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Speech by Foreign Minister Heiko Maas at the opening of the Berlin Climate and Security Conference 2019

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas giving his opening speech at the Berlin Climate and Security Conference 2019

Can you imagine how much a zero, followed by 33 more zeros after the decimal point and then a one, is? I certainly can’t. Perhaps the very slightest trace of virtually nothing – that’s perhaps the best way of putting it. This is the incredible number that German astronaut Alexander Gerst presented just a few weeks ago. He spoke to the Committee on Economic Affairs and Energy at the German Bundestag about the percentage of the known universe that is habitable. In other words, the habitable area is a tiny island in a sea of infinity. And we’re in the process of making even this island uninhabitable. We’re doing this above all with climate change, which is caused by us humans.

This realisation is far from new – and yet it is still called into question. But rarely has this reality been so vehemently expressed as in recent times. Every Friday, we hear a message ringing loud and clear from demonstrating school pupils: don’t ruin our future! Take action before it’s too late! And yes, the young people are right. We must change track. This isn’t a task for individual generations, individual political parties or individual countries. Climate change affects us all – around the world. When what came to be known as the Earth Summit took place in Rio 27 years ago, that was a historic moment. This was the first time that climate change appeared on the political world map. At the time, however, it was seen primarily as a challenge for environmental policy. I believe that what we need to understand today is that its impacts go far beyond purely environmental issues. Climate change is increasingly posing a threat to peace and security in many regions of the world. It is thus a key challenge, above all for foreign and security policy.

Ladies and gentlemen,

We don’t have to look too long to find current examples to illustrate this – unfortunately. It has only been a few weeks since Cyclone Fani laid waste to parts of India and Bangladesh. Cyclone Ida hit Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Malawi even harder in March. It claimed more than 1000 lives and made around one million people homeless. Whole regions were consumed by the flood waters.

The Caribbean region is affected to a similar extent. I met the Foreign Ministers from the Caribbean here in Berlin at the Latin America-Caribbean Conference last week. They told me about the existential threat they face as a result of hurricanes that are becoming more frequent and stronger. We have therefore pledged 150 million euros to promote climate protection measures such as reforestation and e mobility in the region.

These are small but necessary steps. And we put the security risks of climate change on the agenda from the outset of our term on the Security Council – working together with one of the affected countries, namely the Dominican Republic. I could go on and on with this list of examples. Cyclones, floods and extreme heat waves are becoming increasingly frequent and intense and are destroying the livelihoods of ever more people on our planet.

Slower paced changes are no less dramatic than these extreme weather events. Water is becoming increasingly scarce in the Mediterranean region, the Middle East and Central America. Agricultural yields are declining. Yields from fishing are getting smaller and smaller. The upshot of this is that conflicts are predestined. Displacement and migration are the consequence of this and are an extra factor fuelling crises. The stability of entire regions is at stake already today.

It goes without saying that climate change is seldom the only reason for conflicts breaking out. There are usually a number of additional factors. However, climate change acts as a catalyst. It makes conflicts more likely.

But, ladies and gentlemen, it doesn’t make them unavoidable.

And this is precisely why we can, indeed we must, take action here – with forward-looking policies that not only respond when it’s too late, but which actively seek responses. And I mean now. In order to do just that, ladies and gentlemen, we have made the security policy impact of climate change one of the focuses of our membership of the UN Security Council, supported by a Group of Friends comprising around 50 countries from all continents. And this is why it was so important that Sweden has continued to take the climate and security agenda forward with a great deal of ambition in the past two years. Margot Wallström will doubtlessly talk about this when she’s here this afternoon.

Thanks to the Climate Security Mechanism, we have managed to enshrine this issue at the institutional level at the UN headquarters. That was an important step. At the end of the day, this underscores the fact that awareness of the interaction between climate and security is growing all the time.

We want to take a further step with today’s conference. And we want to do so by making it clear that achieving the international climate targets is the new imperative of our foreign policy. This is the aim of the Berlin Call for Action that we are presenting today. It is jointly supported by the Federal Foreign Office and our conference partners – the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research and adelphi.

And I would like to call on you right now to support this Call for Action. Three points are at the heart of this.

Firstly, we want the international community to have a better understanding of how climate change exacerbates conflicts. We need sound analyses for this. In concrete terms, we are proposing that a regular UN report be drawn up – a Global Risk and Foresight Assessment. This report is intended to summarise knowledge about climate and security and to flag up solutions for decision-makers. An international network of experts that we have set up is already working on a number of regional analyses, including studies on the Amazon Basin and on the specific situation of the small island states. Moreover, at the beginning of April the Federal Foreign Office hosted the very first UN workshop looking at how the impact of climate change can be better taken into account in conflict analyses. As a result of this, the UN is developing a new analytical tool that we will soon be testing in the Horn of Africa.

Without wanting to pre-empt what Prof. Edenhofer and Prof. Rockström are about to say, I would just like to mention at this juncture that the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research is currently in the process of developing an early warning system for the particularly affected Sahel region with the support of the Federal Foreign Office. This system will analyse climate-related security risks, particularly with regard to food security. This will enable us to take more targeted countermeasures from an earlier stage in times of crisis. This brings me to the second element of our Call for Action. We want to continue to strengthen the UN’s ability to act in the area of climate and security – in New York and in the affected regions. With experts working in the field, for instance. The first expert on environment and security will soon take up his work as part of the UN assistance mission in Somalia. His position will be funded by Germany in cooperation with the UN Environment Programme, and he will support the UN team in Mogadishu. This is hopefully just the beginning. A small step, but one that can have a major impact if it becomes the norm in all peacekeeping missions and conflict regions.

My third and last point is that we need greater political coherence. In the future, we must consider the climate, sustainable development, security and peacebuilding much more as related issues – in all of our projects and programmes. Allow me to mention an example from Nigeria. The Federal Foreign Office has supported a mediation project in Nigeria’s Middle Belt since 2016. The aim is to defuse the conflict over land use between predominantly Muslim herdsmen and predominantly Christian farmers – a conflict that seems small at first glance, but is anything but. A conflict that is not so much about religion as the ever scarcer resources in the Sahel region. We are working directly in and with the communities. Climate protection and conflict prevention are objectives that are now being pursued in tandem in the region. I believe that this approach could also be most promising for other regions that are already suffering from scarce resources.

That, ladies and gentlemen, is what this is all about, namely taking tangible action as quickly as possible and finding responses to the most pressing issues. This is the objective of our Call for Action. And this should also be the objective at the Secretary-General’s Climate Change Summit in September. Allow me to take this opportunity – also on behalf of Nauru – to invite you to a foreign ministers’ meeting on the fringes of the Summit at which we will continue our discussion today and also inject most tangible momentum into this issue.The fight against the security policy impact of climate change will require a global effort, one in which Germany intends to play a leading role.

Last but not least, allow me to add that we must be credible if we are to succeed here. And so, for instance, if France, our closest partner in Europe, comes up with ambitious proposals here, then we cannot put the brakes on this. We must prove that we take this seriously ourselves in the regions where we exercise responsibility. We must work together to pick up the pace – especially when others call their commitments into question. This is another reason why we set up a climate cabinet here in Germany at the beginning of the year. And we want to adopt a climate protection law this year in which we will enshrine our national climate objectives in law and lay down our approach to mitigating climate change up until 2050. By then we want to, indeed we must, achieve the transformation towards complete climate neutrality. A key part of this is the phasing out of coal-based power in Germany, for which we have developed a clear road map in a discussion with all groups in society. A further instrument that we should all work together to achieve is an adequate price for CO2 emission, preferably worldwide.

Ladies and gentlemen,

We have no time to lose, to put all of this in a nutshell. We have long since started to pay a high price for our past shortcomings, the damage we have inflicted on earth. The impacts are already threatening the lives of millions of people. If we don’t change course, then we are heading towards a hot age with barely manageable consequences for peace and security. The good news is that it’s not yet too late to change course. And this is worth it. It may be a small island in space that we’re living on, but it’s all we have.

Thank you very much.


[This speech originally appeared on]


To read more, download the background paper to the Berlin Climate and Security Conference and the Berlin Call for Action.