diplomats, a broader mandate and practical tools to act on climate security challenges. This would allow for new collaborations that can catalyse change. By working with others in an aligned manner, institutions like the NATO Centre of Excellence on Climate and Security, the CGIAR Climate Security Focus, and many others, particularly those based in the Global South, are now focusing on how to support fragile states and conflict-prone regions even more effectively than today by deepening and broadening existing direct support for the affected population and on providing practical policy advice to the relevant authorities.

Strikingly relevant in these times of global crisis, addressing these issues is not just about dealing with fragility in certain areas of the world. As COVID-19 has shown, remote events, under certain conditions, can bring the world to a halt. Many realise that global security and stability are at stake. This is an important lesson that needs to guide our efforts. This vision of a new approach to climate security would not only help in tackling fragility but also create more resilience to COVID 19-type crises in the future. Only global, inter-institutional, multidisciplinary answers to shared challenges can bring resilience and, ultimately, peace. 

In our work, we, Sabrina and Diego, were guided by what we call the “GDL spirit”: making diplomacy better able to deal with complex challenges by enriching the global security agenda with insights from the natural sciences, identifying strategic gaps, and convening and building alliances to address these global challenges. We therefore invite the GDL community to join us in this effort, since there is much more that needs to get done – fast.


¹currently Senior Advisor to Canada’s Department of Global Affairs working on Climate Security and the NATO Centre of Excellence

²CGIAR has also been working on the science dimension for more than 50 years, and good examples are the development of forecasting and monitoring methodologies that make it possible to predict extreme weather events such as drought and flooding. These data trigger early warning systems that help with the design of targeted measures to mitigate the worst impacts.


About the authors:

Sabrina Schulz is an expert on climate, energy and biodiversity issues, climate diplomacy and sustainable finance and economy. Between 2018 and 2020 Sabrina served as Head of the Berlin office at KfW, Germany’s national promotional and international development bank where she represented the interests of KfW Group in the political arena. And from 2009 to 2011, she was a Policy Advisor on climate and energy to the British High Commission in Canada and led a project on climate security. You can connect with her on LinkedIn here.

Diego Osorio is a Senior Advisor on Climate Security at the Dept of Global Affairs Canada. He is a Canadian diplomat with many years of experience in public administration and international experience covering the UN, NATO, the World Bank, Canadian diplomacy, and private sector ventures. His previous positions included Senior Peacekeeping Officer and Senior Advisor on Mediation, Negotiation and Peace processes at Global Affairs Canada. Find Diego’s LinkedIn profile here.

Published on March 10, 2022.

Photo credit: Rene Knapic

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