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Europe is showing Putin it isn’t helpless against his aggression. Now do climate.

The IPCC Working Group Two report published yesterday gives another sombre warning of the impacts of climate change around the world, particularly in cities and coastal regions. Droughts, floods and heatwaves of increasing intensity and frequency will have devastating consequences around the world, but particularly in fragile situations where these impacts will also undermine peace and security. Should this concern security policy makers on the day after Putin threatened the world with nuclear weapons?

It should.

Clearly, the situation in Ukraine is of greater immediate urgency because millions of Ukrainians are at risk and because developments in the coming days will have huge impacts over years if not decades to come. They will have enormous consequences for Ukraine and Ukrainians and the European security architecture. And they will indicate the price free societies are willing to pay for bolstering liberty.

Yet while countering Russia’s act of military aggression is more immediately urgent, addressing the risks of climate change is similarly significant and comes with great urgency on its own timescales. Polls conducted for the Munich Security Index 2022 saw the impacts of climate change as the top security risk, even in the context of a frightening military build-up around Ukraine. The impacts of climate change differ across regions, and so context is critical in getting responses right. Yet the challenge is global, and already a present, not just a future threat. As the IPCC summary puts it, “Another further delay in concerted anticipatory global action on mitigation and adaptation will miss a brief and rapidly closing window of opportunity to secure a liveable and sustainable future for all (very high confidence)”.

The point is not to play two critical threats to our open societies off against each other. In fact, they are intimately connected. As Svitlana Krakovska, the Ukrainian head of delegation at the IPCC conference that finalized the Summary for Policymakers, reportedly said there "Human-induced climate change and the war on Ukraine have the same roots fossil fuels and our dependence on them".

The point is to realise that we need to collectively revisit what is truly possible to build the future we want – a future free of both wanton military aggression and destruction of the basis of our civilization. And the last few days have shown just how much difference political will can make when it comes to matching our political and financial investments to the challenges we actually have to overcome.

This is most obviously true of the courage Ukrainians and their government have shown in resisting a much stronger invader. But it also shines through in the way that many Western governments have expressed increasing resolve in opposing Putin’s newest and most brutal attempt at blackmail. Who would have thought that both Germany and the EU would revisit 30 years of Russia policy to both openly support its opponent in a hot, ongoing war and apply unprecedented economic sanctions against Putin’s regime to punish and dissuade him from military activism?

Just ten days ago, the 2022 Munich Security Conference (MSC) discussed global threats under the apt banner of “unlearning helplessness”. Arguably, we are in the midst of a very deliberate effort to do so when it comes to the West’s relationship with Russia. The same must happen when it comes to addressing climate change and the security risks it raises. 

While the MSC was rightly focused on the military build-up around Ukraine, climate security was still all over the programme, from high-level panels to in-depth closed-door briefings for foreign policy makers. These issues and their responses are complicated and context-specific and do not always lend themselves well to snappy soundbites. The solutions to climate-linked conflict lie not in blunt approaches and militarised interventions, but in getting to the root causes. Responses need to centre on strengthening human security as a critical precondition for wider regional security.

The countries that support this agenda – and there are many – could do more to demonstrate this through their policies too. European countries withdrawing their missions against armed jihadi opposition groups in Mali, for instance, can and should pivot to programming that puts social cohesion and effective adaptation to climate change in the Sahel at its centre.

There is a second theme that unites what is happening to Ukraine and what is happening to our planet: justice. Just as it is fundamentally unjust that Ukrainians pay most of the price for Europe’s freedom, so it is fundamentally unjust that communities in countries such as Mali that have contributed next to nothing to the climate crisis should pay most of the price for its consequences. It is our collective responsibility to address that injustice best as we can.

We do need to unlearn helplessness. This involves rethinking how and where we employ and balance between hard and soft power in a rapidly changing world. How we can better integrate them to the advantage of the liberal international order and more equitable global society we are seeking to build. And yes, we can.