In 2015, the annual G7 meeting of foreign ministers received and endorsed an independent report, A New Climate for Peace.[1] The report has been widely discussed. It examines compound risks for security and stability associated with climate change – expressed as climate-fragility risks – and the policy agenda for responding to those risks. It offers recommendations for assessing, managing and reducing the risks. This background paper for the 2016 Planetary Security Initiative conference in The Hague looks at developments both in the risks faced and the actions taken since the report for the G7 was finalised in Spring 2015.

Global environmental change is proceeding at an intense rate and with growing effects. The issue is not only climate change, with the last two years seeing the density of carbon emitted into atmosphere hitting a new peak and with global temperature records broken every month. The issue is also loss of biodiversity, ocean acidification, shortage of fresh water with land degradation, heat waves and droughts, and more.[2] The combination of these changes lies behind the assertion, broadly accepted at the International Geological Congress in Cape Town in August 2016, that we have entered a new era – the Anthropocene.[3] This concept denotes the immense implications human activities have for the world’s ecological systems, including climates. Some environmental scientists are now expressing concern that human activity has been and remains on such a scale and with such far-reaching impacts that the human habitability of the planet is at risk:

The numbers are overwhelming. The planet’s under unprecedented pressure. Too many forests cut down. Too many fish pulled from the sea. Too many species gone extinct. Earth’s being battered by humanity – and it’s coming from every direction. Greenhouse gases. Ocean acidification. Chemical pollution. It has all reached a point where our future is at risk. For the first time in human history, we may have pushed the planet too far.[4]

The driving concept behind this warning is ‘planetary boundaries’, which was established in 2009 by a group of scientists convened by the Stockholm Resilience Centre.[5] To this way of thinking, nine ecological systems make up the overall boundary of sustainability for life on our planet. As the individual boundaries are breached, we begin to move outside what we know to be a safe operating space for humanity. What lies on the other side of the boundaries, and how different breaches will interact with each other, is as yet unknown. Four planetary boundaries have already been breached as a result of human activity – climate change, biodiversity, land-system change, and biogeochemical cycles (phosphorus and nitrogen). Two of these – climate change and biodiversity – are regarded as core boundaries, meaning that if they are significantly breached the Earth System will be brought into a new state.[6]

These pressures on the natural system are increasingly affecting states and societies. The report A New Climate for Peace identified seven compound climate-fragility risks that threaten stability. When and where climate change converges with other economic, social, political and environmental pressures, it can overburden states and societies. It can spur social upheaval and increase the risk of violent conflict. Even seemingly stable states can be pushed towards instability if the pressure is heavy enough or the shock is too great. The argument of A New Climate for Peace is that climate change has become important in the combinations of pressures that push countries into instability, fragility and conflict. It multiplies the effect of other pressures and risks such as poor governance, social inequalities and a record of recent violent conflict to undermine human security.

2015 and 2016 have underlined the urgency of these challenges. The increasing pressure of climate change has developed in parallel with the deteriorating geopolitical setting. A series of temperature records[7] and the growing number and severity of extreme weather events illustrate what it might mean to leave the planet’s safe operating space. At the same time we have witnessed an unstable international political context. The Middle East remains in turmoil and neither regional nor global efforts to mitigate the violent conflicts seem to have much effect. The number of armed conflicts has risen back to the level that it was in the early 1990s, blowing away the gains of two decades of peacebuilding efforts.[8] There is a historically high level of refugees and internally displaced people. Relations between Russia and the West have deteriorated and remain fraught because of Crimea, Ukraine and Syria. These developments make international cooperation more difficult at a time when it is more needed than ever.

So far, it has not proven easy to absorb the relationship between climate change and fragility into the framework of policy-making.[9] It is mentioned in communiqués and policy statements but there is limited feed-through from recognition to practice. It has been generally concluded that the complex, intersecting and multi-sectoral nature of the challenges posed by the climate-security linkage makes policy responses unusually complex and difficult. For many political leaders and officials alike, this is a new field and it is hard to get beyond responses that essentially consist of modest modifications to business as usual. Nevertheless, the policy agenda is not static. There are efforts to find a viable change strategy. Most notably, the achievement of the Paris Agreement in 2015 marked a moment of consensus about the importance of combatting climate change both through mitigation and adaptation efforts. The past two years have also seen a global consensus on the future of development in the form of the new Sustainable Development Goals, international efforts to address the humanitarian and refugee crisis, and reconsideration of the UN peacebuilding architecture.

This report takes stock of these developments. It does not explore one major risk that has emerged, which must be acknowledged: the election of Donald Trump as US President and the anticipation that a root and branch change in US environmental policy will ensue. What the Trump administration will do is not yet clear though the shape of his transition team[10] and early reports of options under review[11] reflect his stated climate scepticism. Warnings are starting to reverberate from climate scientists and environmentalists.[12] How other countries will react is a further unknown. Some may be encouraged to depart from the growing consensus of recent years on the reality of climate change and the urgency of mitigation and adaptation.[13] Other countries by contrast may be encouraged towards adopting new policy instruments and developing new inter-governmental coalitions for effective action, even in line with the global resilience agenda.

The report is structured in three parts. The first chapter provides a concise risk horizon scan for 2015 and 2016 covering climate change impacts, the rise in conflicts, the migrant and refugee crisis, and the return of geopolitical rivalry. Chapter 2 gives an overview and assessment of key policy developments in 2015 and 2016 that are of relevance for addressing climate-fragility risks. The third chapter draws summary conclusions and provides three recommendations and priorities for the next 12 months to governments and other actors who recognise the risks of climate-fragility.

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IPCC 2014. Climate change 2014: impacts, adaptation, and vulnerability. Part A: global and sectoral aspects. Contribution of Working Group II to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press.
Carrington, D. 2016. ’The Anthropocene epoch: scientists declare dawn of human-influenced age’, The Guardian, 29 August, link (accessed November 2016).
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Thompson, A. 2016. ‘‘99 Percent Chance’ 2016 Will Be Hottest Year’, Climate Central, 18 May, link (accessed November 2016).
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Milman, O. 2016. ’Donald Trump presidency ”a disaster for the planet”, warn climate scientists’, The Guardian, 11 November, link (accessed November 2016).
Neslen, A. and Vaughan, A. 2016. ‘Trump victory may embolden other nations to obstruct Paris climate deal’, The Guardian, 11 November, link (accessed November 2016).