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Climate Security in times of geopolitical crises—what ways forward?

Climate Security in times of geopolitical crises —what ways forward?
Dead Vlei, Sossusvlei, Namibia. Photo: Ken Treloar/Unsplash.

Ahead of the fourth Planetary Security Conference on 19–20 February 2019 in The Hague, SIPRI authored the 2019 progress report ‘Climate Security – Making it #Doable.’ The report reviews progress made to address climate-related security risks in a time of growing geopolitical turmoil. The authors highlight three upcoming processes that will be key in shaping actions on climate security in 2019 and beyond.

During 2018 the increasing impact of climate change became visible with frequent droughts, floods, and extreme weather events. At the same time geopolitical tensions grew between old and new rivals that seem to undermine the United Nations 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the 2016 Paris Agreement. The turmoil puts multilateralism in question.

Climate security within the UN

Nevertheless, as shown in the newly released report Climate Security – Making it #Doable’, global and regional organizations have been able to achieve progress in addressing and mitigating climate-related security risks. Developments among regional organisations—including the African Union and the European Union—illustrates a growing awareness and action on climate security. In the UN system, progress has been demonstrated through three interconnected changes:

  • First, there are a growing number of resolutions in the UN Security Council that include language on the need for adequate climate risk assessments and management strategies. Likewise, several predominantly non-permanent UN Security Council member states continue to raise the issue. The formation of a Group of Friends on Climate and Security, co-chaired by Germany and Nauru, illustrates the increasing support by governments from different parts of the globe and their collaboration to push the UN system to be more risk-aware.
  • Second, the establishment of a pilot Climate Security Mechanism. This mechanism can be considered a first step in a more comprehensive response to climate-related security risks. The mechanism is staffed by three UN organisations; the UN Department of Political and Peacebuilding Affairs, the UN Development Programme (UNDP) and the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) and is tasked to provide integrated climate risk assessments to the UN Security Council and to other UN bodies.
  • Third, the independent Expert Working Group on Climate-related Security Risks. The Expert Working Group has provided assessments of climate-related security risks and risk management strategies relevant to the UN and the UN Security Council. Germany has convened a similar group and announced its ambition to build upon the efforts by Sweden, the Netherlands and Italy in 2017 and 2018. Other UN Security Council Members, including Belgium and the Dominican Republic have also embraced the idea. 


UN building
The UN Headquarters in New York. Photo: Shutterstock.

Keeping the momentum

With these promising developments a key question now is: how can the capacity to assess and respond to climate-related security risks in the international system continue to be enhanced?

The problem is that neither the ownership of the problem nor the solution is simple. The point of departure for the policy responses within the machinery—in a government or an inter-governmental organisation—is often unclear. This is because climate-related security risks pose multifaceted obstacles. They do not fit neatly into any particular department portfolio and are not solvable by one country alone.

In addition, there is a temporal and spatial tension. Temporally, between short-term problem solving of, for example, water shortages, and a long-term concern of development and building resilience. Spatially, between insecurity at the global level, the regional and local level. What happens to the one billion people living in low-lying coastal areas if sea levels rise as fast or faster than predicted? And what is the resulting implication for regional and even global security if national governments are unable to care for the well-being of those people as their abodes and livelihoods become less viable? There is also an issue of security at multiple local levels, as evidenced by localized violent conflicts in the Horn of Africa, but also from the ongoing humanitarian catastrophe in Yemen.

Different actors, different roles

Indeed, the best way to approach these problems is to recognize that different actors have unique roles to play in addressing climate-related security risks:

  • The long-term development issues are part of the turf of UNEP, UNDP, the EU Commission’s Directorate-General for International Cooperation and Development, national development agencies and international non-governmental organisations. Development must be ‘climate proofed’ and climate action must be development friendly. Also, there are several countries in which neither the climate nor the development agenda can proceed without absorbing the peacebuilding agenda. Thus, climate-friendly development must be conflict sensitive while peacebuilding must be climate smart. These principles are relevant irrespective of which organization works on the agenda.
  • The short-term diplomatic issues are, as ever, in the purview of foreign ministries, the UN Security Council and comparable entities at regional levels. Such issues may arise in the context of good offices and mediation missions in the UN and standard diplomatic relations between different governments. But the key point is that the analysis which informs them must include appropriate attention to climate change and similar environmental issues. These are increasingly evident and important aspects of the challenges to human insecurity in a considerable number of countries and regions. To ignore the role of nature in today’s unfolding political crises is simply to ignore part of the reality of those crises and conflicts. 
  • Between the long- and the short-term sits advocacy. It can be useful to break advocacy down into three components. First, there is advocacy for raising the ambitions for climate action. One aspect of this is to aim to reduce carbon emissions. Closely related there is advocacy for raising the ambitions for financing adaptation and building resilience to climate change. Taken together, these steps could mean that the feared deterioration in human security and international stability that might occur as a long-term result of climate change would be minimized. Second, there is advocacy to try to resolve incipient or actual violent conflict, to bring parties together and to point out what divides them. The challenges of climate change could well unite them. Third, there is the advocacy task of including climate-friendly elements in peace negotiations and settlements.


Making it #Doable

Hierarchy, cooperation and management look different across disparate organizations, but the points of responsibility and accountability is a must. Thus, maintaining the momentum both in the UN system and in regional organizations is pivotal. To make climate security actions ‘#Doable’ there are at least three upcoming processes that will be key in advancing this three-part agenda in 2019:

  • First, the UN Secretary General’s Climate Summit in 2019 is a crucial advocacy moment to shape the climate action agenda. This event will focus on raising the ambition on mitigation of carbon emissions and on climate financing. As such, it is part of the long-term agenda that will impact the future climate risks landscape.
  • Second, the ongoing processes within the UN system, including the UN Security Council but also in regional organisations. Although the continuation of short-term diplomatic efforts across these bodies is expected to continue, progress should not be taken for granted. For instance, there is a risk that the recently established Climate Security Mechanism is already becoming overloaded with tasks. In order to analyse and suggest management interventions for the many relevant situations where climate change is increasingly posing security risks, greater capacity is needed. More staff and resources are required to continue feeding the system with well-informed and policy relevant knowledge on climate-related security risks.
  • Third, in July the UN High-Level Political Forum (HLPF) will take place. The HLPF is a yearly event running until year 2030 that monitors and reviews the Sustainable Developments Goals (SDGs). The 2019 edition of the HLPF will put a particular focus on, inter alia, SDG 10 on Inequalities, SDG 13 on Climate Action, and SDG 16 on Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions. The HLPF presents a unique opportunity to understand the interconnected nature of these three SDGs and set long-term goals integrating climate-related security risks. Connecting the dots and advocating actions bridging long-term and short-term policy processes is key to make climate security actions ‘#Doable’.


The global political system experiences rising geopolitical tensions. Meanwhile, science provides greater evidence of the current and likely future effects of climate change. There is a clearer and greater need for deeper cooperation on climate. Despite complexities and turmoil, an optimistic story can be told, and authentic progress is being made in adapting agendas and institutions to face the compounding challenges of climate change.


Dan Smith is the Director of SIPRI.
Dr Malin Mobjörk was a Senior Researcher and Director of SIPRI’s Climate Change and Risk Programme from 2016 to 2021.
Dr Florian Krampe is the Director of the SIPRI Climate Change and Risk Programme.
Karolina Eklöw was the Coordinator of SIPRI’s Environment of Peace initiative.