Table of Contents

For two decades, the EU has been at the forefront of raising climate change on the international security agenda. In 2003, the European Security Strategy affirmed that global warming would exacerbate competition for natural resources, potentially spurring instability in vulnerable regions.1 Since then, many high-level policy pronouncements have sounded warnings of the mounting dangers to peace and prosperity posed by unchecked climate change. In 2019, the European Council labeled climate change “a direct and existential threat, which will spare no country.”2

Increasingly concerned that worsening climate change impacts could jeopardize global stability, Brussels has sought to more thoroughly infuse climate risks and conflict prevention throughout the union’s policymaking. Successive conclusions of the Foreign Affairs Council have called for “mainstreaming” climate into EU security, development, and humanitarian agendas at all levels.3 In 2016, the Global Strategy for the European Union’s Foreign and Security Policy (EUGS) expressly embedded climate risks within a concerted, “integrated approach to conflicts and crises,” designed to deploy the union’s full range of policy tools to prevent and respond to global security threats.4 Building on this framework, EU policymakers have elevated climate security risks to the center of EU defense, development, and peacebuilding policy priorities.5

Managing the complex potential security risks surrounding climate pressures and environmental degradation requires integrating multiple policy tools and institutions, as expounded by the EUGS. Yet a number of consequential shortfalls separate the union’s declarations of comprehensive policy coordination and its achievements in effectively mainstreaming climate-related conflict risks throughout its foreign and security strategies. First, institutional and conceptual barriers among EU bodies have hindered systematic operationalization of the integrated approach, diminishing the reach and impact of EU conflict prevention and peacebuilding engagements on the ground. More importantly, despite Brussels’s expansive rhetoric characterizing climate change as a global existential peril, the EU has in fact applied a markedly selective lens in its approach to environmental conflict risks—one that focuses on certain actors and causal connections while underplaying or ignoring others. In particular, though the EU recognizes the role of governance in responding to climate-related conflict risks, it fails to adequately appreciate the role it can play in generating environmental security risks. This governance gap in the EU’s conceptualization of climate (in)security in turn risks blinding Brussels to key drivers that may shape environmental conflict dynamics.

The Goals of Societal Resilience and Policy Integration

When the 2003 European Security Strategy first labeled climate change a security risk, it also identified several other hazards confronting the union, including terrorism, regional conflicts, and state failure, among others. The strategy explicitly linked these challenges to each other, pointing out how state collapse can sow disorder that may fuel regional conflict. Yet it notably neglected to tie climate change to any of these threats.

David Michel
David Michel is a senior researcher at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute and a senior research fellow at the Center for Climate and Security.

In 2016, the EUGS described a world both increasingly interconnected and increasingly contested. Terrorism, territorial conflicts, state fragility, organized crime, energy and cyber insecurity, societal tensions, and migratory pressures were menacing Europe, its neighbors and trading partners, and the international political order. The EUGS recognizes that climate change and environmental degradation run like threads through all these threats. According to the EUGS, climate stress is now a significant “threat multiplier,” exacerbating a host of dangers to stability and security.6 Sudden shocks and chronic pressures, such as floods and droughts, can strain state capacities and undermine sustainable development. Deforestation, water shortages, and food insecurity can heighten resource competition, sparking friction between countries or communities. Chronic environmental deterioration can sap social cohesion, drive population displacements, and create instability that can contribute to perpetuating cycles of conflict and fragility.7

To meet these myriad and multifaceted risks, the EUGS instructs EU foreign and security policymakers to promote state and societal “resilience.” A concept familiar to diverse fields—from ecology and engineering to psychology and sociology—resilience describes the capacity of a system to anticipate, adapt, recover, and reorganize itself under conditions of disruption or adversity, so as to sustain and strengthen successful system functioning.8 Resilient societies possess abilities to absorb and adjust to external stresses, mitigating pressures to avert or alleviate conflict risks. To that end, the EU’s global strategy made resilience a guiding foundation for its external action.

In addition to defining this substantive goal, the strategy emphasized the need for intensive coordination throughout EU policy processes. The complex stresses besetting the EU and the wider world are pervasive. They impact nations and populations across borders and from the local to the global level. Strengthening capacities to respond and rebound from disruptions requires bolstering resilience “encompassing all individuals and the whole of society.”9 Achieving such whole of society resilience therefore necessitates an explicitly integrated approach to coordinating EU policy and use of the full array of economic, political, military, and civilian tools at the union’s disposal.

The integrated approach advanced by the EUGS emphasizes multilateral action, directing the EU to actively engage member states, international partners, and civil society organizations on the ground. It likewise seeks to deploy multilevel strategies to bridge action at the local, national, regional, and global levels. Finally, the integrated approach aims to formulate and implement conflict prevention and peacebuilding interventions across all conflict phases, from early warning to crisis response, stabilization, and recovery.10 Enhancing resilience and adopting an integrated approach have thus become twin pillars of EU engagement in the world.11 Resilience has become the objective, while the integrated approach has become the framework to systematically operationalize climate security priorities throughout all EU foreign and security policies.

Institutional and Conceptual Fragmentation

The EU has devoted considerable effort to weaving climate security into its conflict prevention and peacebuilding strategies. Yet numerous consequential shortfalls separate the union’s rhetoric around comprehensive policy integration and its achievements in mainstreaming climate change and conflict risk throughout the development-security nexus.12

Institutional fragmentation has hampered realization of the integrated approach. Numerous observers have noted that neither climate security nor resilience enjoy clear institutional homes in the EU’s architecture.13 Both the funding streams and the political authorities for implementing the integrated approach to peace and security have been divided between the EU’s “thematic” and “geographical” desks. With the resources and remits for pursuing climate security objectives spread across the EU organizational chart, clashes, redundancies, and gaps often compromise cohesive policy coordination.14

Conceptual fragmentation has also impeded the approach. Document analyses and interviews with EU officials show that different actors understand and apply concepts of climate security and resilience in substantially different ways. Defense organizations, for example, tend to focus on threat reduction, while humanitarian agencies emphasize principles of impartial assistance. Some practitioners believe that entertaining multiple definitions of climate security enables engagement with a variety of disparate stakeholders. Others, though, question whether climate security concepts furnish much practical policy guidance or whether they may even be counterproductive in certain settings. Having different outlooks may create confusion and conflicting priorities more often than facilitate concrete policy synergies.15

Strikingly, climate-related conflict and resilience are absent from the mandates of the EU’s CSDP missions—perhaps the most glaring shortfall between Brussels’s declared strategies and their practical implementation. In the Sahel and Horn of Africa, nine of the current seventeen CSDP civilian and military missions operate in countries that have been classified among the most vulnerable in the world to climate change.16 The EU itself has long designated the Sahel and Horn of Africa as critical areas confronting significant climate security risks and also as key regions for EU resilience-building engagements.17 Likewise, European Council conclusions “underline . . . the importance environmental issues and climate change have for security and defence,” while simultaneously highlighting CSDP missions “as an essential part of the EU’s integrated approach to conflicts and crises.”18 Yet climate-related conflict risks and responses have not been incorporated into the mandates of any of the EU’s CSDP missions.

To be sure, EU policy continues to evolve toward increased integration. The 2020 Climate Change and Defence Roadmap foretells closer links between climate change and defense policy, including around civilian and military CSDP missions. Likewise, creation of the Neighborhood, Development and International Cooperation Instrument helps reduce segmentation of the union’s funding abilities by establishing programmable streams for rapid responses and specific peace and stability initiatives. But the fact remains that Brussels’s promises of enhanced policy concertation are not new. The current “integrated approach” succeeds an earlier EU push to promote “comprehensive coordination.” Ultimately, serial bureaucratic reforms are unlikely to achieve more coherence than previous efforts in the absence of a clear and common political strategy shared across EU institutions.19

Despite the EU’s robust rhetoric, climate security and resilience remain no more than partially integrated across the union’s foreign and security policies.20 The integrated approach represents a framework but not a strategy. It does not specify how the EU’s different policy tools should relate to each other in particular geographic or thematic contexts or in what combinations they should be deployed to address various climate-related conflict risks or to meet resilience goals. The lack of a clear overarching vision may well be limiting the reach and impact of effective policy integration. Numerous EU assessments find that policy coordination often appears to be ad hoc or done in piecemeal at the individual project level, without achieving broader integration across sectors and programs. So too, without strong and consistent strategic direction, promoting comprehensive climate security is more readily overshadowed by other pressing priorities such as addressing migration and terrorism.21

The Geography and Genealogy of Climate-Related Conflict Risks

Cracks in the EU policy edifice put the foundations of the union’s strategies in question. Brussels’ approach to climate security rests upon two key premises regarding environmental conflict risks, but they are faulty. Largely unarticulated and therefore unquestioned, the premises effectively limit the EU’s understanding of the sources and full range of climate-related conflict risks; in combination, they inhibit a truly cohesive and comprehensive approach to enhancing environmental security and building societal resilience.

The first premise concerns the geography of climate-related conflict risks. The EU implicitly conceives these risks as emanating from elsewhere: conflicts catalyzed by climate change and environmental stresses occur in other countries, and their security ramifications subsequently impact the EU via external instabilities, supply chain disruptions, and migratory flows. The EU views these conflicts as an outside party, called upon to offer humanitarian assistance, disaster relief, or peacebuilding interventions. This perspective, in turn, contributes to the logic behind the union’s quest for protective autonomy and a toughening against exogenous threats. But this view is substantially incomplete. It ignores how the EU could become a direct participant—rather than a third party—in climate-related conflicts.

The Arctic affords a case in point. With three member states possessing territory in the Arctic, the union is an Arctic power. But warming climatic conditions are making the Arctic’s substantial natural resources increasingly accessible, both to the Arctic nations and to aspiring Arctic stakeholders. Russia’s long-standing Arctic development ambitions and China’s envisaged Polar Silk Road aim to further exploit the region’s hydrocarbon reserves, mineral deposits, fisheries, and sea lanes. Paradoxically, the EU remains reliant on Arctic oil and gas even as it looks to the region as a source of rare earth elements central to many green energy technologies that Europe champions. Analyses undertaken for the European Parliament invoke a prospective “revenge of Realpolitik” as Arctic climate changes enable and worsen geoeconomic competition and geopolitical rivalries.22 Yet Brussels’s Artic policy provides scant direction for navigating these intertwining environmental, economic, and security challenges in any strategic way.23

The second premise concerns the genealogy of climate-related conflict risks. The EU views the origins of these risks as being solely environmental. In other words, climate change impacts and other environmental stresses—droughts, floods, and desertification—engender resource scarcities and natural disasters. And, in turn, these environmental shocks and pressures fuel resource competition, livelihood losses, population displacements, societal disruptions, and political tensions that can lead to conflict.

In taking this view, strains on the environment and resources represent the source of collective grievances, while politics and governance constitute the scene on which environment- and resource-related conflicts play out. But this conceptualization ignores the extent to which governance pathologies can generate these conflicts. Inequitable allocation of political power and inadequate access to decisionmaking can contribute more to environmental conflicts than unequal allocation or inadequate access to the physical resources themselves.

The long-running Naxalite-Maoist insurgency in India—once deemed the country’s gravest internal security threat by former prime minister Manmohan Singh—exemplifies such environmental conflict dynamics.24 The rebels mostly come from marginalized Dalit (Scheduled Castes) and Adivasi (Scheduled Tribes) populations. Largely subsistence farmers and rural laborers, they depend on collectively held land, forest, and waters for their basic needs. But decades of Indian policy have deprived them of these natural assets—their communal land and water having been commandeered for large-scale export cropping, irrigation, mining, and hydropower projects. The government’s own analyses conclude that this systematic displacement of vulnerable populations from common property and hence their reduced access to environmental resources have stoked the insurgency.25

Neglecting the governance dimension may also blind policymakers to an important subset of environment-related conflict dynamics. Policy actions can render environmental systems and resources not only potential catalysts of conflict but also targets and tools of war. Armed conflict can wreak many kinds of inadvertent and intentional environmental harm.26 Combat may damage or demolish environmental assets such as wells, water treatment plants, forests, or croplands. Many munitions contain toxic constituents that can contaminate soil and groundwater. Notably, combatants are deliberately weaponizing natural resources for tactical or strategic ends. For example, from Iraq and Syria to Yemen and Ukraine, combatants have seized or destroyed water supplies and infrastructure to counter opposing forces or control populations.27 Outside of such overt clashes, some security analysts judge that, as environmental stresses grow, some states may utilize control of natural resources such as water and food supplies to exercise leverage over their neighbors.28

The EU’s lack of attention to governance in regards to the origins of environment- and resource-related conflict has important policy consequences. Because Brussels sees environmental degradation and resource stresses as the principal drivers of conflict, its climate security programming largely focuses on supporting infrastructure to provide water, food, and energy resources in vulnerable communities. Particularly in fragile and conflict-affected countries, the EU sees this strategy as helping both to foster societal resilience and strengthen the presence of the state in under-governed areas through the provision of public goods. The union has paid less attention to building effective local institutions to equitably and sustainably manage those resources—failing to sufficiently reflect that in fragile and conflict-affected regions, the state’s legitimacy in controlling and managing resources is frequently contested. The omission is undermining EU peacebuilding and shortchanging a fully integrated and conflict-sensitive approach to resilience promotion.

The Case of Mali

The EU’s experience in Mali demonstrates the practical costs of paying inadequate attention to the governance factor in preventing and mitigating climate-related conflict risks. Across much of the Sahel region, precipitation has decreased markedly since the 1970s and also swung to the south. Drought and diminished rainfall have altered the range and growing conditions for crops and grasses, pushing semi-nomadic herders seeking pasture to move their livestock onto the lands of sedentary farmers. Confrontations between local farmers and herders over land use rights and access to watering points periodically escalate into violent intercommunal clashes.29

Mounting environmental pressures in Mali intersect with a history of resource conflict. Bamako’s postcolonial policies of agricultural modernization and sedentarization—designed to turn arid rangeland into productive farmland—have long served to marginalize pastoral populations. Land tenure reforms that imposed formal titles on lands previously held collectively benefited sedentary communities and allowed the state to take over uncultivated and unregistered land, curbing herders’ customary access to grazing corridors and seasonal pastures.30 Mali also ramped up rice cultivation along the floodplains of the Niger River. Paddies progressively squeezed out the native plants that herders relied on for fodder during the dry season. As decreasing rainfall and diminishing river flows have shrunk the growing zones around the river, herders have increasingly clashed with sedentary rice-growers over the river’s resources.

Since 2012, farmer-herder conflicts have become entangled with larger regional conflicts and have led to the emergence of multiple armed groups. Farmer-herder conflicts have spread to large swaths of northern and central Mali, straining customary resource management and justice mechanisms. In the face of persistent insecurity and weak or absent central governance, many communities have formed various self-defense militias. In Mali, ethnic identities, livelihood practices, and patterns of resource use are often interlinked. Typically, the Tuareg and Fulani are herders, the Songhay are rice farmers, and the Dogon are fishers. Consequently, the fault lines of intercommunal conflicts and of resource clashes become mutually reinforcing. Militias become proxies to contest resource access, and armed groups capitalize on communal power dynamics. For example, disaffected herder populations often sympathize with an Islamist movement that frames pastoralist grievances and anti-government resistance in religious discourse.31

Two EU CSDP missions have been operating in the country, alongside French, UN, and other multinational missions. The civilian EU Capacity Building Mission in Mali (known as EUCAP) aims to help internal security forces reassert government authority. The EU Training Mission in Mali (known as EUTM) supports training of the Malian Armed Forces. All the missions function under distinct mandates; nevertheless, the collective international presence has substantially focused on combatting terrorism. To this end, the international community has often acquiesced to ethnically based militias operating in areas with weak government presence—militias that are largely accepted or even encouraged by the Malian state. But under the guise of countering extremism, these militias regularly engage in unsanctioned violence against ethnic and political rivals, feeding into and perpetuating the cycle of intercommunal clashes and resource conflict.32 By not more actively working to defuse these militia activities, or at least becoming less overtly accommodating, the EU and the international community are counterproductively undermining both peacebuilding and societal resilience in Mali.

The EU also prominently supports the Sahel Alliance, a multilateral platform created in 2017 to coordinate development assistance to the G5 Sahel countries (Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, and Niger). Agricultural development constitutes nearly a quarter of the 20 billon euro investment portfolio. Dozens of projects are under development in Mali.33 Yet without substantial investment in institutional development and agreed-upon mechanisms for regulating resource access, such projects could ultimately contribute to conflict risks. In Mali, state agricultural programs that benefit certain communities over others underpin much resource conflict.34 The EU has at times struggled to adequately coordinate development and peacebuilding projects with local stakeholders to ensure that their interests are served.35 In this troubled context of resource conflicts and ethnic violence, Brussels must take care that its development cooperation efforts do not inadvertently exacerbate Mali’s intercommunal tensions and instability.


Despite the EU’s decades-long push to place climate change and the prevention of climate risks at the core of its foreign and security policy, the union has yet to realize a common, comprehensive framework for pursuing its climate security and resilience goals. The EU cannot accurately take on board the full scope and nature of environmental risks facing the union and the world without tackling the role of governance factors in environment-related conflict risks.

The 2016 EUGS clearly recognized the importance of governance in building resilient states and societies. The global strategy affirms that inclusive, equitable, and effective governance empowers societies to anticipate emerging shocks and pressures, mitigate the impacts that cannot be avoided, and thereby avert or alleviate conflicts before they occur and peacefully manage those that do. By the same token, however, policymakers must correspondingly recognize and wrestle with the ways in which ineffective and exclusionary governance practices can not only undermine resilience but also catalyze conflicts.

Achieving a fully integrated approach to building resilience and lowering climate-related and environmental conflict risks requires adopting an ecological security strategy. Ecological security frameworks encompass the multiple interconnections and vulnerabilities linking global ecological systems (see chapter 2). Crucially, these interconnections capture the role of governance—institutions, norms, and policy practices—in both propagating potential risks and promoting resilience. In recognizing human systems and actions as substantial drivers of and responders to environmental conflict risks, an ecological security framework could provide the EU the comprehensive understanding it needs to effectively realize an integrated global strategy.



David Michel is a senior researcher at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute and a senior research fellow at the Center for Climate and Security. He previously served as a senior program manager in the Transboundary Water Management Department at the Stockholm International Water Institute and as the director of the Environmental Security Program at the Stimson Center. Michel has written widely on climate security risks, international water conflict and cooperation, and the emerging policy challenges posed by global environmental change.





1 Council of the European Union, “European Security Strategy: A Secure Europe in a Better World,” 2009,

2 Council of the European Union, “Council Conclusions on Climate Diplomacy,” February 18, 2019.

3 Council of the European Union, “Council Conclusions on EU Climate Diplomacy,” June 24, 2013,; Council of the European Union, “Council Conclusions on Climate Diplomacy,” February 26, 2018.

4 High Representative, “Shared Vision, Common Action: A Stronger Europe—A Global Strategy for the European Union’s Foreign and Security Policy,” European Commission, June 2016,

5 Council of the European Union, “The New European Consensus on Development: ‘Our World, Our Dignity, Our Future’,” June 7, 2017,'Our%20World,%20Our%20Dignity,%20Our%20Future'.pdf ; Council of the European Union, “Climate Change and Defence Roadmap”; Council of the European Union, “Council Conclusions on EU Peace Mediation,” December 7, 2020,

6 High Representative, “Shared Vision, Common Action,” 29.

7 European Commission and the High Representative, “A Strategic Approach to Resilience in the EU’s External Action,” European Commission, June 7, 2017.

8 Michel Ungar, “Systemic Resilience: Principles and Processes for a Science of Change in Contexts of Adversity,” Ecology & Society 23, no. 4 (2018): 34.

9 High Representative, “Shared Vision, Common Action,” 24.

10 Council of the European Union, “Council Conclusions on the Integrated Approach to External Conflicts and Crises,” January 22, 2018,

11 EEAS, “The European Union’s Global Strategy: Three Years On, Looking Forward,” 22.

12 European Commission, “Environment and Climate Change Mainstreaming in EU Development Cooperation,” September 2018,; and Particip et al., “External Evaluation of EU’s Support to Conflict Prevention and Peacebuilding (2013–2018),” Particip, May 2020,

13 Nathalie Tocci, “Resilience and the Role of the European Union in the World,” Contemporary Security Policy 41, no. 2 (2019): 176–194; and Remling and Barnhoorn, “A Reassessment of the European Union’s Response to Climate-Related Security Risks.”

14 Loes Debuysere and Steven Blockmans, “An EU Survey on Whole-of-Government Approaches to External Conflict and Crisis: EU Report,” WGA 2020, Bertelsmann Stiftung, 2020,

15 Tocci, “Resilience and the Role of the European Union in the World”; and Remling and Barnhoorn, “A Reassessment of the European Union’s Response to Climate-Related Security Risks.”

16 University of Notre Dame, “ND-GAIN Country Index,” Notre Dame Global Adaptation Initiative,; and EEAS, “Military and Civilian Missions and Operations,”

17 European Commission and the High Representative, “Climate Change and International Security”; and EEAS, “The European Union’s Global Strategy: Three Years On, Looking Forward.”

18 Council of the European Union, “Council Conclusions on Security and Defence in the Context of the EU Global Strategy,” June 17, 2019.

19 Andrew Sherriff, “Development Cooperation or Security Policy? The EU’s Support for Conflict Prevention and Peacebuilding in a Changing Global Environment,” in Roberta Haar et al. (eds.), The Making of European Security Policy: Between Institutional Dynamics and Global Challenges (Abingdon: Routledge, 2021).

20 Jonathan Joseph and Ana E. Juncos, “A Promise Not Fulfilled: The (Non)Implementation of the Resilience Turn in EU Peacebuilding,” Contemporary Security Policy 41, no. 2 (2020): 287–310; and Beatriz Pérez de las Heras, “Climate Security in the European Union’s Foreign Policy: Addressing the Responsibility to Prepare for Conflict Prevention,” Journal of Contemporary European Studies 28, no. 3 (2020): 335–347.

21 European Commission, “Environment and Climate Change Mainstreaming in EU Development Cooperation”; and Particip et al., “External Evaluation of EU’s Support to Conflict Prevention and Peacebuilding (2013–2018).”

22 European Parliament, “A Balanced Arctic Policy for the EU,” Policy Department for External Relations, July 2020,

23 European Commission and High Representative, “An Integrated European Union Policy for the Arctic,” April 27, 2016,

24 Eric Scanlon, “Fifty-One Years of Naxalite-Maoist Insurgency in India: Examining the Factors That Have Influenced the Longevity of the Conflict,” Asian Journal of Peacebuilding 6, no. 2 (2018): 335–351.

25 Government of India, “Development Challenges in Extremist Affected Areas: Report of an Expert Group to Planning Commission,” Government of India, 2008,

26 Doug Weir, “How Does War Damage the Environment?,” Conflict and Environment Observatory, June 4, 2020,

27 Peter H. Gleick, “Water as a Weapon and Casualty of Armed Conflict: A Review of Recent Water-Related Violence in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen,” WIREs Water 6, no. 4 (2019); and Marco Pertile and Sondra Focile, “Access to Water in Donbass and Crimea: Attacks Against Water Infrastructures and the Blockade of the North Crimea Canal,” Review of European, Comparative and International Environmental Law 29, no. 1 (2020): 56–66.

28 Defense Intelligence Agency, “Global Water Security: Intelligence Community Assessment,” Office of the Director of National Intelligence, February 2, 2012,

29 Leif V. Brottem, “Environmental Change and Farmer-Herder Conflict in Agro-Pastoral West Africa,” Human Ecology 44, no. 5 (2016): 547–563.

30 Muna A. Abdalla, “Understanding of the Natural Resource Conflict Dynamics: The Case of Tuareg in North Africa and the Sahel,” ISS Paper 194, Institute for Security Studies, August 6, 2009,

31 Aurélien Tobie and Boukary Sangaré, “The Impact of Armed Groups on the Populations of Central and Northern Mali: Necessary Adaptations and the Strategies for Re-establishing Peace,” Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, October 2019,

32 Ibid.

33 “Alliance Sahel 2021,”

34 International Crisis Group, “The Central Sahel: Scene of New Climate Wars?,” International Crisis Group, April 24, 2020,

35 European Commission, “Environment and Climate Change Mainstreaming in EU Development Cooperation”; and Particip et al., “External Evaluation of EU’s Support to Conflict Prevention and Peacebuilding (2013–2018).”