Table of Contents

Over the last decade, EU policy has employed both an indirect, context-shaping approach to climate security, which focuses more on process than output, and a protective-autonomy approach, which focuses on multiple defensive approaches to safeguard the EU’s geopolitical interests.

In putting these approaches into practice, the EU has advanced a rich profusion of climate security initiatives; diplomats certainly do not need to be told that “climate policy is foreign policy,” as they have been working on this assumption for more than a decade. Moreover, the EU’s approach has positioned the bloc well to play a constructive role in climate geopolitics. However, the union’s overall approach to climate security has been relatively narrow. It has built select climate elements into its existing security strategies rather than rethinking what security itself entails in a world challenged by widespread ecological disruptions.

The Evolution of EU Climate Security Policy

The European Commission was one of the first bodies worldwide to identify climate change as a security issue. In 2008, it published an influential paper framing climate change as a “threat multiplier” that needed to be placed at the heart of EU security policy.1 This new framing then spurred a series of climate policy developments and initiatives. For example, EU institutions began running awareness-raising sessions on climate security for their diplomats.2 In July 2011, the EU launched a “climate diplomacy” initiative to begin engaging—in a more tangible and systematic fashion—on the foreign policy dimensions of climate change.3

In 2013, the Foreign Affairs Council adopted conclusions that promised a mainstreaming of climate security into all external policies and dialogues.4 Over the 2010s, most EU member states introduced their own climate security strategies and oversaw a similar range of events, research, scenario planning, and regional dialogues. Denmark, Germany, Sweden, and the United Kingdom developed particularly notable national strategies that involved a wider range of actors from military planners to development aid practitioners.5

Richard Youngs
Richard Youngs is a senior fellow in the Democracy, Conflict, and Governance Program, based at Carnegie Europe. He works on EU foreign policy and on issues of international democracy.
More >

In February 2018, the European Council committed to doing more on all aspects of climate security, promising to “further mainstream the nexus between climate change and security in policy dialogue, conflict prevention, development and humanitarian action and disaster risk strategies.”6 In June 2018, on the tenth anniversary of the 2008 “threat multiplier” paper, the EU promised to take more of a security-led role in climate issues.7 Council conclusions in 2019 reiterated the commitment to tackling climate change as an “existential” issue of international security.8

The commission’s European Green Deal, published in December 2019, wrapped these various strands of external policy into a more concerted strategy. It proposed an upgraded “green deal diplomacy” across the world and promised to build “green alliances” through its foreign policy instruments.9 European leaders insisted that these commitments represented a major upgrade to the EU’s international climate action. In early 2020, another set of council conclusions on climate diplomacy reiterated the commitment to take climate factors into account in wider foreign policy engagements;10 and in late 2020, the Climate Change and Defence Roadmap promised to incorporate climate factors fully into the Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP).11

The above examples are just a selection of the key policy developments from the EU’s increasingly dense network of climate security commitments and initiatives; many others could be cited.

An Indirect Approach to Climate Security

In taking the above commitments forward, the EU has in practice developed what might be termed an indirect climate security policy. It has worked increasingly hard to shape preparatory principles and the contextual factors around climate geopolitics, while undertaking relatively little direct action of a security or geopolitical nature.

Developing preparatory principles. The bulk of EU efforts centers on awareness-raising, generic dialogue, and data gathering to help reveal the important political and strategic effects of climate change. As such, the EU appears to be focused on preparing principles for climate security and how it should be addressed as part of the European and wider multilateral agenda. Most of this work is process rather than output oriented: it is more concerned with institutional mandates, capacities, and agenda setting than with tangible action and results in specific strategic contexts.12

Most statements and initiatives that purport to be about climate security are aimed overwhelmingly at reinforcing targets for emission reductions. For example, from the EU’s perspective, Paris Agreement commitments have an underlying security rationale, and as such, the EU appears to use the security narrative principally as a means of heightening the general importance of these reduction targets and the multilateral coordination around them. Statements typically stress that the EU needs to change its security policy in light of climate change, but the focus is largely on the Paris Agreement and not on specific changes to EU security approaches in particular countries.13 It is striking that after a decade or more of generating activity and policy documents on climate security, the EU still has no well-defined list of specific country priorities for its climate security policies; there is no apparent correlation between the overarching goal of emission reductions and the union’s country-level strategic interventions.

Increasing climate aid. Since the late 2000s, the EU has intensified its support for developing countries’ energy transitions and climate adaptation. So-called climate finance has become one of the fastest-growing dimensions of EU external policy. In 2009, the EU committed 7.2 billion euros to its first formal package of climate funding. Since then the EU’s climate financing has grown dramatically, reaching 23.2 billion euros in 2019 and constituting nearly half of the global total provided.14 Major EU-supported programs include the SWITCH to Green Flagship Initiative, the Africa Renewable Energy Initiative, and the Global Climate Change Alliance Plus. The 2021–2027 Multiannual Financial Framework stipulates that a minimum of 30 percent of all EU funding will be spent on climate-related projects.15 In 2019, EU members committed to increasing their contributions to the United Nations (UN) Green Climate Fund to help developing states with energy transition.

Undoubtedly, the EU has played a lead role in mobilizing such funding. Still, the overall scale of funding is relatively limited, and most states under acute climate stress receive modest amounts of European funding. Moreover, the indirect approach to climate security is evident in the way that the EU spends its climate funds. The EU’s projects generally seek to build energy transition issues into the union’s broader development policy goals. The union also tends to equate the export of its own regulations with good external climate policy. And despite a recent tilt away from mitigation to adaptation projects, security objectives are generally not deeply thought through in EU-funded initiatives. Indeed, often the EU’s development and regulatory agendas involve it working on climate adaptation with the very political and security actors responsible for instability.

The link between climate financing and EU security goals is generally assumed rather than demonstrated in a precise fashion.16 Diplomats acknowledge that, on the ground, various actors tend to perceive the EU as mainly a funder of development projects that lack direct political leverage. And they admit that it has been difficult to tie aid to context-specific climate stresses, beyond the broad climate mitigation mandate.17

Mitigating the impacts of climate on conflicts. The EU has presented this development focus as an important contribution to addressing the climate-related drivers of conflict and instability. The aim is to help foster social and economic conditions capable of offsetting conflict dynamics and the social tensions associated with climate stresses. The EU has been more reluctant to undertake direct engagement in conflict scenarios.

Diplomats point out that many CSDP missions have deployed to climate-stressed areas. Yet climate stresses have not been among the factors triggering these deployments, and neither have CSDP missions included explicit or direct operational elements related to climate change. For instance, CSDP missions in the Sahel and Horn of Africa have focused on counterterrorism training and capacity building, not climate factors. Climate security stresses have not prompted the EU to intervene in conflicts. While EU diplomats have begun to assess climate factors as part of conflict management scenario building, member state governments do not see armed interventions as being a central part of the climate security agenda.18

The 2019 implementation report of the EU Global Strategy insisted that the “climate-security nexus” was one of the areas where a “joined-up” approach had advanced most effectively among different parts of the EU and claimed that “climate action has become an integral part of our work on conflict prevention and sustainable security.”19 Germany launched an effort to get the UN Security Council to deal with climate issues in fragile states and for UN peacekeeping to build in a climate angle. Yet it is difficult to see any tangible upgrade in EU conflict interventions as part of the climate security agenda. While European diplomats insist that climate-related foresight and early warning are already built into EU policies in fragile contexts, it is difficult to pinpoint concrete interventions or CSDP operational changes that have flowed from this.20

EU leaders have often pointed to the climate stresses behind the Syrian conflict; yet the EU’s position in this conflict has been strikingly hands-off. There has been little sign of committed EU diplomatic engagement in the key flashpoints of climate stress—like the tension between Ethiopia and Egypt over the Nile, or in the Mekong delta. Some European militaries have deployed to conduct rescue operations in climate-induced natural disasters, but they have resisted taking on any wider climate conflict mandate. At the end of 2018, the EU’s Civil Protection Mechanism was updated partially to account for climate risks, but only with a narrow mandate to provide equipment for climate-related disasters like storms and forest fires.

The EU’s 2020 Climate Change and Defence Roadmap may herald more climate-related operations, although for the moment it is mainly about equipping EU militaries for extreme climates and finding ways to reduce the operations’ dependency on local resources.21 This ethos complements numerous new defense initiatives to make European defense equipment more energy efficient and less dependent on external environments.22 Moving in a similar direction, a UK climate security review that began in March 2020 reported that the Ministry of Defence still has to move from examining climate-related impacts that could occur to implementing concrete policy interventions, cooperating with countries’ militaries on climate factors, and preparing personnel and equipment for possible climate interventions.23

Applying conditions to trade. The EU has begun placing climate-related conditions on its external relations in the last several years. But the way it formulates and implements this conditionality accentuates its indirect approach to climate security. The EU’s conditions do not reflect a full understanding of security-related climate challenges. Climate conditionality has become a more prominent part of the union’s trade agreements; ongoing tensions with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and states from the South American trade bloc Mercosur provide two examples of this prominence. The EU has likewise moved toward making not only trade but also some aid conditional on developing countries’ efforts to reduce carbon emissions.

Although this conditionality demonstrates an attempt to link climate and trade policies, it is not specifically applied to temper external instability and security risks. Arguably, the approach is also beset with internal inconsistency: the EU wields punitive leverage to prompt emission reductions with the reward of deeper trade, which drives those same emissions higher. Developing countries accuse the EU of failing to understand the direct impacts on security, as conditionality is linked to emission targets in a way that undermines traditional livelihoods and fosters more social instability and stress.24

Conceptually linking governance and climate. It is often argued that better and more open governance and local-level participation are required to ensure that energy transitions are steadily taken forward. Yet the link between governance and EU climate policy is hardly visible. The climate security agenda has not driven an upgrade in the EU’s good governance, human rights, and democracy work around the world. The EU has increased its security cooperation with many autocratic regimes that have worsened climate instability; CSDP operations in both the Sahel and Horn of Africa show this clearly. With China now formally committed to net-zero emissions by 2060, the EU has stepped even further away from pressing the Chinese regime on governance or human rights issues in the country. Also, the EU has begun to fund initiatives to help oil and gas producers diversify and reduce the risks of hydrocarbon dependence; in nearly all cases, this effectively helps authoritarian regimes stay in power.

A Protective-Autonomy Approach to Climate Security

The second conceptual strand of EU climate security policy is the focus on protective autonomy. Much of EU external action on climate aims to set multilateral rules and outward-looking cooperative security norms and to shape, through development work, a more favorable context for climate transitions; the objective is to preemptively dilute the effects of climate change. But other action revolves around more immediate and direct self-help; and, in this case, the objective is to hold climate effects at bay and defend immediate European interests.

This strand of protective autonomy is most evident in the EU’s heightened focus on border control. The union has invested heavily in strengthening its external borders in recent years, and this effort has become the central element of its security policy. Against the backdrop of projections that climate-related cross-border movements will dwarf the migration surges the EU has struggled to deal with since 2016, the union has made firm moves toward greater exclusion. Governments have used climate security concerns to justify a certain alignment of CSDP missions with the aim of strengthening border control assets within Frontex and more widely. Although migration might be a necessary climate adaptation strategy—people moving out of climate-stressed locations—the EU has been working to close off migration routes.

It is repeatedly suggested that the EU find a way to acknowledge a formal category of climate refugees. The 2018 UN Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration includes commitments on climate migration. Yet, in practice, the EU and its member states have not agreed to such a provision. (On the whole, the compact is relatively toothless, and several EU states did not even sign it.) It is unlikely that EU states would support any new UN treaty with automatically guaranteed legal rights for climate-induced migration. They have not supported including in the Refugee Convention a reference to the gradual impacts of climate change as grounds to claim asylum. They have also not supported defining migration triggered by climate change as a fundamental right under international human rights provisions.

The tendency toward protective autonomy is also apparent in EU member states’ military priorities. European militaries engaged early with the climate security agenda and began to reconfigure their capabilities. They have beefed up their resources and plans for defending home territories against extreme weather, reflecting a “renewed interest in national civil defence capacity.”25 Climate change has put pressure on governments to deploy armed forces domestically to deal with floods and storms; consequently, it has diverted attention away from foreign policy responses to external security risks.26 An increasing number of procurement projects funded by the EU’s Permanent Structured Cooperation process and the European Defence Agency now aim to prepare militaries for such domestic climate-related operations.27

Finally, climate change is also one factor among several that has prompted the EU to take a protective-autonomy approach to its international trade policy. Much of the EU’s climate-related policy has become more mercantile and defensive of its immediate, vital economic interests.28 Through the Green Deal, the EU aims to use climate measures more purposively to protect its interests. The union has sought to reduce its dependencies on external suppliers and markets over the last decade; climate factors are not the main driver of this trend, but they have added momentum in this direction. The pursuit of a green industrial strategy and desire to support European renewables companies reflect this protective mercantilism.

Arguably, the EU’s planned carbon border tax would be a significant addition to this strategy. In September 2020, the European Commission published a strategy to reduce EU dependency on external supplies of critical rare earths, framing this as part of the wider post-pandemic aim of bringing more production back onshore, especially from China; as such, a European Raw Materials Alliance initiative on domestic sourcing has gained heightened importance.29 Analysts detect a competitive geoeconomic dynamic underlying EU energy and climate policies across the Middle East and North Africa.30

The EU’s use of climate conditionality also demonstrates an affinity for protective autonomy. Developing countries have protested that this green protectionism has become a pretext for defending European commercial interests. The EU has certainly become more geoeconomically assertive in trying to neutralize other states’ competitive advantages, secure its own supplies, and position itself for commercial opportunities in the changed global energy landscape. In response, other countries are increasingly pushing back against EU projects and regulations—for example, in relation to renewables development in North Africa.31 Developing states have also criticized the EU for refusing to relax intellectual property restrictions on renewables technology to help its uptake across the world; they have essentially accused the union of prioritizing its own commercial gains from renewables technology ahead of climate goals.

Shortfalls in EU Climate Policy

Taken together, these conceptual strands suggest that climate security has risen up the EU’s external agenda but without clearly stated, specific priorities and actions. The EU’s indirect, context-shaping strategy undoubtedly has much merit. It has helped the EU avoid an unduly heavy securitization of climate issues and has usefully sought to bring underlying causal factors like economic underdevelopment and power politics to the foreground. Yet it is difficult to conclude that the approach supports a security policy per se. Preparing generic principles for climate coordination at the international level and fostering dialogue may have been the right priorities a decade ago when the climate security agenda was in its formative phase. But today, these priorities exude a sense of having failed to move on to a more action-oriented stage.

The focus on protective autonomy reflects calls for the EU to toughen its geopolitical strategies to survive in a more turbulent and constraining global order. While most EU rhetoric stresses how climate geopolitics can deepen states’ interconnectedness, some policy developments in practice indicate a desire to disentangle the EU at least partially from its reliance on external energy resources. A key question is whether this protective approach is compatible with the EU’s outward-looking efforts to shape international rules and actions. While the EU may be right to hedge and pursue elements of both strategies, combining them in a coherent fashion is an exacting challenge; the EU’s climate security policy is currently too ad hoc. The EU risks being caught between pursuing multilateral-driven security and autonomous security.

This conceptualization helps understand why the EU’s approach to climate security has so far been too narrow. The policy challenge is more complicated than ritually repeating the mantra that “more must be done on climate security”: the tricky questions relate to how the climate agenda intersects with other policies and security imperatives. Many of the EU’s other policies cut across climate security; and some of its approaches to climate security cut across broader geostrategy and stability goals. The protective-autonomy approach aims to insulate the EU from external disruptions but may actually impede the necessary systemic changes needed for durable security. As a result, at least some of the EU’s climate change strategies risk worsening instability and security risks.

For example, the EU pushes progress toward emission targets in a way that might actually deepen instability within other states and tensions between states. In any given developing country, the EU typically operates a handful of projects on decarbonization but then works with the same country to expand trade and growth that relies on the very economic model causing climate stresses. Pushing other countries to increase their supply of renewable energy to Europe can have destabilizing effects in many local contexts and act directly against nominal climate security goals. The EU has begun to prioritize climate partnerships with regimes whose approach to governance and economic challenges drives more instability and a wider range of security threats. And maximizing EU commercial gains in renewables is certainly not the same thing as fostering local ownership of energy transitions and increased stability in developing countries. The common line that the EU should internationalize its Green Deal leaves little room for addressing complexities in the link between climate and security policies.

While the EU has become more engaged in the nexus between climate change and security, most of its actions in this field have been about putting Band-Aids on limited parts of the problem. The union sees international climate politics as being largely about reducing carbon emissions and has focused less on how the wider range of climate impacts requires far-reaching or systemic change to the EU’s geoeconomic, military, development, migration, and other policies. Emissions targets have become a kind of security policy by default rather than integrated elements of a broader, direct security-oriented approach. The focus on making emissions cuts to reduce risks and instability in the long term overshadows how the EU will deal with climate security challenges in the here and now or how the Paris targets are to refashion the strategic balances that underpin the global order.

It is perhaps revealing that European leaders routinely use the slogan that “climate policy is foreign policy” but not the inverse that “foreign policy is climate policy.” The union tends to see climate instability as an issue “out there” beyond Europe’s borders rather than an issue that the EU’s economic models and external policies contribute to. The following analyses in this volume will further substantiate this point and discuss how the EU could move beyond its current framing of climate security and adopt a wider ecological diplomacy.



1 European Commission and the High Representative, “Climate Change and International Security,” Council of the European Union, June 6, 2008; and Richard Youngs, Climate Change and European Security (London, Routledge, 2014).

2 Kamil Zwolski and Christian Kaunert, “The EU and Climate Security: A Case of Successful Norm Entrepreneurship?,” European Security 20, no. 1(2011): 21–43.

3 Council of the European Union, “Council Conclusions on Climate Diplomacy,”

4 European External Action Service (EEAS), “EU Climate Diplomacy for 2015 and Beyond,” Reflection Paper, June 26, 2013, EEAS, Brussels,

5 For details, see Youngs, Climate Change and European Security.

6 Council of the European Union, “Council Conclusions on Climate Diplomacy,” February 26, 2018, 3,

7 Shiloh Fetzek and Louise van Schaik, “Europe’s Responsibility to Prepare: Managing Climate Security Risks in a Changing World,” Center for Climate and Security, June 2018,,climate%20change%20and%20security%20risks.

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

9 European Commission, “The European Green Deal,” December 11, 2019,

10 Council of the European Union, “Council Conclusions on Climate Diplomacy,” January 20, 2020,

11 EEAS, “Climate Change and Defence Roadmap,” November 9, 2020,

12 Luca Bergamaschi, Nick Mabey, Camilla Born, and Adam White, “Managing Climate risk for a Safer Future: A New Resilience Agenda for Europe,” E3G, April 2019,

13 Council of the European Union, “Council Conclusions on Climate Diplomacy,” February 26, 2018.

14 European Commission, “International Climate Finance,”

15 Council of the European Union, “Special Meeting of the European Council: Conclusions,” July 21, 2020, 7,

16 Luca Bergamaschi and Nicolò Sartori, “The Geopolitics of Climate: Transatlantic Dialogue,” Istituto Affari Internazionali, June 2018, 8,

17 Elise Remling and Anniek Barnhoorn, “A Reassessment of the EU’s Repsonse to Climate-Related Security Risks,” SIPRI, March 2021, 12,

18 Francois Ducrotté, “The Impact of Climate Change on International Security: Prospects for an Environmental Dimension in CSDP Missions,” European Security Review, November 2012, 6.

19 EEAS, “The European Union’s Global Strategy: Three Years On, Looking Forward,” EEAS, 28 and 40, 2019,

20Cristoph Meyer, Francesca Vantaggiato, and Richard Youngs, “Preparing CSDP for the New Security Environment Created by Climate Change,” European Parliament Directorate General for External Relations of the Union, 2021.

21 EEAS, “Climate Change and Defence Roadmap.”

22 See

23 Kate Cox, Anna Knack, Martin Robson, Neil Adger, Pauline Paille, et al., “A Changing Climate: Exploring the Implications of Climate Change for UK Defence and Security,” Rand Europe and University of Exeter,

24 Jane Flanagan, “Europe Is Stealing Jungle From Us, Claim Pygmies,” The Times, August 21, 2019,

25 Steven Jermy, Strategy for Action: Using Force Wisely in the 21st Century (London: Knightstone Publishing, 2011), 148.

26 Antony Froggart and Michael Levi, “Climate and Energy Security Policies and Measures: Synergies and Conflicts,” International Affairs 85, no. 6 (2009): 1,129–1,141.

27 See list of projects at

28 Maria Pastukhova, Jacopo Pepe, and Kristen Westphal, “Beyond the Green Deal: Upgrading the EU’s Energy Diplomacy for a New Era,” SWP Comment, German Institute for International and Security Affairs, June 31, 2020,

29 European Commission, “Critical Raw Materials for Strategic Technologies and Sectors in the EU: A Foresight Study,” European Commission, September 3, 2020,

30 Gonzalo Escribano and Lara Lazaro, “Balancing Geopolitics With Green Deal Recovery: In Search of a Comprehensive Euro-Mediterranean Energy Script,” Real Instituto Elcano, July 15, 2020,

31 Gonzalo Escribano, “The Geopolitics of Renewable and Electricity Cooperation Between Morocco and Spain,” Mediterranean Politics 24, no. 5 (2018): 674–681.