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Munich Security Conference: Climate on the Agenda – What’s Next?

munich_skylineBy Shiloh Fetzek, Senior Fellow for International Affairs

Climate change was higher on the Munich Security Conference agenda than it has been in previous years, with a more-prominent panel and mentions by other speakers during the event, including EU High Representative/EC Vice-President Federica Mogherini, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres, and Bill Gates.

The panel “Climate Security: Good COP, Bad Cops” was given the central question: how can the security community help put nations of the world on a path to exceed commitments on climate change and sustainable development?

Panelists spoke effectively to the “what”: how climate change is impacting their countries/regions, the nature of climate and security interactions, what they’re doing to meet climate goals and the need for countries to keep their commitments to the Paris climate agreement.

They identified climate change as a global megatrend that must be addressed in order to “build a culture of prevention for long-term peace and prosperity,” and noted the security community’s broad acceptance of climate change as a security issue: that this community, “with its long-term view, knows that what’s happening now is just the start.”

The importance of investing in development to avoid conflicts from resource-related issues, the amount of poverty reduction resources being devoted to climate adaptation in Bangladesh, and the fact that conflict will stall or reverse development efforts, were all addressed.

Less attention was devoted to the “how”: answering the central question around what the security community, i.e. many of those attending the Munich Security Conference, could do to ensure that the primary global processes for managing the security risks of climate change have the resourcing and momentum to generate a response that is commensurate with the threat.

However, there were some notable solutions offered. The most senior member of the security community on the panel (representing a temporary member of the UN Security Council), Swedish Minister for Foreign Affairs Margot Wallström, did the most to outline practical steps: calling for the creation of an institutional home for climate change and security at the United Nations, and developing field reporting and early warning mechanisms for the UN Security Council (UNSC) to identify potentially problematic situations early on.

This is consistent with a recommendation articulated in the Center for Climate and Security’s bipartisan Climate and Security Advisory Group (CSAG) Briefing Book for a New Administration (page 19) released last September, which calls on the United States to:

Develop actions by the UNSC on early identification of zones where climate change could increase the risk of conflict, providing technical support on climate and security issues to the UNGA and other UN institutions, and exploring the possibility of a legal framework for the status of cross-border climate migrants.

Minister Wallström challenged the Security Council to act on the issue. Given support for such actions by prominent national security and military voices in the United States (as reflected in the aforementioned CSAG Briefing Book), this could potentially be an area for cooperation between the United States and Sweden at the Security Council.

As this issue continues to be prioritized on the Munich agenda, maintaining a focus on practical ways forward and the specific role of the security community can help to achieve this.

To the panel’s central question: having security community members communicate their analysis of climate security risks in this fora, along with what’s at stake (where does the science tell us we are at, what are the implications for the security community’s ability to maintain stability), and detail how this analysis has informed decision-making in other branches of government (what inter-agency processes have worked, lessons for other governments), would lay the groundwork for substantively addressing this high-probability, high-impact driver of insecurity going forward.

In her introduction, former Mexican Secretary of Foreign Affairs and UNFCCC Executive Secretary Patricia Espinoza noted that the narrative on climate change needs to shift to security. She said: “This story, this narrative, this link between a stable climate and human development needed for security – this is the story that needs to be told. More people need to understand, because this story’s ending is uncertain. It is currently being written.”

She’s right. However, the security community’s been trying to tell us that since 1990. In this context, it’s time for world leaders to develop concrete next steps for ensuring that our response is commensurate to the threat.


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