Climate change and security crises ‘a toxic threat to peace’: former EU environment commissioner

Margot Wallström, Sweden’s former foreign affairs minister, pictured in Geneva at the Human Rights Council, in February 2018. Wallström is chair of the international expert panel advising the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute’s Environment of Peace initiative, which issued a stark report in 2022 on the security threats posed by climate change. (Credit: Keystone/Valentin Flauraud)

Climate change and a worsening global security crisis are colliding to create a “profound and toxic mix” of threats that humanity is only just beginning to grasp, an environmental peacebuilding initiative warned in a recent report highlighted at Geneva Peace Week.

In an interview with Geneva Solutions at the opening of the event on Monday, Margot Wallström, chair of the expert panel that led the report, said these twin crises demanded a “fundamental change” in how we think about peace.

A growing list of environmental woes – from extreme weather and rising seas to the decline in mammals and pollinating insects to shrinking forests and dying coral reefs – are fuelling more instability as people lose their livelihoods, fall ill, or are forced to flee their homes.

Climate change and these wider ecological threats could also escalate political tensions, conflict and violence, which in turn would further harm the environment, according to the extensive report by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute’s (SIPRI) Environment of Peace initiative.

On top of this, the growing number of armed conflicts in the world, including the war in Ukraine – which has wreaked havoc on global food and energy supplies and raised the spectre of a nuclear threat – is deepening insecurity and fragilising peace.

“We call it two crises and a deficit,” said Sweden’s ex-minister of foreign affairs and former European commissioner for the environment.

“The ‘deficit’ [we talk about in the report] has to do with the lack of leadership and accountability and responsibility. Because at the same time, we are experiencing problems for our democracy,” Wallström said. 

“The fact is that now more people live in countries with authoritarian tendencies than in thriving democracies. And this makes it more difficult also to really deal with those problems properly.”

She added that while military and national intelligence agencies had been well aware of the security threats posed by climate change and flagging them in reports for several decades, environmental organisations were slower to recognise the security risks posed by climate change.

“We are definitely looking at how we can reach the environmental organisations and that part of the equation even more than the military side, because to them, it's obvious.”

Twin problems – joint solutions

These twin environmental and security crises need to be dealt with by identifying joint solutions that build both peace and environmental integrity, Wallström continued. “If you protect the environment, you protect peace, and the other way around.”

The recommendations in the report – the culmination of two years work by the SIPRI's Environment of Peace project funded by Sweden, Norway and Switzerland –, include investing in preparedness and resilience so as to reduce vulnerability to environmental and conflict shocks.

Every government, for example, should undertake a strategic review of how climate change and environmental decline will affect risks to security. Investing in early warning systems, as well as managing shared resources, such as water, through transboundary agreements, would also help to mitigate risks.

“Financing peace” is also crucial to increasing resilience, Wallström said. This means ensuring that funding reaches the most fragile states and communities – one of the key topics of Cop27 next week, after rich countries failed to live up to their promises of delivering $100bn in climate finance to vulnerable countries each year by 2020.

Subsidies that can exacerbate conflict and insecurity, for example government payments for fossil fuel extraction, fishing and deforestation, should also be halted, the report says.

“There’s the saying in Latin, ‘Si vis pacem, para bellum – if you want peace, prepare for war’. But we say, if you want peace, prepare for peace,”  Wallström said, adding that success will require action not only from the multilateral system but from national governments and civil society as well.