The Responsibility to Prepare and Prevent: A Framework for Action to Manage Climate-Linked Conflict

08 February 2021   ·   Erin Sikorsky

Climate change comes with a range of security risks. However, with the right preparation, they can be managed and mitigated. Germany should push for the implementation of the Responsibility to Prepare and Prevent framework by promoting the institutionalization and harmonization of risk assessments, as well as better coordination between climate and security governance.

Climate change is contributing to unprecedented security risks around the globe, including an increased risk of instability and conflict. Climate change effects act as ‘threat multipliers’ exacerbating stresses to the critical resources that underpin national and global security, including water, food, and energy systems. As demonstrated in 2020 by the intersection of the COVID-19 pandemic with extreme weather, sea level rise, and other climate impacts, it is the combination of climate change with other threats that presents the highest level of concern and strains states’ ability to govern. As the head of the World Food Program in East Africa described the events of 2020 in that region – food insecurity, a locust plague, climate change-related flooding and a pandemic –, “it’s shock upon shock upon shock.”

Climate Security Risks Can Be Managed With Foresight and Preparation

The good news is we also live in a moment of unprecedented foresight capabilities that can help the world manage and mitigate those risks. Technological and scientific advances have led to the development of complex models with a strong record of accurate predictions of the rate and scale of global climatic changes under various emissions scenarios, and these models are continually being refined. Foresight tools alone do not lead to preparedness, however. Taking advantage of this moment requires a new international framework for climate security governance – one that addresses what we know about climate security risks, what gaps exist in governing and addressing these risks, and how to close these gaps.

The Responsibility to Prepare and Prevent (R2P2), developed by the Center for Climate and Security, an institute of the Council on Strategic Risks, and first debuted before the UN Security Council in December of 2017, is such a framework. The framework provides a roadmap to address the key global climate security risk governance gaps: information, personnel, and timing. Germany is well poised to play a leadership role in ensuring the principles of this framework are adopted and acted upon at the state, regional, and international levels, as part of the implementation of its Guidelines on preventing crises, resolving conflicts, and building peace.

Specific recommendations for Germany based on the principles of the framework entail:

1. Germany Should Push for a Common Climate Security Assessment

Successfully managing climate security risks requires a common analytical foundation among countries, affirmed by credible institutions – the climate security equivalent of the assessment reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). One model could be the establishment of an International Climate Security Assessment Panel, tasked with preparing accessible, aggregated global climate security assessment reports. Absent the creation of a new panel, there are other avenues for elevating security issues within the current IPCC process. For example, working in partnership with other like-minded states, the German IPCC Coordination Office could push for the integration of security assessments in upcoming IPCC reports. Also, within Germany, the government could establish inter-ministerial teams from the ministries of defense, foreign affairs, environment, economic development, and the federal intelligence service (BND) to evaluate current IPCC reports through a German security lens.

Partnerships with non-governmental organizations and think tanks developing climate security risk assessments and methodologies could also inform new approaches within and between governments. The German Federal Foreign Office has already partnered with adelphi and the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research to launch a Global Climate Security Risk and Foresight Assessment that could serve as a model. Another example to draw on is the International Military Council on Climate Security’s World Climate Security Report 2020.

2. The German Government Can Promote Climate Security Centers on International and Regional Levels

Putting these assessments into practice requires the translation of climate security information into actionable recommendations for policymakers at the UNSC and regional bodies like NATO and the EU, as well as for senior country officials like foreign and defense ministers. Currently, officials often have difficulty determining “who to call” when trying to coordinate climate security matters both within and between nations. Unlike with other significant security risks such as nuclear weapons proliferation and international terrorism, there are almost no “climate security” desks or “climate security champion” institutions within governments or intergovernmental security institutions. Germany has previously recognized this gap in its 2016 White Paper on Germany Security Policy, calling for “making climate change a permanent item on the security agenda of international organizations and forums such as the UN, the EU and the G7.”

One approach to achieve this goal would be the establishment of “Climate Security Centers” at the international (UN), regional (EU, NATO, African Union, etc.), and/or state level. Led by senior, respected global security practitioners and staffed with climate security experts, these centers would be responsible for issuing regular climate security action recommendations. Another approach would be to integrate such expertise and responsibility into existing early warning systems. The newly released Climate Change and Defense Roadmap from the European External Action Service provides one opportunity to advance such a model at the regional level. The roadmap calls for enhancing early warning systems with regard to climate, and mainstreaming climate change into planning of the mandates for the EU’s Common Security and Defense Policy. The German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development should also consider expanding support for the Continental Early Warning System (CEWS) it developed in partnership with the African Union to strengthen climate analysis in CEWS assessments.

Within Germany, the government should ensure the inter-ministerial “Horizon Scanning” working group includes climate security experts and fully integrates climate risks into its assessments. 

3. Coordinate Climate and Security Governance Better Within UN Institutions

Finally, it is critical to build bridges by developing mechanisms to ensure the alignment of “policy windows” between international climate change governance and international security governance. Again, these mechanisms can and should exist at all levels – international, regional and state – with the goal of breaking down silos between different policymaking tracks. For example, at the international level, such a coordinating mechanism alignment between actions taken at the UN Security Council level (or other important security, humanitarian, and conflict resolution forums), climate change policy actions taken via the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC), and climate assessments by the IPCC.

Germany is already an international leader in this area, and in particular it set a model for action by other states in its recently concluded term on the UN Security Council. The establishment of an informal expert group on climate security at the UNSC, as well as the funding of a climate security risk assessment of the Horn of Africa and of the first environmental security officer for a UN peacekeeping mission are critical first steps toward better alignment and coordination of climate and security policy.

Looking ahead, COP 26, scheduled for November 2021 in Glasgow, is a key opportunity to further integrate security issues into climate change policy and implement the R2P2 framework. The United Kingdom has indicated climate security will be on the agenda. Building on the lessons learned from its experience advancing the issue at the UNSC, Germany could play a key role in pushing for Europe’s defense and foreign ministers to focus on COP26 and the opportunity to strengthen efforts to prepare for and prevent climate-related conflicts.