By Cade Stone,
Max Kampelman Fellow
The OSCE was founded on a commitment to cross-border cooperation in the face of indiscriminate regional threats, in pursuit of comprehensive security, and in mutual acknowledgement of the need for sovereignty and stability. Today, as the earth’s climate continues to change, global environmental issues are increasingly tangible security concerns. Climate change stands to magnify both the internal challenges faced by OSCE participating States and the external pressure of mass migration out of critically unstable regions—a redoubled “migrant crisis” in the mold of 2015.
“Climate change is having far-reaching effects on agricultural productivity and food security,” warned UN Migration Director General William Lacy Swing on World Food Day 2017. “It is among the main reasons for the record numbers of people compelled to migrate from rural areas to towns and cities around the world.”
The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates that a large share of migrants come from rural areas where more than 75 percent of the world’s poor and food insecure depend on agriculture and natural resource-based livelihoods.
As agricultural yields dwindle, water supplies shrink, and threatened regions become less habitable, poor populations will suffer most immediately and most critically. As atmospheric and oceanic temperatures rise, mounting evidence suggests that natural disasters will become increasingly catastrophic. Displacement rates in disaster-prone areas will increase, along with the costs of crippled infrastructure and lost productivity.
In 2015, according to the FAO, there were already 244 million international migrants, 40 percent more than in 2000. Nineteen million people were internally displaced because of natural disasters. An average of 26 million were displaced annually by climate or weather-related disasters between 2008 and 2015. In a changing global climate showing no signs of reversal, these trends stand only to worsen.
It is at this intersection of climate change and migration that the OSCE region may be most immediately threatened. During the 2015 migrant crisis, millions of displaced people fled to Europe from the same regions that now face the greatest risk of further instability; migration flows may surge once more as environmental pressures mount.
Stable governments and populations rely on access to vital resources and are thus deeply imperiled by the threat of widespread drought, crop failure, flooding, and other disruptions that climate disruption portends. By this measure, any of the “staging” areas for migrants in North Africa, as well as their origin nations throughout Africa and the Middle East, are already politically fragile.
The OSCE has gradually begun to mobilize around the pressing security reality of a changing climate. In the wake of the latest UN Climate Report, Nilza de Sena, chair of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly’s Economic and Environmental Committee, warned that the effects of climate change are close and potentially disastrous and urged bold action to “accelerate decarbonization and intensify the discussion on the expansion of renewable and sustainable energy and maximizing energy efficiency.”
The OSCE also has joined the Environment and Security (ENVSEC) Initiative, a sweeping multi-agency program established to examine the security risks posed by climate change, particularly in Eastern Europe, South Eastern Europe, the South Caucasus, and Central Asia.
Crucially, the effort treats climate change as a threat multiplier inherent to future national and international security agendas. Its “Climate Change and Security” report analyzed credible domestic security concerns for OSCE member nations, including competition for scarce resources, increased social tension and conflict, loss of trade, and infrastructural damage. The analysis has yet to account for the compounding effects the external pressures of increased migration will inflict, as the same climate shocks ripple across more fragile regional neighbors.
Climate disruption and subsequent migration imperils the whole of the OSCE and calls for a defense of its most foundational commitments, from sovereign equality to territorial integrity to interstate cooperation. Action must be taken to prepare for the security crisis on Europe’s doorstep, both in domestic planning and investment abroad.
The UN Food and Agriculture Organization calls for massive investment in rural development to bolster opportunity, resiliency, and stability. It has developed Sustainable Development Goals to address the structural drivers of migration and shepherd responsible growth in migrant source countries. Increased investment in infrastructure, ensuring reliable access to resources, and redoubled diplomatic conflict resolution will help stem the instability and conflict that displaces vulnerable populations.
Further, the Center for Climate and Security promotes a Responsibility to Prepare framework for European leaders to elevate the institutional awareness and responsiveness to climate insecurity, both in migration hotspots and on Europe’s doorway. ENVSEC’s Climate Change and Security report proposes a portfolio of actionable items to better brace OSCE project nations, many of which can and should be implemented broadly across Europe, including raising public urgency, encouraging cross-sectoral policy integration, and incorporating increased cross-border cooperation on climate projections and vulnerability assessments. Finally, the United States’ withdrawal from the Paris Climate accords need not preclude it from climate leadership within the OSCE. It remains uniquely poised to help foster the vital regional cooperation needed to meaningfully address these challenges.
European security was shaken by the migration crisis of 2015. Political stability across the continent was undermined and fringe populist forces emboldened in its wake. Unless concerted, collective action is taken quickly, the coming waves of climate migration could make past surges look like ripples. The U.S. and OSCE have both a mandate and responsibility to lead.