Climate change, instability and migration: forging a positive, sustainable response

The Mexico-United States border

And indeed, because anthropogenic climate change involves a huge range of risks – for human health and well-being, water and food security, and international security – it is fitting that the leaders who carry overall responsibility for their nations’ wellbeing engage on this issue.

Important as climate change is, however, migration clearly dominates the political agenda in Europe, also in Germany. Pride of place goes to the influx of refugees and the challenges, imagined and real, that this entails for Europe’s security and social cohesion. What is less discussed are the links between large-scale displacement and climate change – although the German Minister for the Environment recently emphasized this connection in an interview.

A new EU Trust Fund on addressing root causes of irregular migration…

When the European Union launched an “Emergency Trust Fund for stability and addressing root causes of irregular migration and displaced persons in Africa” in November 2015, though, climate change was nowhere to be found in the nine-page decision. This is despite the fact that the three target regions in which the ‘root causes’ of irregular migration are to be addressed comprise the Sahel and Lake Chad region, the Horn of Africa, and North Africa. Due to a confluence of human (low adaptive capacity, reliance on rain-fed agriculture, climate-sensitive livelihoods, poverty, state fragility) and environmental factors (above-average temperature rises in Africa, pre-existing water stress, the vulnerability to droughts of semi-arid areas), these areas are extremely vulnerable to climate change already today.

The semantic loss of one ‘climate change’ not uttered in 2015 is bearable. Yet the omission arguably reveals something disconcerting about the thinking underlying this decision.

The Fund was launched at the last European Council (the regular gathering of the Union’s heads of state and government) before COP 21 in Paris. Why wouldn’t the EU use the opportunity to emphasize the links between the two topics?

…and a missed opportunity in terms of policy integration

There would have been several good reasons to highlight the connection: first, the Union invested a lot into climate diplomacy to make Paris a success, and the Fund’s launch could have been another high-profile opportunity to emphasize the urgency of an ambitious agreement in Paris – and to showcase Europe’s commitment to financially support climate adaptation in Africa. Second, the European Commission, which so far provides the lion’s share of the funding (some 3 billion Euros) to the Fund, has been seeking contributions from Member states. In the run-up to the Paris climate conference, appealing to the link with climate change could have helped increase these contributions. Third, and most importantly, the links between environmental degradation and migration in these regions are very real, even as other key factors play a role. Tackling the root causes of migration will require securing and improving livelihoods in the region, the majority of which are climate-sensitive

So, why not make that link explicit in the decision or fact sheet? I can only think of two plausible explanations, and both are troubling.

The first is that no one considered the connection (or that it was eventually deleted due to its perceived irrelevance). This would be troubling because it would reveal to what extent policy-making is still siloed: climate change is for the climate community, development and migration for the development community – and given how complicated and differentiated each policy field has become, why would the two systematically interact? If that was indeed the reason, it would chime with the assessment of our report A New Climate for Peace that mainstreaming climate change into the development, humanitarian and peacebuilding sectors is often more ambition than reality, particularly when it comes to systematic implementation. Given widespread consensus that climate change threatens to un-do decades of development progress, however, climate adaptation needs to become a crucial piece of the development agenda.  

The second explanation is that the EU lacks the ambition or confidence to drill down to the real ‘root causes’ it purports to target. That explanation could be rooted in political context of the Fund’s emergence in 2015 as pictures emerged of refugees drowning in the Mediterranean on their way from Africa to Europe, dominating media attention until even greater numbers started arriving via Turkey. Given the pressing immediacy of such images, the focus on short-term measures might seem natural.

Ambitious structural foreign policy needed

And yet: even if that were the explanation, it would still be worrying if the Union were to focus its ambition on strengthening third-party border security agencies in the hope that those measures will stem the flow. This reading would misrepresent the Commission’s decision which repeatedly refers to employment opportunities, food security, the rule of law, and governance (and yes, it mentions ‘environmental stress’ in the opening paragraph). However, in reading the decision in its entirety, it is hard to escape the feeling that the EU’s emphasis is on addressing symptoms rather than underlying drivers. For example, ‘border management’ is mentioned three times, ‘sustainable development’ just once – and the former is more clearly operationalized in the decision. Is that truly the appropriate emphasis for a decision purporting to address the ‘root causes’ of instability?

To be clear: there are good reasons for seeking to improve state capacity in Europe’s Southern neighbourhood. There may also be good reasons for emphasizing collaboration with government security agencies in the region, even though some of them are closer to the problem than the solution when it comes to migratory pressures. However, by limiting itself to paying whoever has the greatest capacity to stop migrants, the EU not only fails to address the root causes of illegal migration, it sells itself short in terms of the ethical global power it wants (and claims) to be.

The ‘realism’ that has led Europe to embrace authoritarian governments for the sake of stability might buy time; but as developments in the Middle East and North Africa since 2011 have shown, that approach comes at the expense of delaying, and potentially aggravating, the ensuing crises. Opportunism can be a hallmark of good foreign policy, but it is rarely enough.

So, this is where we are. What is to be done?

The way forward

In one way, the decision is a missed opportunity to highlight the interconnected nature of climate change, instability, and migration and the resulting need to respond with integrated policies. But in another way, many of the right elements are already there. The Fund’s objective of promoting resilience, economic and equal opportunities, and security and development is certainly broad enough to incorporate projects and programmes that generate co-benefits for climate adaptation, development and peace.

The emphasis should be on identifying or designing programmes which pursue these objectives in an integrated fashion: climate adaptation that is conflict-sensitive and climate finance that simultaneously builds resilience to state fragility, development and humanitarian efforts that are cognizant of climate risks, and peace-building programmes that are climate-resilient. A key resource around which such programmes could emerge is water, another word that goes unmentioned in the decision but constitutes a vital link between environmental change, migratory pressures, state fragility, inter-state tensions, and development efforts in the region. Such programmes could fit well into the Fund’s remit as they would support objectives like employment opportunities, food security, and rule of law. To ensure that they are considered, however, the omission regarding climate change in the decision must be compensated for by political guidance from the Commission and/or Member states at the implementation stage.

The Fund’s objectives do not only contain the right elements; in fact, these have already been embraced by the EU. The Union has developed a comprehensive EU Action Plan for Resilience in Crisis Prone Countries for the region. After its 2014 reform, the Union’s Instrument contributing to Stability and Peace (IcSP), which is to disburse 2.3 billion Euros between 2014 and 2020 on the eponymous purpose, has explicitly taken security threats emanating from climate change on board. And the security policy community has taken notice: the 2008 update of the European Security Strategy lists climate change among the key threats.                                                                                                 

In other words, there is no need for revolution, despite the oblique reference to Lenin above. What is needed, however, is more systematic recognition of the links between climate change, development and humanitarian efforts and peacebuilding so that crucial omissions such as the one in the decision on the Emergency Trust Fund are prevented. A simple mention of the link does not guarantee climate-sensitive expenditure, of course; but without such acknowledgement (especially in programmatic funding documents), the chances of integrated responses and a systematic search for cross-sectoral co-benefits are even smaller.

Systematic recognition in the abstract is only the beginning. What is even more important is cultivating widespread awareness about practical ways to address the root causes of migration and links to climate change – beyond the obvious challenge of reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

There are numerous entry points for the EU to tackle the real root causes of illegal migration and strengthen stability in North Africa, the Sahel and the Horn of Africa, taking into account the slow-onset disaster that climate change presents for many communities there. They range from leveraging natural resource management as a tool for peacebuilding within and across borders, to integrating environmental impact assessments into humanitarian and development interventions, to reinforcing technical and financial cooperation in support of water sector reform and agricultural water use efficiency programs, to name just a few.

If the EU stood ready to invest in addressing climate-fragility links at a scale similar to its investments in defence measures vis-à-vis migratory pressures, it would not only achieve more sustainable effects, but also strengthen its standing and influence in a world in which Europe still articulates the ambition to be a significant force for human progress. It would also help millions among the most marginalized. This would not only counteract migratory pressures, but would also weaken the arguments of those intent on overturning rather than adjusting the current, post-Cold War order – a key to long-term stability, and a crucial European interest.

Of course, such measures have long-term effects and, therefore, are not substitutes for shorter-term policies of more defensive character. But it is far more likely than not that the upheavals of Europe’s Southern and South-Eastern neighbourhood are not going to end anytime soon. Repeated Western efforts to impose short-term solutions in the region have visibly gone wrong. So we are in it for the long game anyway. That calls for strategic patience – and for getting started on building a positive, sustainable legacy that comprehensively addresses the root causes of instability and displacement.

Benjamin Pohl is a senior project manager at adelphi working on the intersection of global environmental change with foreign, security, and development policy. He has co-developed the ECC Factbook and is a co-author of A New Climate for Peace.

This article has been updated on 16 March 2016 with regard to the relative importance of migration and of climate change policy.