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The European Green Deal: A chance to promote a people-centred take on climate security

EU flags waving in front of European Parliament
EU flags waving in front of European Parliament/Shutterstock
Dr Elise Remling

Announced in December 2019, the European Green Deal (EGD) sets out Europe’s new growth strategy with the aim of transforming the now 27-country bloc from a high- to a low-carbon economy in order to reach zero net emissions by the year 2050. Its ambition is to overhaul many of Europe’s economic sectors, most notably energy, transport, agriculture, goods production and consumption, and the housing stock. It also discusses biodiversity protection and nature conservation.

This SIPRI Topical Backgrounder argues that the EGD—while more ambitious than efforts by previous commissions when it comes to making a coordinated effort to reduce emissions—is negligent of important developments in the climate security discourse of recent years. Specifically, it frames climate change as multiplying threats for international security, which is concerning for three reasons: (a) it oversimplifies the complex link between climate change and security and neglects the important role of human agency; (b) it is adversarial and does not foster national governments to act in a way that proactively manages and mitigates insecurity arising from climate-related changes; and (c) it suggests that climate change only adds to existing challenges (i.e. it multiplies them) and therefore overlooks novel ones, especially those transboundary and systemic in nature.

A more productive approach to achieve the EGD’s goals and address climate-related security risks would be to adopt a people-centred take on security. This would make responses more tangible, the risk less threatening to national interests and steer the international conversation in a more cooperative direction.

Europe’s man-on-the-moon moment?

Initially, the EGD consisted of two short documents—the Communication on the European Green Deal and an annex laying out a road map—but the package of measures and documents associated with the EGD has grown since December 2019 to include a Sustainable Europe Investment Plan (SEIP), with the Just Transition Mechanism and Fund; a Climate Law; and a Circular Economy Action Plan, with more strategies to follow.

While the European Commission celebrates the EGD as ‘Europe’s man on the moon moment’, more critical voices see it as aiming too low and not being in line with the 1.5°C target, and even as a greenwashing exercise that pays lip service to some of the recent environmental and climate protection movements (e.g. European Commission Executive Vice-President Frans Timmermans’ mention of an ‘ecocide’) but lacks any real substance. While these are important concerns, this backgrounder focuses on how the EGD situates itself in a global context in relation to security risks that might arise from climate change.

From its inception, the focus of the EGD was inward-looking: on the EU’s 2050 climate-neutrality objective, with an emphasis on reconciling the economy with our planet. It is a strategy for stimulating economic activities within the European Union (EU) in line with the climate targets and not a policy seeking to prepare for climate impacts and their repercussions—in fact, climate adaptation is only mentioned in passing—nor is it an explicit foreign policy instrument. Yet, in achieving the overarching aim of the deal, the important role of international cooperation and soft foreign policy through climate leadership and climate diplomacy is acknowledged throughout the EGD (e.g. ‘green deal diplomacy’)—a clear sign that the Commission seeks to achieve the aims of the EGD to some degree together with other counties.

Threat multiplier framing unlikely to foster productive cooperation

In the third section of the Communication on The European Green Deal, which dedicates two and a half pages to the role of ‘The EU as a global leader’, the Commission discusses the link between climate change and security. This is conceptualized with climate change acting as a ‘threat multiplier’, in the sense that the ‘ecological transition will reshape geopolitics, including global economic, trade and security interests’ (Communication, p. 21). The idea that climate change multiplies threats is not new (the term was originally coined in 2007 by a group of former United States military personnel), and replicates framings expressed in earlier European strategies and policies. In the EGD it is invoked to suggest that climate change potentially poses a threat to regional and international stability, presumably with the intention of motivating other governments to act on climate change.

That the EGD considers the implications of climate change, for instance on food and people’s livelihoods in areas outside of the EU’s territory and their potential repercussions for the EU, is important in an increasingly interconnected world linked through flows of trade, finance and people. However, framing these challenges as potential ‘sources of conflict’ (p. 21) is problematic in at least three ways. First, climate change is never the whole story. The best available science shows that the connection between climate change and conflict is inconclusive, and links between changes in climate and increased insecurity are multifaceted and complex. While there are nuances to how the term is employed in different contexts, framing climate change as a threat multiplier is generally misleading because it oversimplifies the complex link between climate change and security concerns and ignores the fact that the effects of climate change always interact with local socio-economic and political contexts on the ground. Relatedly, this framing neglects the important role of human agency. People’s actions, reactions and inactions at different levels of government influence whether climate-related changes lead to a situation of increased insecurity or not. In other words, it is not just that the effects of climate change interact with socio-economic and political contexts, but that individuals’ actions, or lack thereof, are key to how its effects play out.

Second, framing climate change as a threat multiplier is not an effective strategy for motivating other governments to act in a way that would be in the EU’s interest. This is because the terminology is adversarial and focused on the security of states (i.e. on a foreign threat that needs to be neutralized) and does not generate constructive responses by national governments that serve the purpose of effectively managing climate-related security risks at the international level. SIPRI’s work in the context of the African Union (AU) has shown, for instance, that framing climate change as a national or even international security risk—which the threat multiplier metaphor unmistakeably evokes—leads to countries not wanting to address the issue because it infringes on their or other states’ sovereignty.

Third, the framing insinuates that climate change simply multiplies existing challenges and therefore overlooks the fact that new and unforeseen risks may arise. For instance, the reality of individuals, households, communities and ecosystems being complexly—and increasingly—interconnected across different scales through economic, social and biophysical pathways, gives rise to the possibility of climate change impacts having effects across national boundaries. Similarly, mitigation and adaptation measures in one place can have transboundary effects elsewhere. Limiting attention to existing risks and not accounting for the possibility of new ones means the EU would be ill-prepared to anticipate and respond to future challenges.

Therefore, while framing climate change as an international security threat might create a sense of urgency and resonate with more politically conservative audiences, it is still oriented towards protecting national security interests and does not use language conducive to building effective policies and interventions that might effectively mitigate the security implications of climate change for others and, indirectly, for the EU. What, then, is the alternative?

Towards a more people-centred approach to climate-related risks and insecurity

If the EGD indeed seeks to ‘protect the health and well-being of citizens from environment-related risks and impacts’ (Communication, p. 1) and ‘support a just transition globally’ (p. 21), this cannot be done without taking a broader perspective on the factors that challenge that well-being and expose Europeans to environment and climate-related risks. It requires the EU to look beyond its borders and to support others in addressing the sources of insecurity. Yet, as discussed above, using the language of threat multiplier moves away from that very objective.

A more constructive approach to human security would put people, not states, centre stage in debates on climate security and emphasise that it is about protecting vulnerable populations and making sure hardships and grievances exacerbated by the changing climate do not turn into security issues in the first place. This means addressing conflict risks and climate change vulnerability, in tandem. In other words, the underlying causes of insecurity rather than just the symptoms. This calls for a development-focused perspective that addresses and transforms the underlying structures and drivers of insecurity within countries.

A human security approach is more useful not only because it makes the debate more tangible, focused on how to buffer vulnerabilities, loss and damage (instead of an undefined threat from an undefined enemy), but also because it is less threatening to national interests. It thereby opens up different policy options to address problems that may arise as a result of the effects of climate change (e.g. health, education, access to water and energy, stable social and political institutions, representation of minorities). It also steers the international conversation in a more cooperative direction, which is paramount given that many climate-related security risks are transboundary in nature and, therefore, need to be addressed in cooperation with other states.

Implications of the alternative framing for the European Green Deal 

Taking such an alternative approach to climate-related security risks would have implications for the EU’s own efforts in the context of the EGD, three of which are most immediate. First, as stated in the Communication, living up to ‘A green oath to “do no harm”’ (p. 19) would imply that the EU minimizes unintended negative effects that may arise from its own actions on others, especially places with already increased fragility. In light of this, the EGD’s forthcoming comprehensive risk assessment (due this summer) should not only assess the risks from actions taken under the EGD for EU member states, but also the impacts that the European energy transition might have on places elsewhere and their implications for situations in conflict contexts. 

Second, and related, when EU institutions—which combined with individual members states remain the biggest donor of Overseas Development Assistance (ODA) and climate aid worldwide—make investments in renewable energy projects (i.e. mitigation initiatives) or support adaptation projects, it is paramount to ensure these efforts do not negatively interact with local contexts, especially in areas affected by conflict, violence and fragility. 

Third and more generally, such a changed approach calls for a more development-focused external outlook for driving the EGD’s climate agenda internationally, diversifying the foreign policy perspective from its currently rather narrow focus on trade (e.g. free trade agreements and the ‘carbon border adjustment mechanism’).

Looking ahead

As the EU reconfigures and steps up its collective response to the climate and environmental emergency, there is opportunity for the EU to not only steer its own economy in a direction to ‘do no harm’, but also to use its discursive power to influence conversations elsewhere through directional leadership. Getting others to act on risks arising from climate change is in the interest of the EU itself. Yet, the threat multiplier metaphor currently evoked by the EGD brings up wrong and unhelpful associations and does not assist in responding effectively to the compound and transboundary risks that underly the security implications of climate change. Using a different lens, a people-centred take on security would foster partnerships rather than nationalistic approaches by individual countries and assist in tracing synergies between climate mitigation and adaptation, development, and peacebuilding efforts. This seems particularly pertinent in the context of the EU’s numerous peacekeeping missions in regions highly susceptible to climate risks (e.g. Mali, Niger, Somalia), and in light of the upcoming 2020 AU–EU Summit and the Comprehensive Strategy with Africa.

Paying attention to such semantic nuances is important. Despite the fact that the immediate response to the COVID-19 pandemic is currently capturing much of the Commission’s and member states’ attention, and some Eastern European leaders have called for the EGD to be postponed until the pandemic and its fallout are tackled, there is little doubt that the defining challenge to public health and development in the long run will be the climate emergency. Voices that a post-COVID recovery must be in line with the EGD’s priorities are becoming louder and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen herself has emphasized that the economic and social recovery from the pandemic must be ‘green’—making getting this flagship policy effort right all the more important.


Dr Elise Remling is a Researcher in SIPRI’s Climate Change and Risk Programme.