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The need for an African Union Special Envoy for Climate Change and Security

The Niger River flowing through Bamako, Mali © SIPRI.
The Niger River flowing through Bamako, Mali © SIPRI.

Ahead of the upcoming African Union (AU) Summit in February, SIPRI researchers give an impetus for the AU to refocus on climate-related security risks and build broad support to appoint a dedicated AU Special Envoy for Climate Change and Security.

On 10–11 February, the 32nd Summit of Heads of State of the AU will be held in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia with the theme ‘Refugees, Returnees and Internally Displaced Persons: Towards Durable Solutions to Forced Displacement in Africa.’ Clearly in 2019, the AU wants to increase attention to the root causes of forced displacement and bolster the capacity of AU Member States to tackle the problem and create sustainable strategies. 

Of course, migration and forced displacement are only symptoms of broader social, political, economic and ecological ‘push’ and ‘pull’ factors. Especially in Africa, climate-related change is one of the most serious push factors. The frequency and magnitude of droughts, famine and flash floods displace millions and contribute to peoples’ decision to migrate. To address the push from climate impacts, there is a need to not only better comprehend but, to better respond to climate-related security risks.

This essay reflects upon the climate-related security risks facing Africa and reviews the current policy responses. It contends that broad AU member state support for an AU Special Envoy for Climate Change and Security would be a viable strategy that strengthens the AU’s response to climate risks. The idea of the envoy—which stems from the AU’s Peace and Security Council meeting in May 2018—is an opportunity to pre-empt migration and forced displacement and moreover, ‘climate-proof’ the AU’s peace and security architecture.

Overview of the climate-related security risks in Africa

Africa is responsible for a mere four per cent of global CO2 emissions.  Yet, no continent is equally affected by the double burden of climate change and political fragility as Africa. A recent study by United States Agency for International Development shows that globally 57 per cent of the countries facing the highest double burden of climate exposure and political fragility risks are located in sub-Saharan Africa (see figure 1). 

Composite map overlaying climate exposure and political fragility. Source: USAID
Composite map overlaying climate exposure and political fragility. Source: USAID


African societies, moreover, face socioeconomic and political challenges, such as endemic poverty, weak and corrupt governance structures, protracted conflicts, demographic pressures and urbanization. These issues alone overwhelm the capacity of many African states to achieve goals within the AU’s long-term strategic framework ‘Agenda 2063’.

The evidence is clear—climate-related changes compound social and political challenges. Africa’s high vulnerability to the impacts of climate change is due to African economies’ dependency on agriculture, a sector acutely affected by climate fluctuations. The risks that ensue include that of violent conflict—which in itself is an additional push factor for migration and forced displacement.

Climate-related security risks, including migration, are transnational in character which reasserts the need for African states to find a multilateral response at the AU level. Shifting precipitation patterns have increased water scarcity in the Horn of Africa and the Sahel. This has put additional pressures on the availability of water and arable land as well as limiting the access to these resources within and across countries, sometimes forcing people to migrate. Conflicts and increased environmental stress have made the Sahel region a migration hotspot and North Africa a transit area for people attempting to reach Europe. 

Climate change also exaggerates transnational security challenges such as water management. According to data from the United Nations Environment Programme, Africa has 59 international transboundary river basins and 15 principal lakes that cross the political boundaries of two or more countries. The Nile River Basin, for instance, extends over ten countries and the Nubian Sandstone Aquifer System is shared by four countries. The expected variability in water availability requires cross-country collaboration, but it has also become a hotspot for regional tensions. The strained dynamics between Egypt and Ethiopia around the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam exemplify the security risks of cross-boundary resource sharing against a backdrop of changing climatic conditions. Further, this tension demonstrates the need for mediation through an appointed Special Envoy who could facilitate dialogue and cooperation.

The African Union’s response

Responding to climate-related security challenges requires an integrated approach that combines knowledge on climate risks with the social and political realities of the regions. A recent SIPRI study shows that some of Africa’s regional organizations, such as the Economic Community of West African States and the Intergovernmental Authority on Development, have recognized the increasing risks linked to climate change. Although both organizations have developed action-oriented frameworks on climate security, their policy implementation is inept and often remains pigeonholed in specialized commissions, rather than the more centralized and better funded peace and security arena.

The AU—as the overarching peacebuilding and development institution in Africa—is critical in responding to climate-related security risks. Given the compartmentalization of climate security issues within other regional organisations, it is noteworthy that the emerging discourse on climate security occurs within the AU’s peace and security framework. However, aside from rhetorical steps and statementsincluding the proposal of a Special Envoy for Climate and Security—the AU lacks a tangible policy framework that lays out specific actions on how to respond to climate security. 

For instance, the African Peace and Security Architecture Roadmap 2016–20 highlights climate change as one of the cross-cutting issues in peace and security. However, the document also stresses existing challenges with mainstreaming climate security issues, for example, in regional early warning systems and conflict prevention functions within the AU Peace and Security Department. The AU Peace and Security Council acknowledges the vulnerability caused by climate change and has held two open sessions focusing on the linkages between climate change and security. Yet, so far recommendations have not been developed into actionable policy frameworks. Similarly, the AU’s ambitious goal to ‘Silence the Guns in Africa by the Year 2020’ underscores that linkages between climate change and security exist, but lacks sufficient understanding of what climate-related security risks are and how they affect societies.

Climate change and security leadership within the African Union

Being the most vulnerable continent to climate change—inextricably linked to the continent’s peace and security—Africa is in need of a clear climate security strategy and strategic leadership. Ongoing reform within the AU and the upcoming AU Summit provide an opportunity to showcase leadership and develop adequate responses to climate-related security risks. 

Part of this should be the appointment of a Special Envoy to Climate Change and Security which could help widen the understanding of climate-related security risks within the AU. One example of how this can be done is commissioning integrated climate risks assessments that would directly inform the Committee of African Heads of State and Government on Climate Change, the AU Commission as well as the AU Peace and Security Council. Such assessments would be crucial to mainstream climate security in continental and regional early warning systems and conflict prevention functions within the AU Peace and Security Department. Moreover, to counter siloed responses to climate security, a Special Envoy could ensure that the current AU reform process integrates climate risks in its peace and security architecture and across its structure. 

But a Special Envoy alone will not be enough. African Heads of State must take ownership and lead the continents’ response to climate-related security risks. Cooperation among AU Member States with a Special Envoy for Climate Change and Security will be an opportunity to climate-proof the AU’s peace and security architecture, address the root causes of migration and forced displacement, and as such become a catalyst to facilitate the AU’s ambitious Agenda 2063.


Dr Florian Krampe is the Director of the SIPRI Climate Change and Risk Programme.
Vane Moraa Aminga was a Research Assistant in the Climate Change and Risk Programme.