Why Security Policy is Reliant on Effective Climate Policy

Dangerous climate change is increasingly threatening the security of states that fundamentally have a dual regulatory function: preserving internal stability and influencing the international order to protect themselves from external security risks. Economic, social, and ecological crises, interstate wars, intrastate conflicts, the proliferation of weapons, and transnationally organised crime interfere with this regulatory function. Already today, dangerous climate change is being perceived as the security risk that will shape the twenty-first century.

Despite the temperature target of two degrees Celsius stipulated in the Paris Agreement, the international community is still on course for global warming by three or four degrees until the end of the twenty-first century. But what does that mean for the way our societies function? Many changes can already be seen in the climate system today – after all, since the beginning of industrialisation, the earth’s temperature has risen by around one degree. These changes are consistent with the predictions of climate models: heatwaves are becoming more frequent and droughts more intense while at the same time, rainfall is getting stronger and tropical hurricanes more destructive. In particular, developing countries in the Global South are suffering from the effects brought about by these extreme weather events.

However, in industrial countries too, extreme weather is already causing major damage. The 2003 and 2010 European heatwaves resulted in agricultural crop losses, electricity shortages, and tens of thousands of fatalities from heat stress. In a ‘four-degree world’, some areas, such as those at the Persian Gulf, will become so hot and humid that people will no longer able to survive outdoors. Nonetheless, these extreme weather events pale in comparison to the scenarios that could emerge if the average global temperature rises by four degrees. In a ‘four-degree world’, some areas, such as those at the Persian Gulf, will become so hot and humid that people will no longer be able to survive outdoors; even a healthy organism will stop functioning under such conditions. From time to time, similar life-threatening conditions could also arise in North India and Pakistan – large, densely populated regions where millions of people work outside in the agricultural sector today. Current border disputes have already strained relations between the two nuclear powers for a long time, and a shortage of resources resulting from such heatwaves could aggravate the situation. More extreme weather conditions are, however, just one consequence of progressing greenhouse gas emissions. The gradual changes, while less spectacular, are just as dramatic: for example, there will be a substantial drop in the average availability of water in the Mediterranean area, the Middle East, and Central America; the same applies for the yields of important crops, especially in the Tropics and Sub-Tropics. Warming and water scarcity are putting the agricultural sector in many countries under twofold pressure to adapt.

More Extreme Weather Conditions as a Consequence of Progressing Greenhouse Gas Emissions

The fishing industry – an important source of food for many people – will have to contend with falling yields due to ocean warming and the propagation of zones that are low in oxygen, especially in the Global South. Even with a temperature increase of two degrees, the tropical coral reefs that form the basis for rich fishing grounds will completely disappear.

The global sea level might only rise slowly, but the effects will still be dramatic: with the unstoppable disintegration of large parts of the ice sheets in Greenland and West Antarctica – the critical level for both may well lie below two degrees of global warming –, oceans will rise by several metres in the long term. The comparably low increase by half a metre to one metre in the coming de­cades will already lead to progressing coastal erosion, soil salinisation, and a far greater risk of storm surges. This particularly applies to lowland regions such as the densely populated Mekong Delta and the Ganges Delta; not to mention the many Pacific island states, whose very existence is at stake.

Against the background of this scenario, we will outline four fundamental challenges for state regulatory functions that could become security risks: forced migration, ethnic conflicts, the loss of state territory, and the failure of central government functions (failing states). In the last two paragraphs, we will explain why international climate policy has still not found a way to prevent dangerous climate change and what must be done – also by the German government – to minimise global warming and the risks associated with it.

Forced Migration and Humanitarian Crises

From a historical point of view, the migration of people within and between states is the rule rather than the exception: people look for better work and education conditions or flee from persecution, war, or displacement. Although migration between countries receives greater attention in the media as an interstate security risk, internal migration plays a far greater role. Even with a temperature increase of two degrees, the tropical coral reefs that form the basis for rich fishing grounds will completely disappear. Many migrants are forced to endure in refugee camps for years before they can return to their original home or find a new one. It has long been known that environmental influences impact migration decisions. Many millions of people worldwide are forced to flee from natural disasters such as floods or hurricanes every year. Across the world, more people flee from natural disasters than from war and violence. Measured by the number of displaced persons, typhoons and floods in the Philippines, China, and India topped the list of disasters in 2016; hundreds of thousands of people also had to flee from Hurricane Matthew in the United States. As the number of extreme weather events due to climate change rises, the risk of displacement through natural disasters will further increase in many areas in the future.

Even the climate-related decline in yields and water resources can cause migration. It deprives the rural population in the affected regions of their livelihoods. One possible reaction to this is migration to cities or more fertile regions – especially when local support measures fail to materialise. A recent study commissioned by the World Bank attempted to estimate the influence of falling agricultural productivity and the increasing scarcity of (surface) water on internal migration. For three key regions in the Global South – Central America, East Africa, and South Asia –, an investigation was carried out to determine which areas will likely have to face increased emigration and which will face immigration in the next thirty years as a result of climate change.

More than One Hundred Million Internal Migrants by 2050

It is an alarming projection: if climate change is left to progress unhindered and no fundamental turnaround will be achieved in development policy, an additional more than one hundred million people could become internal migrants by 2050 (Figure) in these three regions alone. Possible effects on transnational migration and on other aspects of the social fabric in the affected countries were not investigated, but this initial analysis is already alarming. Climate change could become an important driving force for (internal) migration and considerably further increase the high urbanisation rates in many developing countries.

One conclusion that the study draws is that these states will only be able to manage climate-related internal migration if they are already incorporating it into their urban infrastructure plans today – and also into the design of their social security systems as well as their national economic policy. At the same time, the study provides two recommendations for reducing the pressure of migration and expanding the scope for decision-­making for the affected people: first, a massive decrease in global greenhouse gas emissions to mitigate the impact of climate change and second, a drastic reduction in inequality. The latter includes better access to education for everyone and the promotion of both the agricultural sector and the economic productivity in cities. The resulting lower population growth, slower urbanisation, and better working opportunities for the rural population would significantly reduce the necessity for migration.

Climate change may not, however, only have a negative impact on agricultural productivity and the availability of water resources, but also on overall labour productivity. As especially African countries are more strongly affected by this than, for example, Europe, this could also lead to increased emigration from Africa to Europe.

Ethnic Conflicts as a Security Risk

Countries will only be able to preserve their internal and interstate regulatory functions if they succeed in containing the risk of ethnic conflicts. Dangerous climate change can significantly increase this risk. For example, evidence shows that in years in which tropical regions are more strongly affected than usual by droughts due to the El Niño phenomenon, the probability of internal conflicts rises measurably. Of course, this connection is not deterministic: conflicts do not simply break out because there is a drought. But droughts – and other extreme weather events such as heatwaves – can amplify the existing risks of conflict or lead to the breakout of latent conflicts. As a study run by the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK) recently showed, this risk is especially high in countries with strong ethnic fragmentation. These include, for example, Nigeria, Ethiopia, and other states in the Sahel region, but also the Philippines – a region whose climate is at the same time strongly impacted by El Niño.

Additional Internal Migrants due to Climate Change

Estimated number of additional internal migrants due to climate change impacts in Latin America, sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia by 2050. The three bars show three scenarios, the thin blue lines the variance.


However, it is not only ethnically or religiously fragmented societies that are notably affected by the increased risk of conflict, but also polarised societies in which ethnic or religious groups fight for societal recognition and access to resources. The deciding factor here is whether these groups are competing on markets for private goods, in the political arena for public goods, or for so-called common-pool resources. For example, the propensity to violence in a country such as Columbia declines when coffee prices rise because the farmers have a strong incentive to expand private production and obtain rising incomes. This means that for individual farmers, the costs for acts of war also increase, decreasing the likelihood of group violence.

If, however, the price of oil increases, and with it oil revenues, the propensity to violence rises significantly because rival groups can then make a profit from securing a portion of the oil revenues through violence. For the parties involved in the conflict, the oil revenues are a common-pool resource. This leads to competition in the usage: the oil revenues that one group secures are no longer available to the other group. Therefore, if necessary, one group will ensure that other groups are denied access using violence. If the exclusion is unsuccessful, the resources are looted. The rivalry in the use and the potential non-excludability of other users therefore harbours a significant potential for conflict and violence. An ongoing question at this point is whether and how the increasing inequality in the distribution of income and wealth exacerbates or alleviates conflicts within and between ethnic groups. There is a considerable need for research to be carried out in future in this area.

The Threat to Small Island States

Climate change puts small island states at risk of losing a significant part of their national territory – even if the international community succeeds in limiting the average temperature rise to two degrees Celsius. In a four-degree scenario, the security of the international order that we know today is at risk. Today, island states which largely consist of coral atolls projecting just a few metres above sea level are already in danger. These include Tokelau, Kiribati, the Marshall Islands, and Tuvalu in the Pacific, as well as the Maldives in the Indian Ocean.

Data from the Pacific Sea Level Monitoring Project show that the average sea level in the Pacific has risen significantly in the last few decades. By the end of the century, the global sea level could increase by up to 1.4 metres in a four-degree world and by up to 0.65 metres in a two-degree world. For the Marshall Islands, for example, which lie on average approximately just two metres above sea level, a two-degree scenario would already have serious consequences. These would far exceed the country’s current financial capacity to adapt.

The Risk of Water Scarcity

In addition to coastal erosion due to the sea level rise, groundwater flooding is another major problem for the populations of atolls. The consequences of extreme tides, wind waves, and storm surges could be multiplied through the rise in sea level, resulting in the flooding of entire islands. This so-called overwash would salinise the groundwater. In a four-degree scenario, states which consist of atolls could already become uninhabitable by the middle of the century. However, it is not only the rise in sea level that leads to erosion and groundwater flooding. Other anthropogenic influence factors, such as sand harvesting along the coasts, the overuse of ground water, and the resulting reduction and destruction of coral reefs continue to progress mostly unabated.

Many islands are also exposed to the risk of water scarcity due to increasingly longer dry periods. This not only threatens the population’s drinking water supply, but also harbours the risk of spreading infectious diseases. Particularly long dry periods could cause severe shortages in the water supply of households and lead to a collapse of agricultural production. At the same time, the population of these island states is growing, which complicates their ability of self-sufficiency. Many Pacific islands are under the climatic influence of the El Niño phenomenon. When such an event occurs, it causes droughts in many places. Due to the isolation of the islands, the logistics of disaster aid are usually difficult to organise. Even in the case of (moderate) warming of 1.5 to 2 degrees, the number of extreme El Niño events would double. Additionally, El Niño would give rise to more tropical storms if the average temperature in the Pacific increases. The dying of coral reefs and the associated decline in fishery yields especially threaten the traditional way of life and independent food supply in small island states.

If permanent settlement on certain small island states becomes impossible due to climate change, this raises the question of how these states could continue to exist. One option could be to support these states in buying land within the territory of other states, which the government of Kiribati has already done. How the island states should be compensated for climate-­related damage is thus far an unresolved question. While financial, knowledge, and technology transfers from industrial countries remain urgently necessary, greater Pan-Pacific solidarity and deeper South-South partnerships would reduce these dependencies. What is clear is that the small island states are no longer able to overcome these challenges by themselves.

Failing States – the Loss of Resilience

Climate change will impair the states’ ability to act, primarily in regions where they are already only partially able to fulfil their tasks. Here, we can distinguish between capacity, security, and legitimacy gaps. How climate change aggravates the security and capacity gaps can, for example, be seen in Sudan.

Emissions from Old and New Coal-fired Power Plants

Expected atmospheric emissions caused by coal-fired power plants (existing, under construction and planned) and other economic sectors, by region.

A security gap arises when a state is no longer able to guarantee its citizens a minimum level of security. Conflicts over fertile land, wood resources, fresh water from the Nile, and fossil fuels aggravate the conflicts between ethnic and religious groups in Sudan. They do not succeed in rationing these common-­pool resources on a communal basis. After more than two decades of civil war, a comprehensive peace agreement was reached in 2005. Despite the agreement and the independence of South Sudan since 2011, life in the area continues to be defined by violence and political instability.

Limiting the Global Temperature Rise to Two Degrees

In addition, Sudan faces capacity and legitimacy gaps: the nation is no longer capable of guaranteeing the water and food security of its population. This is not least due to dwindling rainfall and desertification, which recently led to a loss in food production of twenty per cent. Across the world, more people flee from natural disasters than from war and violence.In 2016, 123,000 Sudanese had to leave their homes solely as a result of flooding, a larger number of people than those who had to flee from conflicts in the same year. Overall, there are 3.3 million internally displaced persons in the country. A climate-related increase in internal migrants would destabilise Sudan and undermine confidence in the state’s ability to act effectively even further. According to the Fragile States Index, Sudan once again ranks among the ten most fragile states in the world in 2018.

As shown above, a temperature increase of two degrees would already bring many states to the limits of their adaptability. In a four-degree scenario, these limits would be exceeded for a large number of states, putting the security of the international order that we know today at risk. Limiting the temperature rise to 2 degrees, if possible even to 1.5 degrees, is therefore of fundamental importance.

However, the international community is still far off from reaching this goal. In 2017, global greenhouse gas emissions increased again for the first time in three years. After a period of stagnating emissions growth, some people had hopes that the turning point had been reached – a fallacy. The reality is that, despite the historical diplomatic achievement of the Paris Agreement, many states have still not taken sufficient steps to reduce their emissions. Instead, they continue to build coal-fired power plants and subsidise the use of fossil fuels. Even Germany still relies on the use of particularly dirty lignite – it is uncertain, whether the newly implemented Coal Commission can reach a convincing agreement for a coal phase-out.

The fundamental problem of international climate policy is the overabundance of fossil fuels. It is the reason why the prices of coal, oil, and gas remain at a low level – and will remain so for the time relevant to climate policy. Global coal reserves are almost unlimited. In comparison to gas-fired power stations, coal plants generate cheaper electricity. By 2030, CO2 prices should have reached between y and one hundred US dollars per tonne.This makes coal especially attractive for emerging and developing countries. Today, the proportion of coal in China’s primary energy supply amounts to seventy per cent. The country consumes almost as much coal as the rest of the world together. By the construction of new coal-fired power stations, large parts of the world’s population, including the poorest, are meant to be provided with reliable access to electricity – despite the usually devastating consequences for public health. The existing coal-fired power stations, those in construction, and those planned are expected to emit 330 gigatonnes of CO2 over the course of their lifetime. This is almost half of the available budget for the two-degree target (see Figure).  There is not much hope that the market forces will solve the coal problem all by themselves. ­After all, it is not the shortage of coal, oil, and gas that will shape the twenty-first century, but rather the atmosphere’s limited capacity to absorb greenhouse gases. A simple comparison illustrates how worrying the situation is: the two-degree target of the Paris Agreement can be translated into a budget of about seven hundred gigatonnes of CO2. In contrast, an estimated fifteen thousand gigatonnes of CO2 are stored underground in the form of coal, oil, and gas.

This has considerable consequences for climate policy: policy makers cannot hope for the markets to provide sufficient pressure to act. They themselves have to ensure, by means of international regulations and agreements, that the fossil resources remain underground and the atmosphere, is protected as a global common good.

But how is climate policy supposed to react if its minimal negotiation successes are constantly undone by the low prices of coal, oil, and gas? Many engineers and politicians are still betting on technological progress to reduce the levelized cost of electricity (LCOE) of renewable energy to such an extent that no one will have any more incentive to obtain coal from the ground. Indeed, the costs of wind power and photovoltaics have fallen enormously in the last ten years, and the share of newly installed facilities is constantly rising. Under optimal conditions, the LCOE of wind is already lower than that of coal. The situation is similar for solar energy.

It is true that the cost reductions in carbon-free technologies lead to a falling demand for fossil fuels. However, this decline in demand also results in falling prices for coal, oil, and gas. This, on the other hand, has led to an increase in the overall consumption of fossil energy. Countries where there are no stringent climate goals are particularly susceptible to this. The technological progress in renewables therefore does not directly lead to a decline in fossil-fuel consumption. The promotion of carbon-free technologies alone will not be successful.

Introducing Effective CO2 Prices

If fossil fuels are to be permanently squeezed out of the market, the polluters need to pay for their emissions. An effective carbon price creates a level playing field for renewable energy and makes the use of fossil fuels more expensive. This eliminates the incentive to use more coal, oil, and gas. In order to reduce greenhouse gas emissions sustainably, policy makers need to raise the price of carbon. Unfortunately, fossil fuels are considerably subsidised instead. Taking the environmental and health releated costs caused by the burning of fossil fuels into account, each tonne of CO2 is funded by a global average of 150 US dollars every year. In the coming years, it is thus important that negative CO2 prices (subsidies) are turned into positive prices.

Although the advantages of carbon pricing are clear, its political implementation is extremely tough. In addition to domestic policy obstacles such as rising electricity prices, climate policy also faces the obstacles of globalisation: if just a single state introduces carbon prices, this can have a negative effect on its competitiveness. This applies all the more the stronger its goods, capital, and labour markets are integrated into the world economy. Therefore, international cooperation is absolutely essential. Individual states can only be prevented from suffering competitive disadvantages if all nations pursue climate protection measures to a similar degree. International cooperation, however, requires credible mutual obligations. This is why the system of voluntary national contributions agreed in Paris is at risk of failing. When it becomes clear that a country’s own efforts are not reciprocated through corresponding climate policy in other countries, no state will comply with their obligations.

International Cooperation Requires Credible Mutual Obligations

International cooperation could, for example, be promoted if some countries would go ahead by introducing national carbon prices. These national prices should be linked to the condition that other countries also introduce correspondingly high CO2 prices. With this strategy, fears about competitive disadvantages caused by carbon pricing could be alleviated. In addition, countries would be penalised if they bail out of the agreement: other countries would then also lower their carbon prices – i.e. their efforts to reduce emissions –, which would lead to increased climate-related damage in the long term.

The German Federal Government should advocate this strategy at the European level. France, the Netherlands, the Scandinavian countries, and the Czech Republic, for example, could cooperate with Germany to introduce a minimum price in European emissions trading. A higher carbon price of around thirty euros per tonne – as proposed by French President Emmanuel Macron – would be a first step.

Over time, carbon prices must be adjusted in such a way that the two-degree target can actually be achieved. The World Bank calculated the sufficient level in a recent report: by 2020, carbon prices should be between forty and eighty US dollars; by 2030, they should have reached a level between fifty one hundred US dollars. The revenues raised by a carbon tax could, for example, be used to reduce other taxes or to finance sustainable infrastructure. In addition to the positive effects on the economy, this would promote the population’s acceptance of climate policy.

However, implementing and coordinating effective carbon prices on an international level will only be possible if there is a just burden sharing between rich and poor countries. As poorer countries are comparatively more burdened by high carbon prices, they should be compensated for this. This would give them an incentive to commit to an ambitious climate policy. Transfer payments to poorer nations should, however, only be paid under the condition that they accept a minimum price on emissions. One pillar of international climate finance could be the Green Climate Fund (GCF). Rich countries such as Germany, who pay into the GCF, would also benefit as the poorer nations would contribute to climate change mitigation and thus reduce the costs of mitigation efforts.

Time is running out. After all, once the currently planned coal-fired power plants are built, an ambitious climate policy becomes increasingly unlikely. Phasing out coal globally plays a crucial role in whether governments leave the door to an ambitious climate policy open – or whether they slam the door shut with a bang. If the countries do not start phasing out coal quickly, international climate policy is at stake. The international security risks due to climate change will rise dramatically. It is hoped that the 24th UN Climate Change Conference (COP 24) in Poland in December 2018 will bring successful negotiations. As has been demonstrated, the conference is not only significant for climate policy but also for security policy.

Germany in the United Nations Security Council

In June 2018, Germany was elected to the United Nations Security Council. Minister of Foreign Affairs Heiko Maas had already announced the Federal Government’s desire to broach the issue of climate change as a global security risk. This is a welcome and necessary step. The international community must both reduce security risks and increase its ability to react to the multiple conflict situations. As many nations have significantly lost their ability to act in the context of globalisation – especially in the last two decades –, it would be negligent to increase the security risks further through forced migration, ethnic conflicts, the loss of state territory, or crucial governmental functions.

A successful coal phase-out would be an important step in implementing the Paris climate targets. Further steps need to follow: by the middle of the century, the electricity sector must be carbon free – otherwise the targets will remain fantasy. For this, effective carbon prices must be introduced and an international transfer system installed. In addition, the countries must be supported in adapting to the degree of climate change that is already inevitable. In short: global security risks require effective multilateralism.

It is all the more alarming that multilateralism has tended to diminish in recent times. This may primarily be due to the belief of many countries that they can handle their security challenges better if they focus on national interests. In view of the global risks, this will prove to be an illusion. It would thus be a sign of foresight if Germany advocated global cooperation in order to overcome global risks.

Climate policy

How We Must Act

Climate change is a matter of security policy and should thus be treated as such. To limit the immediate security risks, the international community needs to act quickly:

  • In the light of growing knowledge, the Federal Government should advocate that the implications of progressing climate change on security policy are again discussed by the United Nations Security Council.
  • An international early warning system is required to predict and contain the humanitarian effects of extreme weather events.
  • Nations must be supported in coping with natural disasters and in dealing with migration by means of international transfer payments.

To limit the extent of global warming – and with it, future security risks –, the world must radically reduce its reliance on fossil fuels. There is not much time left to do so:

  • Fossil-fuel subsidies amounting to a global average of around 150 US dollars per tonne of CO2 must be abolished. In Germany, for example, the abolition of diesel subsidies is long overdue.
  • Effective carbon prices gradually increasing to a level between fifty and one hundred US dollars per tonne by 2030 are required. Germany could lead the way together with other EU countries by introducing a minimum price in European emissions trading.
  • The relatively high burden for poorer countries through carbon pricing must be compensated by financial transfers from wealthy countries such as Germany.

Prof. Dr. Ottmar Edenhofer (57) is one of the world’s leading experts in the economics of climate change. He is the Founding Director of the Mercator Research Institute on Global Commons and Climate Change (MCC), as well as the Co-director of the Potsdam Institute for ­Climate Impact Research (PIK) and Professor at the Technical University of Berlin (TU). From 2008 to 2015, he was the Co-chair of Working Group III of the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which provided the scientific ­basis for the Paris Climate Agreement.