Analysis | The European Union’s climate (in)security

Luka Ignac

Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission, speaking at the Forest event at COP26 at the Scottish Event Campus in Glasgow, Scotland, on November 2, 2021 (Image: COP26/Flickr)

As the 26th UN Climate Change Conference (“COP26”) unfolds toward its conclusion, all eyes are on Scotland. Hundreds of leaders descended on Glasgow, rushing to outline their commitments to combat climate change and move towards a net-zero world. The European Union is strongly invested in the outcome of COP26, with a large delegation ready to boast Europe’s climate successes.

However, the bloc’s approach to combatting climate change through climate mitigation policies is too narrow. The European Union’s one-size-fits-all approach to climate change fails to recognize mitigation policies’ potential negative impacts on people’s livelihoods and societal stability. Instead, the E.U. should embrace a broader conceptualization of climate security by considering both the long-term consequences of climate change and the effects of mitigation policies on geopolitical instability. By failing to realize the role some climate change mitigation policies play in generating climate-related security challenges, the European Union risks unintended consequences: an acceleration of global climate insecurity.

Historically, the European Union was an early adopter of the concept of climate security as well as a climate agenda trendsetter. In 2003, the European Security Strategy explicitly linked climate and conflict prevention and crisis management policies. High Representative Javier Solana’s 2008 report first referred to climate change as a “threat multiplier”; the 2016 E.U. Global Strategy highlighted the need for conflict-sensitive climate policy; and, in 2020, the European Green Deal introduced a strategy for climate diplomacy based on building green alliances. In addition, the 2020 Climate Change and Defence Roadmap sketched out ways to incorporate climate considerations into the Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP). Therefore, although climate security has featured high on the European Union’s policy documents, it has been less successful in translating climate rhetoric into action and coming to terms with the fact that exporting climate policy does not automatically constitute an effective security policy.

The European Union’s climate security strategy is best described as a “protective autonomy approach”: where the bloc attempts to preemptively dilute the effects of climate change by isolating itself from its effects. One notable step is through border control. Under the CSDP, various E.U. missions were deployed in climate-stressed areas, such as in the Horn of Africa and the Sahel. However, the European Union never described the reasoning for deploying those missions as climate-related but, rather, counterterrorism-induced. Meanwhile, member states have deployed military forces to deal with climate catastrophes within their own borders. Still, there has been no mention of the potential deployment of troops to decrease external climate security risks. One approach would be for the Union to deploy CSDP missions to ensure access to natural resources and engage in disaster intervention to prevent the emergence of conflict. Regarding migration policies, the European Union has failed to develop a sound policy for climate migrants, refusing to categorize them as refugees, despite a growing acknowledgment of climate change as a driver of displacement. In the economic and trade realm, the pending implementation of the Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism (a form of carbon tax) raises concerns over mercantilist trade practices that destabilize already fragile countries with carbon-intensive economies. Energy policy is also inward-looking, as the push towards carbon neutrality encourages reliance on resources primarily located in fragile, conflict-ridden, or authoritarian countries.

The European Union’s current climate policy is inward-looking and attempts to hold climate effects at bay outside the bloc’s borders. This is an unsustainable strategy. Instead, it must embrace climate security as a fundamental overarching principle underwriting all its policies. This means expanding its understanding of climate security by promoting climate regeneration and integrity, in addition to transitioning to net-zero emissions. In practice, this requires the European Union to revisit its economic model and foreign and security policy agenda to adequately address the full range of drivers and consequences of climate change. Thus, the European Union must recognize that combating climate change requires policies beyond emission mandates and restructuring its economic, defense, migration, and energy policies. The sooner the European Union comes to terms with the fact that it cannot build a wall to protect itself from the spillover effects of climate change, the more effective it will be in fighting it.

Luka Ignac is McHenry and Huffington Fellow, an ISD Certificate Candidate, and an M.A. candidate in German and European Studies at Georgetown University. His research focuses on transatlantic relations and EU-NATO dynamics.

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The Diplomatic Pouch features insights and commentary on global challenges and the evolving demands of diplomatic statecraft. Views are those of the authors and not necessarily the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy or Georgetown University. Visit for more.

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