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Taking climate security forward in the OSCE

A line of OSCE participating state flags
Photo: Nonanet/Flickr

There is growing international recognition that climate change impacts and security challenges—along with their solutions—are increasingly linked. In a new, complex of era of risk, we need to recognize both traditional ‘hard’ security and environmental challenges as part of a larger security space.

The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) has long embraced a comprehensive approach to security that takes account of environmental issues. This has largely focused on areas like natural resource management and managing hazardous waste and substances, but until recently addressing climate-related risks has not been at the core. In December last year the 28th OSCE Ministerial Council meeting in Stockholm adopted a decision on ‘strengthening co-operation to address the challenges caused by climate change’.

Since then, the Russian invasion of Ukraine has grabbed attention and profoundly affected relations within the OSCE—which includes Ukraine, Russia and the entire memberships of NATO and the Collective Security Treaty Organization. Nevertheless, there are signs of hope that the new momentum on climate change cooperation created by the Ministerial Council decision has not been lost. 

This blog summarizes how the OSCE is working on climate security and what the Ministerial Decision means, then looks at ways that the organization could build on this new momentum.

The OSCE and climate security

Environmental cooperation, including on climate change, has always been a part of the OSCE’s remit. This was inherited from the organization’s cold war precursor, the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe, and its founding document the 1975 Helsinki Final Act.

In 1997 the OSCE created a Co-ordinator of Economic and Environmental Activities, and in 2007 the Madrid Declaration on Environment and Security recognized that the OSCE’s complementary role vis-à-vis the efforts of the United Nations (as a regional organization under Chapter VIII of the UN Charter) extended to addressing climate change in its region.

One example of work done by the Office of the Coordinator of OSCE Economic and Environmental Activities is an extra-budgetary project on climate change and security in Eastern Europe, Central Asia and the Southern Caucasus.

The Ministerial Council decision and beyond

The Swedish OSCE Chairpersonship in 2021 made climate change one of its priorities. During the year the links between climate change and security were put on the agenda several times, for example through a high-level conference in July and a high-level event in September. This culminated in the December Ministerial Council decision.

That decision was the first in several years to acknowledge the risks stemming from climate change at the highest political level of the organization—and the first ever to be exclusively focused on climate change. The decision reiterated the mandate of the OSCE to work on climate-related challenges. These, it said, ‘may negatively affect prosperity, stability and security in the OSCE area’ by exacerbating economic challenges and environmental degradation; effective cooperation to address these challenges could ‘contribute to stability, resilience, and prosperity’. This language was unprecedented in the organization.

Following the decision, OSCE Secretary General Helga Maria Schmid dedicated her thematic report to climate change in January 2022. A high-level OSCE conference on this topic was scheduled for the end of March, but did not materialize—perhaps due to uncertainty following the invasion of Ukraine in February.

Despite this, the war in Ukraine has provided a new focus for discussion about climate security, rather than pushing it off the OSCE agenda. In April 2022, Schmid issued a press release warning of the ‘serious environmental damages caused by continued fighting in Ukraine, and their long-term effects across the region’. The following month, the Coordinator for OSCE Economic and Environmental Activities, Ambassador Hasani, published a blog about ‘Responding to the economic and environmental impacts of the war in Ukraine’.

The OSCE has also specifically highlighted climate change and related security issues in its recent meetings with Partners for Co-operation in the Mediterranean and Asia.

What next?

The Ministerial Council decision provides a unique opportunity for the OSCE to strengthen its work on tackling climate change and climate security. But how can the organization use this momentum and translate it into action? Below are some suggestions for how the OSCE could do this through its executive structures, its participating states, and its cooperation with other multilateral organizations.

One of the most significant aspects of the Ministerial Council decision is that it provides OSCE executive structures with a clearer mandate to work on climate-related risks.

The convening power of the executive structures means that they can support cooperation and dialogue between participating states and relevant international, national and local actors, for example providing platforms for the exchange of information and best practices, especially in relation to new technologies and innovations.

The Office of the Co-ordinator of OSCE Economic and Environmental Activities can also play an important role, for example through helping with the development of early-warning mechanisms.

Clearly integrating climate-related challenges into the mandates of field operations would be another key step to address such risks in practice.

The decision also encourages OSCE participating states to further address the challenges caused by climate change, including by intensifying dialogue and co-operation.

This could be done through existing OSCE platforms and resources, as well as through the informal OSCE Group of Friends on Environment. Participating states could also choose to fund extra-budgetary projects to mitigate and adapt to climate-related challenges.

For make such initiatives more effective, the decision encourages participating states to pursue a multi-stakeholder approach, including women and youth.

The Ministerial Council Decision also encourages co-operation with relevant regional and international organizations. Numerous other international organizations work on environment-related and climate-related security risks, including the UN, the European Union and NATO. There is thus potential for enhanced cooperation and new partnerships to address issues of environment, climate, peace and security together, for example by holding regular dialogues and sharing knowledge and lessons learned.

As SIPRI’s recent report Environment of Peace: Security in a New Era of Risk argues, the growing environment and security crises have brought us into a new era of risk. Collectively, OSCE participating states produce approximately one third of the world’s carbon emissions  and two thirds of the world’s military spending. It is also the world's largest regional security organization. The OSCE and its participating states thus hold great potential not only to address climate-related risks in the OSCE region but also to influence how humanity navigates this new era.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR(S)

Anniek Barnhoorn is a Research Assistant in the SIPRI Climate Change and Risk Programme.