Alert’s report paves way for major foreign policy response ahead of Paris climate talks

The most anticipated climate change conference is well under way in Paris. Strong international agreement at the UN Climate Change Conference 2015 (COP 21) has been deemed crucial to minimising the impacts of climate change. But significant changes to the climate are already happening and will continue to impact us for decades.

Managing the ongoing security risks of climate change therefore requires new approaches – a message that G7 leaders are starting to take on board, in response to the report A new climate for peace: Taking action on climate and fragility risks, which International Alert co-authored earlier this year. These new approaches and actions will have to go well beyond what is agreed in Paris this month.

The impacts of climate change are most acutely felt by those living in the poorest countries and in places that are fragile and conflict-affected. To address this problem, states, societies and communities need to adapt now. How we adapt in fragile contexts, however, is critical for managing climate and security risks.

But our policy frameworks and institutions are not currently equipped to meet the challenges of ‘compound risks’ – risks that interact with one another. We therefore need separate and additional responses to the linked risks of climate change, conflict and insecurity – responses that integrate adaptation, peacebuilding, and development and humanitarian aid. And we need these new approaches starting now and carrying through for decades to come.

This is the core message of Alert’s A new climate for peace report, which was commissioned in 2014 by the G7 foreign ministries. The report highlights that the sharpest conflict and security risks emerge when climate change interacts with other political, social and economic problems. Events such as the 2011 political crisis and bread protests in Egypt, the 2006–2011 drought in Syria and consequent displacement and protests in Dara’a, and the 2012 Tuareg rebellion in Mali all evidence this.

Chief among the recommendations of the G7 report is that climate-fragility risks need to be made a foreign policy priority. Government departments (development, energy and climate change, defence and diplomacy) need to develop capacities for creating cross-sectoral and inter-agency working groups and policy processes. The result will likely be a more effective response.

But in order to achieve this, clear political leadership from the G7 and greater international cooperation is essential.

John Kerry announces new task force on climate and security: the highest foreign policy response from a place at the lowest sea-level

On 10 November, near the main US naval base, sitting just above sea level at the Old Dominion University, US Secretary of State John Kerry demonstrated this leadership by enacting a key recommendation of A new climate for peace. He announced that the US State Department is creating a new “task force of senior government officials to determine how best to integrate climate and security analysis into overall foreign policy planning and priorities”.

This announcement is a major step forward in a long process to understand climate-conflict links and how climate change can act as a ‘threat multiplier’ – a field of study that Alert has been advancing since the 2007 report, A climate of conflict. But more importantly, Kerry’s announcement signals recognition of the need to anchor the commitment to climate-security risks at the highest level of the international political agenda and foreign policy.

Better risk assessment for better risk management

There is a lot that the international community can do to reduce conflict and security risks linked to climate change. As A new climate for peace recommends, we first need risk assessment methodologies that help us analyse complex, interconnected risks in an integrated manner. This risk analysis then needs to be translated into action by and for different stakeholders and institutions, and serve as a springboard for developing integrated responses.

In his speech, Kerry explicitly references and recognises this recommendation. He says:

“Given the ‘threat-multiplier’ effect we have already observed in many places around the world, collaboration on climate risk assessment should be part and parcel of every one of our diplomatic relationships, and we will see to it that it is.

The US government currently employs state-of-the-art tools to help address the fragility and risk of instability around the world. By overlaying an analysis of climate vulnerability with those assessments, we think we’ll be able to better identify areas where combined risks are particularly high and where there are critical opportunities for conflict prevention and resilience before it is too late.”

Interconnected risks need integrated responses

To address the security impacts of a changing climate in this rapidly changing and interconnected world, we have to change how we do business. Reaching agreement at COP 21 in Paris is an important starting point in this endeavour. Failure to achieve a robust global agreement would set back the achievement of the sustainable development goals (SDGs), and our peace, security and development gains.

However, tackling the risks that climate change poses to peace and security will require a broad range of international, regional, national and sub-national institutions to address them. It will require the full spectrum of the diplomatic toolbox to be explored and developed into a broader agenda for climate resilience and peace.

As Kerry noted:

“If we can better identify the 'red flags' of risk around the world, we can better target our diplomacy and development assistance to enable those nations to become more resilient and more secure – and less likely to devolve into full-fledged wars and humanitarian crises.”

Single sector interventions will not effectively address compound risks. Integrating policies and responses in three sectors – climate change adaptation, development and humanitarian aid, and peacebuilding – will be critical to ensuring efforts on all three of these fronts can help strengthen resilience to climate-conflict risks.

Kerry’s statement reaffirms that the G7 foreign policy community has recognised its role in this equation, and the importance of complementing climate and development policy through diplomacy. How integration of climate change into foreign policy plays out, and whether it fundamentally changes the way governments do business, remains to be seen. But it does provide the foreign policy community an opportunity to prioritise concrete action for climate resilience and conflict prevention.

With the highest levels of leadership acting on the recommendations of A new climate for peace, G7 countries are better positioning themselves to address climate-related security risks as they arise. But these actions will have to take us well beyond what is agreed in Paris.

Find out more about Alert's work on climate, security and peacebuilding.

A new climate for peace: Taking action on climate and fragility risks is an independent report commissioned by the G7 members and co-authored by International Alert in a consortium with adelphi, Woodrow Wilson Centre for International Scholars and the European Union Institute for Security Studies.