This article was first published by POLITICO on 29 July 2019.
Author: Tom Middendorp
War is too important to be left to the generals, the former French statesman Georges Clemenceau famously said. You can say something similar about climate change.
If we have any hope of tackling the growing climate emergency, governments can’t leave it just to environment ministries to come up with the solutions.
Climate change will affect every aspect of our lives and every portfolio of every government — from economic performance to managing borders. The issue has to be the top item on every ministerial brief — including, importantly, those responsible for defense and security.
European Commission President-elect Ursula von der Leyen has acknowledged that climate change is “the most important issue” facing Europe and backed tougher climate targets for the EU, including a net-zero goal for 2050. Crucially, she also appreciates the security implications presented by climate change: She made it the subject of the German defense ministry’s strategic security outlook during her time as the country’s head of defense and called for the United Nations to take a more comprehensive approach to security that would include a focus on climate change.
So far, Europe hasn’t done enough to prepare itself for the security concerns thrown up by carbon dioxide emissions. Climate change is already multiplying and exacerbating existing threats, leading to more frequent floods and droughts and threatening critical infrastructure. It is also forcing people from their homes, or making it impossible for them to earn a living from the land. These impacts will worsen as temperatures continue to rise.
"By 2050, estimates of environmentally driven displacement range from 25 million to 1 billion."
Not only does the developed world have a moral imperative to help minimize these climate impacts — and help vulnerable countries adapt to them — it is also in its self-interest to do so.
While climate change is seldom the only reason for violence in any particular conflict, researchers have drawn convincing links between the effects of climate change and the rise of conflict and unrest. The Arab Spring and other conflicts across Africa are related to long-term droughts in the region, for example, and changing environmental conditions have contributed to rising tensions between farmers and herdsmen across the Sahel region. When droughts deprive farmers of their livelihoods, joining criminal organizations or terrorist groups becomes more tempting.
Climate change will also set millions on the march seeking safety, shelter and a better life in the wealthy world. Rising global temperatures are likely to become the primary driver of migration.
Natural disasters are already responsible for more internally displaced persons than violent conflict, according to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, with weather-related disasters forcing nearly 200 million people from their homes between 2008 and 2016. By 2050, estimates of environmentally driven displacement range from 25 million to 1 billion.
While most displacement will be internal, this kind of movement can disrupt societal cohesion and fuel conflict in countries on Europe’s periphery that are already fragile and unstable. This would cause a ripple effect in Europe, which is still struggling to deal with the political fallout of the 2015 migration crisis.
As German defense minister, von der Leyen showed that she understands the vital climate and security nexus. The big question, of course, is how this understanding can be put into practice.
Here, Europe has to be proactive. It should address the security threat posed by climate change in its analyses of Europe’s security environment and include it in the new global strategy put out by its foreign policy arm, the European External Action Service. It should also make the security effects of climate change a focus of its funding and activities in developing countries, particularly in Africa and the Middle East, to bolster these countries’ ability to cope with the fallout and improve their food, water and energy security.
Further, the EU should establish civil-military cooperation mechanisms for large-scale humanitarian assistance and disaster relief operations, and improve EU border management to deal with increasing migration flows.
Technology will be an important part of the solution in dealing with climate change. The EU should set up programs to boost innovation for green technologies. These would not only provide alternatives for food, water and energy supply but would also help reduce the ecological and logistical footprint of military missions.
Climate change is not just an environmental problem. It is an existential challenge. To fight it also means dealing with its secondary effects — displacement, conflict and violence — and making it a focus of our security policy.
Tom Middendorp, a former chief of defense of the armed forces of the Netherlands, is chair of the International Military Council on Climate and Security and senior associate fellow at the Clingendael Institute.