Sep 21, 2021

Action Plan for Climate and Security

How Climate Change Fuels Conflict and What Germany Can Do About It

Storms, floods, heatwaves, and forest fires are putting government crisis management to the test. Global warming is resulting in extreme weather events becoming both more frequent and more intense. The past decade has already seen a sharp increase in weather extremes. There is no doubt that this trend is putting human lives at risk. The scientific debate continues about the circumstances under which climate change not only results in direct physical damage but also leads to social crises and even violent conflicts.

This Action Plan is an edited and slightly updated translation of the German text that was originally published on September 20, 2021, as part of the DGAP Report Smarte Souveränität (“Smart Sovereignty”). It was written in the framework of the project “Ideenwerkstatt Deutsche Außenpolitik,” which is funded by Stiftung Mercator.

An English PDF of this text can be found as a chapter in the DGAP Report “Smart Sovereignty.” Download the full report here.


Promoting Political Coherence and Harnessing Synergies
Knowledge and Capacity Building
Embedding the Issue of Climate Security at the UN Level
Strengthening Credibility and Promoting Innovation


What is indisputable is that unabated climate change would have a devastating impact on human security and would ultimately pose a threat to civilization, as the Sixth Assessment Report recently published by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) clearly showed. Against this background, Germany, as the country with the highest emissions in Europe, has a duty to take action. In any case, it is in the self-interests of the German federal government to mitigate the causes and effects of climate impacts in order to avert complex future crises at home and abroad.

As the COVID-19 pandemic shows, even industrialized countries with significant crisis response capacities can be overwhelmed by nonlinear damage curves. Reactive adaptation measures will not be able to stop this kind of crisis dynamic; preventive solutions are needed that can quickly halt rapidly growing risks before they become directly visible. The same is true of the climate crisis, which is highly nonlinear.

Climate Damage and Global Shocks

Not only do rising average temperatures mean an increase in extreme events such as floods and droughts; but they can also result in parts of the Earth System reaching a tipping point, causing irreversible changes. These risks affect subsystems of the Earth System, such as the Antarctic ice sheet, the Amazon rainforest, or thermohaline circulation, of which the Gulf Stream is also a part. Changes to these systems do not take place in isolation; they also affect other parts of the Earth System. For example, the melting permafrost can release vast quantities of greenhouse gases, which can lead to further global warming and thus changes to other parts of the Earth System.


Germany, like other countries, is inevitably affected by progressive damage from climate change, even if civilization-threatening risks such as tipping points can still be averted by emission reductions. On the one hand, there are direct impacts on Germany’s national territory, shown by the floods in the Eifel region in 2021 or the extremely dry summers that preceded them. On the other hand, cross-border impacts can also be expected. When different extreme events take place simultaneously, which is becoming more and more common, this can disrupt trade chains, unleash simmering conflicts, and limit transnational assistance.

As an export-driven economy, Germany has an intrinsic interest in stability abroad. If the effects of climate change foster or exacerbate conflicts, this not only affects the countries directly concerned, but can also result in regional and international rifts. In particular, climate impacts in Europe’s neighborhood, in countries that are important trading partners, and in countries that are political allies can indirectly affect Germany. In a globally interconnected world, no one is immune to global shocks, as the COVID-19 pandemic is painfully demonstrating.

Remaining Knowledge Gaps

While climate change has become an increasingly urgent problem, our capacity for action has also risen. Scientific forecasts and projections, including from German institutes with a global reputation, now allow climate risks to be recognized decades in advance, options for action to be identified, and dangers to be averted at an early stage, for example via emission reductions and adaptation measures. At the same time, constantly improving seasonal and short-term forecasts are available for phenomena such as the weather, crop failures, or monsoon rains. Accurate forecasts allow interventions to be organized at short notice to protect the population. The chain of action stretching from forecasts to political and local implementation should be improved.

Despite decades of warnings about the growing likelihood of extreme precipitation events, Germany failed to take adequate adaptation measures. It has also neglected to raise awareness and educate the population on what to do in the event of a disaster. Likewise, other European countries do not yet have sufficient capacities to cope with the effects of climate change that were knowingly and willingly accepted when countries failed to adopt measures to reduce emissions. These effects also include extreme forest fires, such as those experienced by Greece in 2021.

While there is a consensus that climate impacts can affect conflicts, little is known about the concrete mechanisms involved and thus the options for intervention.

While Germany and Europe are, however, generally in a position to adapt to a moderate rise in temperatures, the situation on other continents is much more precarious. The necessary knowledge and technology (such as weather stations) is distributed very unevenly across the world. Areas that are especially affected by climate impacts and that are home to large vulnerable population groups often have no functioning knowledge infrastructure in the field of climate research or meteorology. Even if knowledge about certain changes is theoretically available, the people who are most affected often have no access to it.

In recent years, there has been growing scientific evidence of the link between climate impacts and conflicts, but there is still a lack of in-depth, context-specific analyses and foresight capacities. So far, countries that are ethnically fragmented or dependent on agriculture are particularly known to face a heightened risk of conflict after an extreme weather event such as a drought. Political marginalization of individual groups is also a crucial factor in the genesis of climate conflicts. While there is a consensus that climate impacts can affect conflicts, little is known about the concrete mechanisms involved and thus the options for intervention.

These uncertainties are primarily due to the complexity of research into the causes of conflict. Many different factors are involved in their emergence. Contextual factors, such as political institutions or conflict management in the culture in question, can play a key role in determining whether an environmental crisis develops into a social crisis and whether this tips over into violent conflict. This is one reason why a region-specific view of the interplay of climate impacts and the genesis of conflict is relevant for Germany’s and Europe’s ability to identify potential conflicts at an early stage and work together with partners to develop potential solutions.

The Sahel: A Crucible of Risk Factors

The Sahel region in Africa offers an example of why security risks resulting from climate change matter, including to Germany and Europe. This region is of geopolitical interest to Germany, as is shown by the Partnership for Security and Stability in the Sahel initiated by Federal Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron, which is part of the “Coalition for the Sahel,” consisting of France and five Sahel countries. Alongside development cooperation, the focus is on tackling transnational crime and terrorism, which also have to be seen in the context of climate change.

Several risk factors converge in the Sahel. Changing rainfall patterns and increasingly frequent weather extremes threaten the livelihood of small farmers whose knowledge of traditional agriculture is often no longer enough to enable them to adapt to a dynamically changing climate system. This results in crop loss and food insecurity.

With regard to the Sahel region, the next federal government should examine the extent to which climate security risks can be countered with civilian and military capacities.

Against the backdrop of the changes taking place in the natural world, social tensions are developing as a result of ethnic polarization, social and economic inequality, precarious statehood, development deficits, and the spread of extremist groups. Ethnic and religious tensions are already leading to armed conflicts in the Sahel today. As a result of the deteriorating security situation and the increase in natural catastrophes, the number of internally displaced persons in the Sahel has risen to over 2.2 million. Almost 900,000 refugees also live in the Sahel.

The deprivation of livelihoods is sparking violent clashes between farmers and nomadic herders in many parts of the Sahel region. The nomadic herders face ethnic discrimination and a lack of political participation, and this also provides fertile ground for their recruitment by extremist groups such as Ansarul Islam in Burkina Faso and Ansar Dine in Mali. The loss of agricultural livelihoods is not only causing economic crises for those affected but is also leading to the loss of traditional identities.

The region is thus exposed to the factors that result in heightened risks of conflict in the event of climate change: heavy dependence on agriculture, ethnic fragmentation, and the political exclusion of certain groups. On top of this, the number of people who are facing the prospect that resources will become even more scarce as climate change progresses is growing. The region’s population has risen sharply. Add climate change to an already strained resource situation, and distribution conflicts will result.

With regard to the Sahel region, the next federal government should examine to what extent the climate security risks can be countered by the Bundeswehr’s Capacity Building in Support of Security and Development initiative and by development policy measures, or whether additional capacities in the civilian and military field are needed. Another question is which reliable partners exist in the region, as some state actors do discriminate against and persecute members of ethnic minorities or even arrange or tolerate extrajudicial killings. Such actors are not suitable partners when it comes to peacekeeping in the region.

Germany's UN Initiative

But even beyond the Sahel region, the effects of climate change have considerable implications for human security. Environmental risks are rising rapidly as a result of the changing climate – a challenge that the next federal government should address as quickly as possible. Against the background of this dynamic development, Germany should boost its ability to detect crises early on and make a greater contribution to peacefully managing socio-ecological crises abroad.

The transition to carbon neutrality must be a priority for all sectors, including the security sector and Germany’s engagement abroad.

In 2018, Germany, together with the small island state of Nauru, established the Group of Friends, a group of countries that aims to more strongly embed the cross-cutting issue of climate change and security in the framework of the United Nations. Germany placed this issue on the security policy agenda when it had a seat on the UN Security Council as a non-permanent member in 2019/20. However, this did not result in a binding resolution, in part because the administration of US President Donald Trump was engaging in climate change denial, and because Russia and China were opposed to any extension of the traditional concept of security by the UN Security Council.

Since 2020, the Federal Foreign Office has at least been funding a climate security expert for the UN peace mission in Somalia (UNSOM), in addition to several research and cooperation projects looking at the impacts of climate change on stability and peace. The federal government’s implementation report on its crisis prevention guidelines focused on climate change and security. Although there have been significant efforts in recent years to move toward preventive approaches to avert climate-driven crises, the complexity and urgency of this issue requires further action.


Recommendations for Action for the German Federal Government 

Without rapid emission reductions, it will no longer be possible to curb the security risks resulting from climate change by taking reactive political measures (see also the Action Plan for Climate and Foreign Policy). Compliance with the Paris Agreement is thus the most important prerequisite for adapting to the worldwide effects of climate change in an effective manner that promotes peace. The transition to carbon neutrality must be a priority for all sectors, including the security sector and Germany’s engagement abroad.

In addition to working toward the comprehensive decarbonization of the global economic system, German foreign and security policy can potentially take action in a number of other fields. The different approaches followed by various ministries in relation to climate and security should be brought together and developed into a coherent strategy. To this end, regular communication should take place among the ministries.

In the field of foreign and security policy engagement, the coalition partners should formulate objectives for internal capacity building and the further embedding of the topic of climate and security at the UN level.

The next coalition agreement should treat the fight against the causes and consequences of climate change as a cross-cutting issue. In the field of foreign and security policy engagement, the coalition partners should formulate objectives for internal capacity building and the further embedding of the topic of climate and security at the UN level. In the short term, Germany can harness domestic and European synergies to this end. In the long term, it should strengthen its capacity for action by developing better risk assessment and crisis management capabilities that reflect the scale of the challenges. The new federal government could also strengthen Germany’s credibility and promote innovation by establishing concrete emission reduction targets for the security sector and German development cooperation in all operational areas.

Promoting Political Coherence and Harnessing Synergies:

  • An interministerial steering group should be set up on the subject of climate change and security that involves the Federal Chancellery, the Federal Foreign Office, and the federal ministries responsible for defense, economic cooperation, the environment, and the interior. The interministerial steering group should hold a regular dialogue, at the level of the heads of directorate-general, on ongoing projects and security-relevant environmental changes.
  • Climate security should be raised more in the Bundestag’s committees and discussed with input from external experts.
  • As part of the further development and implementation of its guidelines on crisis and conflict prevention, the federal government should make new voluntary commitments. These should include concrete funding and staffing increases in the ministries and support for scientific institutions and non-governmental organizations so that climate security risks can be better identified and addressed.
  • At the European level, the Federal Foreign Office should push for the development of crisis prevention guidelines, with a particular focus on non-traditional security risks such as the effects of climate change, global health risks, cybercrime, and non-state armed groups.
  • In programs such as the Federal Environment Ministry’s International Climate Initiative, funding regulations should be established that create incentives for collaboration with the peace and climate community.
  • New partnerships and alliances should be developed through the Group of Friends established in 2018. Regional stakeholders in areas affected by climate change should be brought together for a dialogue in order to develop potential solutions and share knowledge.

Knowledge and Capacity Building:

  • New climate-sensitive mediation methods should be developed to help parties engaged in conflict with the process of seeking long-term solutions that allow sustainable cooperation. The Federal Foreign Office, in particular, should create new forms of support that are accessible to a broad spectrum of civil-society and scientific stakeholders.
  • A new professorship on the subject of climate impacts and human security should be established in Berlin.
  • Training capacities should be developed, for example at the Center for International Peace Operations (Zentrum für internationale Friedenseinsätze), with the aim of ensuring that military and civilian peacekeepers have a basic knowledge of regional climate impacts and stabilization measures.
  • Climate security experts should be involved in the German COP delegation.
  • A pool of experts should be established to advise German embassies and consulates general located in areas particularly affected by climate change. This would embed the issue in the day-to-day business of foreign policy and help to develop context-specific regional analyses.
  • The Federal Ministry of Education and Research and other institutions should provide targeted support for collaboration between climate impact research and peace and conflict research.
  • The rise in defense spending to meet the NATO countries’ two percent target should also be used to strengthen strategic foresight and defense against non-traditional threats (climate impacts, cyber warfare, etc.).
  • Dialogue about progress in the field of early crisis detection should be encouraged within NATO.
  • A Franco-German research group on climate impacts and conflicts should be established together with partners in the Sahel; it could develop politically relevant research questions in partnership with stakeholders.

Embedding the Issue of Climate Security at the UN Level:

  • The issue should continue to be pursued at the UN level in the General Assembly and the Security Council via the Group of Friends and individual partners such as France, the United States, or Niger.
  • The federal government, and in particular the Federal Foreign Office, should advocate the appointment of a special envoy for climate and security and nominate a European expert for the post.
  • Building on the evaluation of the ongoing pilot project at the United Nations Assistance Mission in Somalia (UNSOM), another objective should be to better integrate climate crisis experts into UN peace missions.

Strengthening Credibility and Promoting Innovation:

  • The security sector should be decarbonized, and environmental standards should be incorporated into procurement guidelines for German missions abroad and development cooperation projects (electric mobility, energy supplies, catering, etc.).
  • Climate adaptation and emissions prevention should be pursued in the context of German reconstruction projects, for example in the MENA region, in order to avoid path dependencies.
  • Technology transfer should be supported, for example by the government acquiring licenses for key technologies so that they can be made freely available.
  • Crisis communication should be strengthened: An evaluation should be carried out of crisis communication in the coronavirus pandemic, and successful and unsuccessful crisis communication methods used by various countries should be assessed.

Bibliographic data

Vinke, Kira. “Action Plan for Climate and Security.” German Council on Foreign Relations. September 2021.

This Action Plan is an edited and slightly updated translation of the German text that was originally published on September 20, 2021, as part of DGAP Report No. 17 Smarte Souveränität (“Smart Sovereignty”). It was written in the framework of the project “Ideenwerkstatt Deutsche Außenpolitik” about which you can find more information here.

An English PDF of this text, including the infographics, can be found as a chapter in the DGAP Report “Smart Sovereignty.” Download the full report here.

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