Too Hot To Handle: Stabilizing The European Union’s Near-Abroad

Climate Change is an immense topic in contemporary discourse, and where our talks often fall on pursuing green growth, circular economies and sustainable living, we often neglect to discuss the negative ramifications, should our pursuits fail. For many of us, we share a collective understanding that a heating climate will have massive consequences on biodiversity and living conditions, but when talks turn to the security implications, the discourse generally falls silent. The fact is, increasingly hostile environmental conditions go hand in hand with conflict and instability, and without firm action, we will be unable to foster a climate for peace.

Climate change is a raw deal on a global scale. Developed nations with ample resources and more limited impacts stand ready to address the environmental threats of the coming decades. Meanwhile, developing nations, already suffering from a progressively hostile climate, lack both the resources and capabilities to handle the challenges of the future. In the global south, we already now see how environmental stress undermines livelihoods and, through negative impacts, become drivers of migration and conflict. We can also see how basic natural resources become weaponized and play an increasingly important role in the otherwise complex security paradigm present there.

With a focus on the European near-abroad, it is clear that climate change will have severe impacts in the future; already now, it is playing an increasingly large role in destabilising our neighbours to the south. The European Union is thus destined to become a major player in combatting the negative ramifications of climate change, notably because of its strategic security interest to the south of its borders. For the EU, a stable and prosperous neighbourhood has always been paramount to its common well-being. To this end, the EU must seek to increase its commitments to build resilient structures and adaptive societies, with a focus on the fragile states in the MENA/Sahel region to our immediate south.

Given the noticeable impact of climate change on the peace and security nexus for our southern near-abroad, it is likely that we are heading towards an increasingly complex future, where peace, security and development are entwined. For the EU, this future will require a comprehensive approach, addressing the developing security issues in a multifaceted fashion. This will mean a merging of developmental assistance, hard security backing and capacity focused partnerships with local stakeholders.

Stepping beyond the holy trinity of aid, relief and reconstruction and into a preventative mindset is already a challenge. Swooping in with aid helicopters and relief organisations is media-sexy but reactive approaches are not the answer to our growing concerns. Instead, we need a comprehensive EU strategy that addresses our concerns in a holistic and conflict-preventative manner. Investments in climate-resilient infrastructure and industries, alongside security assistance, when needed or requested, should go hand-in-hand with broader efforts to ensure that any fragile neighbours are prepared for the future in the best way possible.

A specific toolset for increasing local capacity in regard to addressing the security implications of climate change is to embed institutional knowledge and understanding of these topics in national security structures. To this end, the EU maintains a wide-ranging framework that might serve as a vessel for building resilience, adaptive capabilities and threat mitigation in host nations. Namely, the Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) mission framework, which focuses on Security Sector Governance and Reform. Upon invitation by host nations, the European External Action Service facilitates a wide range of expert advisors, trainers and facilitators to provide fragile nations with the best possible tools to reform their security provisions. With a firm basis on local ownership, good governance principles and building sustainable structures, the EU has a solid foundation for embedding its strategic climate security related interests into this framework.

In the best tit-for-tat fashion, the EU can push its desire to gradually build capacities for acknowledging and addressing climate security risks throughout the national security structures from within the CSDP mission framework. Initially, this might just be simply raising the question to key stakeholders in the areas of defence, justice and interior affairs, to uncover how these risks are addressed at a ministerial level. Subsequently, we may turn to substantial capacity building efforts through training and advisory services, provided to the host nation’s security structures. With a firm understanding of the negative impacts of climate change on their national security settings, we can hope that developments in this area become ingrained in national risk management efforts, and early-warning responses can become an effective tool for ensuring peace and stability.

While the EU already acknowledges climate security as a strategic challenge, it is still necessary to push for increased commitments at both the political and institutional levels. Part of the challenge is to facilitate an increased public understanding of the severe security implications of climate change, as a means of shifting member state resistance towards more supportive sentiments. Without widespread support, it is unlikely that our efforts will be successful; selling conflict prevention does mean selling an unsexy topic, one where the ideal result of our efforts is that nothing actually happens. At the same time, the EU must also ensure that its advisors are well-equipped to work on climate security issues as part of their portfolio of skills. Within this framework, the first internal training courses on climate security are already present for interested personnel, but standardizing climate sensitivity and climate security understandings as desirable skills in relevant missions is still lacking.  Despite this, the EU is gearing up for the future, and with increased interest in the key thematics, it is likely that increased pressure can put the union on the right track for addressing this monumental challenge.