Could the EU’s New Agenda for the Mediterranean Turn Climate Change from a “Threat Multiplier” into an “Opportunities Multiplier”?

29 March 2022 | Paper | English


slideshow image REUTERS/Costas Baltas

Within the framework of “Euromesco: Connecting the Dots“, a project co-funded by the European Union and the IEMed.

The Mediterranean countries are char­acterised by evident gaps in terms of demographic growth, socioeconomic conditions and natural resources avail­ability, which undermine the process of Euro-Mediterranean cohesion and cre­ate a situation of structural weakness that makes them extremely vulnerable to destabilising events. In just over a dec­ade, the Mediterranean region has been affected by major changes that, at first glance, do not seem to be related to each other. The wave of pro-democracy pro­tests called the “Arab Spring” that has plagued the regimes of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) since 2010 has shown how climate-driven crop failures in major food exporting countries may contribute to driving up international food prices and to amplifying social and polit­ical destabilisation, especially in food-im­port dependent countries (Werrell & Femia, 2013). The “Arab unhappiness” that spurred the popular uprisings has not faded over the years, giving rise to what has been referred to as the “Arab Spring 2.0”. This new round of turmoil, in which protesters demand a better quality of life, has been exacerbated by 2020s COVID-19 pandemic, clearly demon­strating, once again, the close inter­connection between human well-being and planetary health.[1] In the same time frame, in the Northern Mediterranean Countries (NMCs), the migrant-refugee crisis, characterised by new migration waves triggered by traditional as well as unconventional push factors linked to the effects of climate and environmental changes, is becoming one of the most important and divisive issues in recent European politics, adding a new layer of instability to the already shaky European Union (EU) (Pawel & Roland, 2018).

These events clearly show that climate change is making the environment-se­curity nexus increasingly stringent, es­pecially in those areas characterised by limited availability of natural resources, excessive dependence on food imports, poor ability to adapt to environmen­tal risk, political instability, institutional weakness, and lack of cooperation over transboundary water resources.

The objective of this paper is twofold. Firstly, to analyse the level of vulnerability of the Mediterranean countries to climate risk and to detect the potential impacts of global warming in terms of security; secondly, to discuss if and to what ex­tent, the New Agenda for the Mediterra­nean could be considered as a chance to address climate-related insecurity and turn climate change response into an “opportunities multiplier”. The paper will conclude by summarising the findings and suggesting ways for policy-makers and practitioners to address and inte­grate climate-related security risks in the Mediterranean region.

Climate change and security: a critical nexus

In the last decades, since climate change has been widely accepted as one of the most severe environmental problems facing our planet, the debates on the en­vironmental security concept have been transformed mostly into questions about the relationship between climate change and security. To frame the intersection between climate change and security, we need to define the concept of security when it comes to climate change as well as to understand how climate change and ecological degradation intersect to undermine security and create instability.

With the end of the Cold War there has been an evolution of the conventional concept of security which, no longer identified in a strictly geostrategic and military meaning (hard security), has broadened and deepened to take on multidimensional, non-military types of threats of a economic, social and envi­ronmental nature (soft security) and to include different referent objects other than states (Altunkaya, 2021). Follow­ing the two different perspectives, cli­mate change has been framed both as a human security and a traditional secu­rity issue. During the 1990s, especially within the United Nations (UN) climate regime, climate change has been for­mulated mainly as a human security is­sue. In this respect, diverse documents have emphasised emerging threats to vulnerable human populations caused by climate change impacts such as natural disasters, food security, water scarcity, livelihood disruption, and so on, calling for urgent global actions to tackle climate change as a human security problem (Mason, 2015).

While the human security perspective framed the climate change-security nex­us as a development issue throughout the 1990s, since the mid-2000s var­ious reports have started to discuss climate change as a more conventional security issue, stressing the potential of its cascade of impacts in threaten­ing international security and peace. To inaugurate this second phase of the debate, there was a Pentagon study on climate change and United States (US) national security, which suggested that climate change can have a catastroph­ic impact, leading to violent conflicts, social unrest and even inter-state wars due to resource constraints (Schwartz & Randall, 2003). Three years later, The Stern Review, one of the most influential reports on climate change, portrayed a similar picture describing climate change as an increasing explanatory variable in triggering large-scale migra­tion and violent conflict, thus threaten­ing national and global security (Stern, 2006). Over the same period, several American think tanks have published similar studies, emphasising the threat for US national security in the upcoming decades (Campbell et al., 2007; Busby, 2007; CNA Corporation, 2007). This trend accelerated in the 2010s, when climate change with this traditional se­curity dimension became an integral part of most national security strategy documents.[2] What all these documents share is the role of climate change as a “threat multiplier”, which will exacerbate existing problems, such as government instability, the spread of disease, con­flicts over water supplies, and wide­spread migration.[3]

Similarly, the relationship between cli­mate change and traditional security notions has gained ground within the in­ternational political agenda, in particular within the UN framework. In April 2007, the UN Security Council (UNSC) first discussed the interlinkages between en­ergy, climate and security under the Pres­idency of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland (UNSC, 2007). Two years later, in June 2009, the UN General Assembly passed resolution A/RES/63/281, proposed by the Pacific Small Island Developing States, which asked the UN Secretary-General to pro­duce a comprehensive report on climate change and its possible security implica­tions. Published in September 2009, the report highlighted climate change as a “threat multiplier” with the potential to ex­acerbate existing threats to international peace and security (UNGA, 2009). The idea that climate change can have impli­cations in terms of conventional security also emerged in the fourth assessment report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). This fourth as­sessment report specifically emphasised the relationship between climate change and violent conflict, especially around degraded natural resources (IPCC, 2007; Nordas & Gleditsch, 2007).

In recent years, causal links between climate change and security have also received attention from the scientific and academic community but, with few exceptions, there is still a low level of consensus in this research field. Stud­ies of climate-conflict connections have produced diverging findings and inspired heated debate (Gleditsch, 2012; Solow, 2013). Scholars agree that unmitigated climate change will have significant neg­ative impacts on human societies and well-being, including water scarcity, re­duction in agricultural production, more frequent and intense extreme weather events, as well as distribution of water and vector borne diseases, among oth­ers. Whether these impacts of climate change can scale up into conventional security concerns, causing the escala­tion or even the onset of violent conflicts, is still disputed. Empirical research stud­ies largely confirm that environmental is­sues and climate change are unlikely to trigger inter-state violent conflicts, sug­gesting that the higher opportunity-cost of conflicts compared to that linked to the adoption of effective adaptation meas­ures to cope with the impacts of climate change may represent a restraint to the outbreak of conflicts (Gleditsch, 2012; Salehyan, 2008). However, no consen­sus has yet been reached regarding the question of whether climate change ef­fects may increase the risk of intra-state violent conflicts, such as civil wars, riots, paramilitary violence or armed raids (Ide & Scheffran, 2014). Two main positions can be distinguished in the debate: the climate-conflicts perspective, based on the assumption that climate change caus­es or increases environmental stresses, including water scarcity, crops failure, rainfall variability, soil degradation and a rise in the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events, which, in turn, might translate into societal challenges such as hunger, livelihood insecurity, and inequalities in resource distribution and availability, contributing to outmigration or a weakening of the state and increas­ing the risk of violent conflict; and the social-conflicts perspective, according to which climate change plays no role, or only a minor role, in the onset of violent conflicts whose explanatory variables are mostly represented by political or socioeconomic factors (Ide & Scheffran, 2014). Both perspectives have been tested through empirical research stud­ies, but both qualitative (De Juan, 2015; Selby & Hoffmann, 2017) and quantita­tive methods of observation (Burke et al., 2009; Hsiang et al., 2013; Buhaugh et al., 2014; Buhaugh, 2015) have been unable to provide a simple and coherent answer to this question.

This apparent lack of consensus in the literature about the true role of climate change as a driver of conflicts should be interpreted as an “in medio stat veritas” conclusion. It will be argued, along with several other research studies, that there is probably a climate-conflict connection. However, the manifestation of such a link is strongly dependent on the presence of several scope conditions or context fac­tors (Ide & Scheffran, 2014; Ide et al., 2020). Climate change acts as a catalyst rather than a direct source of conflicts, in the sense that phenomena related to the impact of climate change can lead to conflicts and instability but only if certain contextual factors are present.[4] And it is through this claim that this causal link is analysed in the following section, con­textualising it to the Mediterranean coun­tries.

In the Mediterranean region, climate change is likely to manifest its impacts mainly in the Southern and Eastern Med­iterranean countries (SEMCs) affect­ed by greater vulnerability because of their high exposure and sensitivity and low capacity to adapt to environmental changes. At the same time, the risk fac­tors connected to the effects of global warming will be amplified through what geographer Troy Sternberg has defined as the “hazard globalization” (Sternberg, 2013).[5] In a region of interconnected cri5 ses, climate change can act as a “risk multiplier” through interactions between climate stress, environmental change, human responses, and social conflicts whose impacts can spill over into the en­tire Mediterranean area. ­

Vulnerability and adaptive capacity of Mediterranean countries to the effects of climate change

Experts argue that we have entered a new geological epoch, the “Anthropo­cene”, in which the collective impact of human activities is sufficient to signifi­cantly alter the conditions of life on plan­et Earth. This awareness has prompted the scientific community to introduce the concept of “planetary boundaries” (PBs). An interdisciplinary group of scientists have identified nine natural processes and systems that are fundamental to preserving the relatively stable Holocene conditions and, circumscribing a “safe operating space”, they have pointed out the limits that humans must not exceed in order not to trigger irreversible trans­formations of the Earth’s system (Rock­ström et al., 2009). Data suggests that humanity has already gone beyond four PBs and among them is climate change.

The Mediterranean region is considered a hotspot of climate change. The Med­iterranean Experts of Climate and Envi­ronmental Change (MedEcc) have con­firmed for the Mediterranean region the climate change trends hypothesised by the IPCC, providing a scenario with an average temperature increase of around 2°C, an increase in sea level from 6 to 11 centimetres, a 5-10% reduction in precipitation, and an increase in frequen­cy of extreme events such as drought, heat waves and torrential rain by the end of the century (MedEcc, 2019; Quaglia­rotti, 2019).

Although the whole region is highly ex­posed to the effects of climate change, some countries are more at risk than oth­ers. The impacts of global warming, in fact, vary not only according to the expo­sure to climate risk, but also by the de­gree of vulnerability, or the geographical conditions and socioeconomic and insti­tutional features of the affected areas. A useful indicator to measure countries’ vulnerability to climate change and the level of preparedness to face it is the No­tre Dame-Global Adaptation Index (ND-GAIN), a composite index that brings to­gether over 74 variables to form 45 core indicators to measure vulnerability and readiness to climate change and other global challenges of 192 UN countries from 1995 to the present. The ND-GAIN assesses countries’ vulnerability consid­ering six life-supporting sectors, namely, food, water, health, ecosystem services, human systems and infrastructure, and capturing three dimensions of vulnera­bility: exposure, sensitivity, and adaptive capacity. It also notes the readiness of individual countries to respond to the ef­fects of climate change examining social, governance, and economic ability to lev­erage investments towards adaptation measures. Vulnerability and readiness scores range from 0 to 1 to facilitate the comparison among countries, while the ND-GAIN score ranges from 0 to 100 using the following formula:

ND-GAIN score = (Readiness score – Vulnerability score +1) * 50.

According to the ND-GAIN index, some Mediterranean countries, due to their geographical location or socioeconomic and political conditions, are more vul­nerable to the impact of climate change and/or less ready to take effective adap­tation action than others. As data shows, most of the SEMCs have a higher lev­el of vulnerability to climate change and a lower level of readiness because, in addition to their greater geographical exposure and environmental fragility, a large share of their economies depends on climate-sensitive sectors, such as agriculture, where over the years, poor governance choices aimed at achieving economic efficiency objectives, indicat­ing an initial weakness in terms of risk mitigations and long-term planning, have weakened resilience, relegating social and environmental sustainability criteria to the background. Moreover, their adap­tive capacity is limited due to financial constraints, as well as institutional weak­ness and poor technological capability (IOM, 2008) (Table 1).

While the presence of fragile ecosys­tems and climate-sensitive sectors increases the level of vulnerability to climate change in the SEMCs, global warming will exacerbate the phenomena of scarcity and qualitative degradation of natural resources. Changing rainfall patterns and increasing temperature are projected to decrease water supply by between 10 and 30%, while sea level rise will cause seawater intrusion into coastal aquifers, making water unusable for agricultural and drinking purposes (Adger et al., 2014).

Table 1. Notre Dame-Global Adaptation Index (ND-GAIN Index)

Source: University of Notre Dame, 2018.

Changes in temperature and rainfall re­gimes associated with extreme weather events will also have a negative impact on crop yields, which can only be partially offset by the so-called “carbon fertilisation effect”.[6] The greatest losses will occur once again in the SEMCs, which could record, by the end of the century, a de­crease in agricultural production of up to 50% if effective adaptation strategies are not adopted (Müller et al., 2010). Lower agricultural productivity will deteriorate the level of food self-sufficiency, increas­ing countries’ dependence on agri-food imports and making them extremely vul­nerable to fluctuations in international ag­ricultural prices (Quagliarotti, 2018a).

Coastal areas are particularly exposed to the impact of climate change due to sea level rise, which could affect large areas where high percentages of urban population and production activities are concentrated. Forecasts suggest that of all the Mediterranean countries, Egypt could suffer the most significant losses in terms of gross domestic product (GDP) (6-16%) as well as in terms of population (10-20%), urban areas (6-12%) and ag­ricultural land (15-35%) affected (Das­gupta et al., 2007) (Table 2).

Table 2. The impact of sea level rise in North African countries, percentage

Source: Dasgupta et al., 2007.

According to a report carried out by the Arab Forum for Environmental and Development (AFED), the variations in­duced by global warming will also signif­icantly damage biological diversity (Aba­za et al., 2011).[7] It has been estimated that an increase in the terrestrial temper­ature by between 2 and 6°C in addition some species, will change behaviours in biotic elements in order to adapt, thereby changing the ways in which natural and social systems interact as well as comto determining the disappearance of promising natural resources and ecosys­tem services on which humans depend (Table 3).[8]

Table 3. Endangered species in SEMCs

Source: Saab, 2017.

The anthropogenic pressure caused by economic development and population growth associated with the impact of climate change may also deteriorate the physical, chemical and biological prop­erties of soils. Unsustainable agricultural practices, excessive concentration of in­frastructures and economic activities in the most productive areas and land use changes are all factors that, with different degrees between the two shores of the Basin, can trigger severe degrada­tion processes that limit the main eco­logical functions of soils.­ In particular, in the SEMCs the phenomena of soil degradation are essentially linked to the demographic pressure, unsustainable agricultural practices, territorial fragmentations due to poor urban and mobility planning, extractive industries, and grad­ual marginalisation of nomadic practic­es. Sustained population growth rates coupled with scarce availability of fertile ­ land per person, favouring deforestation, marginal lands utilisation, agricultural intensification and overgrazing. Excesland still result in a decline in agricultural sive exploitation of structurally fragile land lacking adequate vegetation cover ­ increases water and wind erosion, accelerating the process of desertification, contributing to climate disruptions and collapse of biodiversity and amplifying the impacts of global warming such as fires, droughts and floods (Tables 4-5). ­

Table 4. Land degradation caused by water and wind erosion in SEMCs (1,000 ha)

Source: FAO & ITPS, 2015.

Table 5. Desertified area and the area threatened by desertification in some SEMCs, 2012

Source: Saab, 2017.

In the Mediterranean basin, the effects of climate change represent not only a ma­jor risk factor but a “threats multiplier”. In the SEMCs, affected by the lack of two key resources for human livelihood, namely, water and fertile soil, and by a growing anthropogenic pressure on nat­ural systems, climate change can take the role of a “hidden variable” in fostering migratory flows and in triggering social discontent, all factors that are likely to have a spillover and cascading effect on the whole Mediterranean area.

Climate change as a “threat multiplier” in the Mediterranean region

The SEMCs face a unique situation in the wake of changing environmental and climate conditions, which are made even more complex by the political and social instability that historically affects these countries. The main climate-fragility risks that threaten the stability of the region are water scarcity and food insecurity, and the first signs of these destabilising elements are already manifesting.

Water scarcity is the element that binds, through a complicated system of inter­connections, climate change, living con­ditions, and political instability. In 2012, the American intelligence community published a study on possible wars be­ing triggered by the control over trans­boundary waters (ICA, 2012). According to the report, the danger of water-relat­ed conflicts is destined to worsen in the coming years due to population growth that will demand more and more water and the simultaneous decrease in water availability caused primarily by the effects of anthropogenic pressure and amplified by climate change, which, coupled, break the hydrogeological cycle. These factors, combined with poverty, social tension and institutional weakness, contribute to jeopardising the level of stability within countries. The study identifies the MENA region among the potential crisis areas. In the SEMCs, severe water stress, as­sociated with a high percentage of water dependency, in a scenario in which the effects of climate change will become in­creasingly intense and frequent, amplifies the degree of tension related to water as well as the multiplicity of roles that the re­source can play in any conflicts (Table 6).

Several studies attribute a non-marginal role to the drought in the escalation of social tensions that led to the outbreak of the Syrian civil war in 2011 (Kelley et al., 2015; Werrell & Femia, 2013).

Although it cannot be denied that an ex­treme climatic event such as drought act­ed as a sort of “hidden variable” in ampli­fying the dissatisfaction with the Assad regime, its explanatory weight must be calibrated considering the context fac­tors in the period preceding drought and social discontent.

Table 6. Status of water resources in the Mediterranean countries

Source: FAO (2021), AQUASTAT Database.

Between 2006 and 2011 Syria recorded the strongest wave of drought in contem­porary history, which according to experts is closely related to global warming of an­thropic origin. What made Syria particularly vulnerable to drought was water scarcity. In Syria, the water crisis is not only “natu­ral”, linked to the scarce availability of wa­ter sources, but also “induced”, the result of an agricultural policy reform adopted in the late 1960s, which neglected the prin­ciples of environmental sustainability.[10] The increase the production of crops considneed to expand the agricultural land and ered “strategic” from an economic and commercial point of view but highly wa­ter intensive such as wheat, cotton and sugar cane favoured a water manage­ment model mainly supply-oriented. The construction of large-scale dams and deep well pump systems has contributed to the deterioration of the country’s wa­ter resources. The impact of drought and the impossibility of relying on an addition­al supply of irrigated water forced the country to import wheat in 2008 for the first time in 15 years.­[11] The breakdown of the environmental balance triggered by drought occurred simultaneously with the breakdown of the economic balance prompted by the country’s transition from a planned economy model to a social market economy. The dual objective of mitigating public debt and embarking on a process of economic liberalisation in order to integrate the Syrian econo­my into the global economic system and the World Trade Organization (WTO) pushed the government, starting with the tenth five-year plan (2006-2010), to abolish state subsidies in the agricultural sector. The adverse climate conditions associated with the insufficient support for the agricultural sector led to a de­cline in agricultural production and the exodus of 1.5 million farmers forced to move into urban centres. The lack of an effective government strategy to mitigate the migratory pressure, the poor socio­economic conditions in urban areas, and the failure of the Assad regime in developing effective adaptation strategies cre­ated the conditions for the outbreak of a humanitarian crisis, which contributed to the political instability. ­

Climate change, especially if causing food insecurity, might weaken the eco­nomic or political strength of a state, as the Arab Springs have shown. The food crises of the new millennium highlighted the political risk deriving from the exces­sive dependence of Arab countries on food imports in an international market increasingly conditioned by climatic fac­tors and, therefore, highly unstable and unpredictable. In the SEMCs, the nex­us between climate change, arable land and water limits the agricultural potential, contributing to low food self-sufficiency rates and, consequently, attributing to in­ternational trade a key role in achieving macro-level food security. As domestic production of water-intensive food is not an efficient way of using scarce natural resources, governments have generally adopted a trade-oriented food security strategy based on the neoclassical theo­ry of international comparative advantag­es. In this way, they have “externalised” the pressure on internal water supply im­porting water in “virtual” form but have simultaneously increased the level of vul­nerability to the dynamics of international market for agricultural products (Figure 1 and Table 7).[12]

Figure 1. Net virtual water imports in the SEMCs (106 m3)

Source: Prepared by the author based on data from Mekonnen & Hoekstra, 2011.

Table 7. Self-sufficiency ratio in total food commodities and cereals in SEMCs

Source: Saab, 2017.

The first manifestation of this precarious balance emerged with the extraordinary spikes in food prices occurred in 2007- 2008 and 2010-2011.[13] Although the Arab Springs cannot be traced back to a single matrix, it is undeniable that the increase in food prices contributed to undermining the “social pact” in the so-called “bread democracies”, partly becoming the deto­nator of the Arab revolts.[14]

The fear of no longer being able to rely on a constant supply of food at afforda­ble prices led some MENA countries to “externalise” agricultural production through the acquisition of fertile land abroad (land deals or land grabbing) (Cotula et al., 2009). The dynamics of speculation on natural resources linked to the large-scale land acquisitions risk increasing the likelihood of conflict within some strategic international water ba­sins, such as the Nile River basin. The growing interest from public and private investors in the acquisition of arable land in Sudan, South Sudan and Ethiopia has lent impetus to the launch of new hydraulic infrastructures. The Merowe dam, inaugurated in Sudan in 2009, and the more recent Grand Ethiopian Re­naissance Dam (GERD) in Ethiopia are already fuelling tensions between ripari­an states. Egypt, being the downstream riparian of the Nile River system, fears for a significant reduction in the water flow downstream, which may hinder the realisation of the New Valley or the Toshka and the Southern Egypt Development Project (Cascão, 2008). Also called “Egypt’s hope for the 21st centu­ry”, the project aims to create a second Nile Valley making the desert bloom in the southwestern part of the country by diverting 10% of the Nile water flow via the Toshka canal (Heggy et al., 2021). Large-scale projects linked to land grab­bing, such as hydraulic infrastructures and monocultures, show how some ad­aptation strategies adopted by investor countries to cope with climate change can contribute to environmental deterio­ration and resources exploitation in host countries, increasing their vulnerability to global warming and fuelling tensions between states over shared and scarce resources. ­

What emerges is that in a context of combined effect of natural resources scarcity and climate change impact, global warming can act as a “threat mul­tiplier” and the lack of access to water and food can undermine livelihoods and social well-being. When governments fail to address these impending humanitari­an and environmental crises, it leaves the door open for further political discontent. These vulnerabilities often give rise to a climate induced “domino effect” which, through the intensification of migratory flows, risks spilling over into the entire Mediterranean region.

Such a scenario reveals the urgency not only of undertaking a combined action of climate change mitigation and adapta­tion strategies but also of implementing measures able to decrease the level of vulnerability to environmental stress.

The New Agenda for the Mediterranean between constraints and opportunities and the way forward

9 February 2021 is a historic date in the framework of the Barcelona Process. The European Commission (EC) and the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy presented in a Joint Communication di­rected to the other EU institutions a new, ambitious and innovative Agenda for the Mediterranean (EC & EU HR/VP, 2021). The purpose has been to relaunch and strengthen the strategic partnership be­tween the EU and its southern neigh­bourhood partners to turn common eco­nomic, social, political and environmental challenges into opportunities, in a mutual interest approach. To achieve this objec­tive, the document identifies a range of actions along five key policy areas: 1) hu­man development, good governance and the rule of law; 2) resilience, prosperity and digital transition; 3) peace and secu­rity; 4) migration and mobility; 5) green transition: climate resilience, energy and environment.

At the core of the New Agenda is the adoption of a people-centred approach to promote a just and inclusive green transition. In line with the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, the Par­is Agreement and the European Green Deal, it aims at strengthening environ­ment, energy and climate change resil­ience in order to mitigate risks to human lives and livelihoods and promote sus­tainable development, job creation and transition to high value sectors. In such a way, the EU expects to promote sus­tainable resources management, protect and restore biodiversity, fight against ma­rine and terrestrial pollution, develop sus­tainable food systems, and encourage its Mediterranean partners to increase their climate ambitions. To meet these ends, the EU and its southern partners will engage strategically with international financial institutions that will help coordi­nate efforts on sustainable investments, spur long-term socioeconomic recovery, promote sustainable development, face the region’s structural imbalances, and exploit countries’ economic potential (Bilal, 2021). Furthermore, following the 2021 Council Conclusions on Climate and Energy Diplomacy (Council of the EU, 2021),[15] the Joint Communication also recognises the nexus between cli­mate change and security and includes the proposition to reinforce and integrate works on the interdependency between climate, security and defence.

The vision that persists in the EU’s inter­nal and external policies has profoundly influenced the approaches and objectives of the New Agenda as the key di­rections and policy areas proposed by the Joint Communication corroborate. Although the New Agenda aims at the shift towards climate and environmen­tal resilience, it fails in recognising cli­mate and environmental changes as a cross-cutting challenge that needs to be tackled in an integrated way and, hence, in considering green transition as a precondition for the progress of all Eu­ro-Mediterranean strategic priorities. ­

Moreover, even though the renewed partnership explicitly refers to the cli­mate change-security nexus, mirroring the state of play of the European Climate Policy and following the evolution of the EU’s security policies in incorporating climatic risks, the prevailing piecemeal and silo approaches of the New Agenda mean that most of the efforts are about reducing carbon emissions. As a result, climate change mitigation measures are seen as an effective strategy to reduce risks and ensure long-term stability in the Mediterranean region and emis­sions targets have taken on the role of a kind of security policy by default rather than representing one of the actions to be integrated into a broader ecological transition and into an effective securi­ty-oriented approach (Colombier, 2021; Lazard, 2021).16 Furthermore, as can also be detected by the European Green Deal, the geopolitical repercussions of the low-carbon transition, i.e., the EU relationships with important neighbourhood oil and gas-exporting countries as well as the potential weakening of their economic and political systems caused by the necessary structural changes and the achievement of higher economic di­versification are not addressed at the Euro-Mediterranean level, with the risk of creating a dangerous climate miti­gation-security nexus (Leonard et al., 2021). [17] ­Finally, climate concerns are largely absent from European migration policies as well as from the migration and mobility policy area of the Joint Communication. The inclusion of environmental factors among the push factors of mi­gration is still struggling to come up to date. Although the Communication of the European Commission “Lives in Dignity: from Aid-dependence to Self-Reliance” and the Council Conclusions on forced displacement both address climate change as an aggravating factor forcing even more people to flee, violent conflicts are still contemplated as the key factor in forced migration (EC, 2016a; 2016b). ­

As the above analysis illustrates, despite the EU’s robust rhetoric, the integrated approach remains confined to a frame­work, failing to represent a real strategy and to become an effective action-ori­ented tool for building societal resilience and enhancing environmental security. What emerges is a persistent silo-based approach that prevents the EU from systemically linking human, societal and ecological issues, leading to the launch of strategies that only respond to one narrow element of what is a multifaceted crisis. As a consequence, mitigation and adaptation strategies as well as resilience and climate security continue to be only partially integrated across sectors and programmes in common policies, including the European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP).[18]

The Mediterranean region needs to adopt a more holistic approach as a fundamental means for creating both natural and socioeconomic systems’ resilience and ensuring inclusive long-term sustainability (EC & EU HR/VP, 2021). Rather than simply adding cli­mate change risk components to its existing policy frameworks, the EU needs to support far-reaching system­ic change that goes beyond the Green Deal and the one-dimensional focus on decarbonisation (Youngs, 2021).[19]  As well pointed out in a Carnegie Eu­rope’s study, the Mediterranean coun­tries must co-evolve a regional version of the regenerative economy, adopting a people-and-planet-centred perspec­tive for building local, national and re­gional societies and economies able to couple income generation, job creation, poverty reduction, fair distribution, and inclusiveness for human prosperity with safeguarding the Earth system (Elking­ton & Evans, 2021). From a security perspective, it implies the shift from the current conceptualisation of climate security to a more ambitious and complex notion of ecological security (Lazard, 2021). Tackling this wider ecological challenge is essential to redefining the concept of security in the framework of planetary boundaries whose thresh­olds are being dangerously crossed (David, 2021). In doing so, the urgency of addressing the challenges of climate change can accelerate the path towards a real green and inclusive transition as theoretically advocated by the Joint Communication, turning climate change from a “threat multiplier” into an “oppor­tunities multiplier”. ­

Given humanity’s need to transition to a fully sustainable economy within the next decade, the New Agenda for the Mediterranean represents just a step­ping-stone towards a broader system change (Pastukhova et al., 2020).

For this shift to happen, the following recommendations in the framework of the Euro-Mediterranean Partnership (EMP) are proposed:

  • Deepen the knowledge and under­standing of the interlinkages between climate change and security and inter­nalise this knowledge into mitigation and adaptation strategies and plans;
  • Follow an integrated and holistic ap­proach by adding environmental con­cerns into decision-making processes at all levels;
  • Translate the rhetoric on “transforma­tive change”, intended as a complete system shift to prioritise “people, plan­et and prosperity” equally into effective policies and actions;
  • Move beyond climate security toward ecological diplomacy, implementing a broader environmental and security agenda, seeking to reverse ecological insecurity through complex regenera­tion;
  • Incorporate climate-related factors into actions designed to predict and prevent conflicts and migration to anticipate migratory flows and potential security risks and adopt a forward-looking re­sponse;
  • Strengthen the commitment to co­operation-based, collective security strategies and actions, placing great­er emphasis on improving governance in resource-stressed Mediterranean countries;
  • Strengthen the EU’s commitment to helping neighbouring oil and gas-ex­porting countries to manage the reper­cussions of the European Green Deal and adapt to the low-carbon transition, engaging with these countries to foster their economic diversification, includ­ing renewable energy that could in the future be exported to Europe;
  • Improving the science-policy dialogue to co-create the actionable knowledge, which is needed to design and imple­ment effective policies.

Concluding remarks

In the last few years, unprecedented converging crises such as the global financial, climate and inequality crises and, more recently, the COVID-19 pan­demic have described a tale of the risks we confront as we go deeper into a new geological epoch described as the An­thropocene, or the age of humans. In a context of scarcity of two strategic re­sources for human survival, such as fer­tile land and water, and in a scenario of increasing destabilisation of the Earth’s climate, the weight of climatic and envi­ronmental factors as explanatory varia­bles in threatening human well-being and exacerbating instability risks within and between countries becomes more signif­icant. As new studies suggest, climate change and environmental degradation will reshape the geopolitical landscape at the regional and global level, making the correlation between environment and security ever more stringent. In 2007, the Advisory Board of the US Depart­ment of Defense considered climate change as a “threat multiplier” capable of amplifying pre-existing conflicts (CNA, 2007). Seven years later, the same mil­itary institution hypothesised that in the future climate change could become a real catalyst for conflict; that is, an active force in causing conflicts (CNA, 2014). Such awareness requires the need to redesign development pathways by fully accounting for the dangerous pressures that humans put on the planet, in order to operate within a “just and safe space for humanity” as well as to rethink the geostrategic challenges and priorities by adding the environmental dimension.

In such a framework, the Mediterrane­an region emerges significantly, stand­ing out as a coupled social-ecological system based on the co-evolution and interaction between natural and human factors, but also as a human-designed system affected by a disproportioned influence and control of human factors over ecological elements and where multiple and complex environmental, so­cial, political and economic determinants threaten sustainable development in all its dimensions.

The Mediterranean region is considered a hotspot of climate change. Data sug­gests that the effects of global warming will have different intensity and dura­tion and will generate unequal impacts depending on the physical and natural vulnerability of territories, the level of economic development, the adaptive ca­pacity of human systems, the resilience of ecosystems, and the effectiveness of mitigation, prevention and precautionary measures. Projections show that the SEMCs will be the first to suffer the con­sequences of worsening climatic condi­tions and this may lead to a widening of the development gap between the two shores with a cascading effect in terms of migration flows that would have reper­cussions throughout the region. In the SEMCs, excessive dependence on food imports in a context of increasing uncer­tainty in climatic conditions and loss of confidence in international markets risk amplifying social discontent as the rev­olutionary storm referred to as the Arab Spring demonstrated. Furthermore, in a scenario in which the effects of climate change will become more intense and frequent, water may become a non-con­ventional weapon, as the Syrian conflict has shown, or a contested strategic re­source, as the dispute over water in the Nile River basin clearly is pointing out.

The analysis of climate change implica­tions for the Mediterranean countries illus­trates how different security risks posed by global warming interact with each other, highlighting the necessity for poli­cy-makers to pay careful attention to how these interactions may affect a given the­matic issue or geographical area as well as preventing their potential cascading effect. In such a scenario, climate change is likely to act as a threat multiplier as its impacts may place additional pressure on already scarce resources and reinforce pre-existing challenges such as poverty, unemployment and political instability as well as competition over shared water resources, amplifying fragility and conflict risks. Although the climate-security nex­us is at the centre of a lively political and scientific debate, research on the extent and strength of its causative relationship remains inconclusive, lacking a sufficient theoretical underpinning. Empirical stud­ies support the assumption that there is not a deterministic sequence that automat­ically and directly links climate change and instability. Rather, the relationship is mul­tifaceted and context dependent, occur­ring when climate change interacts with a wider web of existing socio-political and economic grievances that may exacerbate drivers of conflicts. Hence, the risks that climate change presents to security in the Mediterranean region need to be studied as a function of both natural forces and societal factors. Moreover, the vulnerabili­ty to climate-induced conflicts needs to be addressed by mitigating climate change, adapting related socioeconomic systems, managing the increased competition in the use of resources, building institutional ca­pacity for enhancing resilience and facing environmental risks, and promoting coor­dination across policy areas.

While the EU has made significant ad­vances in incorporating climate change into its security-related policies, becom­ing more committed to the nexus between climate change, security and defence, a significant “Achilles’ heel” still persists. The main weakness relates to the prev­alence of a silo approach in identifying the impacts of and responses to climate change, neglecting its overlapping neg­ative effects as well as overlooking im­portant prevention, precautionary and adaptation measures. Furthermore, little importance is still attributed to environ­mental factors in explaining complex phenomena, such as migration flows and conflicts as well as to the role of govern­ance, including institutions, norms and policy practices, in both exacerbating potential risks and promoting resilience. In addition, most efforts still focus on mit­igation actions and on achieving climate neutrality, considered the best way to face climate change and to avoid climatic se­curity issues, attributing less importance to complementary adaptation measures and overlooking the more complex and systemic project of ecological security.

The narrow way in which the EU concep­tualises climate security is also reflected in the New Agenda for the Mediterranean. The renewed EMP, in proposing a new, ambitious and innovative Agenda to turn common issues into opportunities in a mu­tual interest approach, represents a robust start, but the challenges now facing the Mediterranean region are increasingly sys­temic and thus demand systemic respons­es. This requires considerable efforts to embrace a paradigm shift in order to recog­nise climate security as a fundamental pre­condition for achieving the broader goal of human security. Furthermore, the spillover, cross-cutting and transboundary effects of climate and environmental changes in the Mediterranean region call for more effec­tive and integrated policy responses as well as for prioritising environmental issues and sustainable development within the framework of the ENP.

To ensure that critical, non-convention­al risks to regional security like climate change are anticipated, analysed and addressed systematically requires an ad­aptation of existing institutional structures and an evolution of current policies. The objective of fostering a green, resilient and just recovery transition and the proposition of reinforcing and integrating works on the interdependency between climate, securi­ty and defence stressed by the renewed EMP must go beyond the implementation of climate change mitigation measures and the vision of considering decarbonisation as the “silver bullet” to guarantee peace and security (Lazard, 2021). What it takes is a real transformative change, which considers planetary and social bounda­ries simultaneously. And it is in this space of intersection that a new development pathway must move to ensure the sustain­able use of resources and the reduction of environmental impacts as well as the pro­motion of economic, social and territorial cohesion. In doing so, the challenge of cli­mate change may look like a “window of opportunity” in triggering a green, resilient and just transition, turning climate change from a “threat multiplier” into an “opportu­nities multiplier”.

In the Mediterranean region, the new ge­opolitical landscape drawn by climate and environmental changes calls for a more comprehensive strategy that responds to and prepares for climate-induced in­security and instability. Fundamental to achieving this goal is replacing the peo­ple-centred perspective of the EU’s re­newed partnership with the southern neighbourhood with a more holistic peo­ple-and-planet-centred perspective. As already argued by experts, the Green Deal-style solutions would be a useful start (Elkington & Evans, 2021). Accord­ingly, the New Agenda for the Mediter­ranean constitutes a first step towards a fundamental and crucial reworking of the Euro-Mediterranean “project”. Identifying the best approach of such a project re­quires continued dialogue and collabora­tion between science and policy.


[1] The Rockefeller Foundation-Lancet Commission on Planetary Health recognises that human and plan­etary health are inextricably linked. As climate and environmental changes continue to destroy habitats and livelihoods, infectious diseases will spread more easily and rapidly through populations (Sacks et al., 2021).

[2] For a comprehensive list, see: The Center for Climate and Security, Climate Security 101 Project,

[3] It should be noted, however, that the CNA Corporation, seven years after the publication of the first report, pointed out that “[T]he projected impacts of climate change will be more than threat multipliers; they will serve as catalysts for instability and conflict. In Africa, Asia, and the Middle East, we are already seeing how the impacts […] are posing security challenges to these regions’ governments. We see these trends growing and accelerating” (CNA Corporation, 2014).

[4] Indeed, climate change can contribute to violence and conflicts but it is not the unique cause. In a paper published by Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) (2020), the authors, by analysing research on the linkages between climate change and conflicts, identify four different pathways from climate change to conflict risks, namely, livelihoods, migration and mobility, armed group tactics, and elite exploitation. Moreover, these four different pathways also illustrate under which circumstances climate change increases the risk of conflicts.

[5] The growing permeability of boundaries due to market integration and interdependence between coun­tries means that any event that occurs locally obeys the law of the “domino effect”, influencing culturally diverse and geographically distant realities.

[6] The carbon dioxide (CO2) fertilisation effect or carbon fertilisation effect is the enhanced vegetation productivity driven by increased CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere.

[7] The impacts of climate change on biodiversity have been the subject of numerous studies which show that global warming represents a serious threat to biodiversity loss since even minimal variations in tem­perature can trigger irreversible transformations.

[8] Although temperature is the most significant climatic parameter, changes in the rainfall regime, relative humidity, solar radiation, wind intensity, CO2 concentration, and evapotranspiration are all factors that negatively affect the biodiversity.

[9] The biophysical soil functions include nutrient cycling, C storage and turnover, water maintenance, soil structure arrangement, regulation of aboveground diversity, biotic regulation, buffering, and the transfor­mation of potentially harmful elements and compounds (e.g., heavy metals and pesticides).

[10] In addition to internal factors in the water exploitation levels, we must also consider the external factors linked to the geographical position of Syria. As a downstream country of an international river basin, it is strongly constrained in terms of access to the resource by the water policy choices of the upstream country: Turkey.

[11] The increase in cereal imports coincided with the 2007-2008 global food crisis, which led to a 100% increase in international agricultural commodity prices.

[12] The term “virtual water” was coined by the geographer Tony Allan in the 1990s to indicate water embodied in the production of food and fibre as well as in non-food commodities, including energy (Allan, 1998).

[13] Also in this case, it is possible to identify a link between global food crises, riots and climate change. Widespread food production, especially in major agricultural exporting countries, triggered by extreme climatic events, contributed to the rise in agricultural commodity prices in global markets (Werrell & Femia, 2013).

[14] For several years the Arab countries have entrusted their political stability to the development of a mod­el defined as “authoritarian bargain”, a social contract between states and citizens based on the exchange of social services and necessities at subsidised prices and the renunciation of the full enjoyment of political and civil rights. In the case of foodstuffs, despite causing profound distortions within agricultural markets, subsidies performed the function of “social safety nets” (Galal & Selim, 2013).

[15] The January 2021 Council Conclusions on Climate and Energy Diplomacy is the most comprehensive document to date on the external dimension of the Green Deal. The document urges third countries to go further in their climate ambitions and to phase out fossil fuel subsidies. It also includes a reiteration of the EU’s commitment to adaptation and resilience, to scaling up international climate finance, and to support­ing measures of the green transition in selected parts of the world (Teevan et al., 2021).

[16] The EU’s use of the term “threat multiplier”, for example, seems to have translated into a confined as­sumption that considers climate change mitigation as the most fruitful “threat minimiser” choice (Remling & Barnhoorn, 2021).

[17] Fossil fuels are a major source of wealth for the SEMCs with large domestic endowments. Rents from the exploitation of these resources can amount to 25% of GDP and the government revenues collected can represent a substantial share of total government revenues. Climate change creates investment op­portunities as well as risks for sovereign wealth funds and strategic investment funds. On the one hand, low-carbon infrastructure and development of low-carbon technology could provide attractive investment opportunities. On the other, sovereign wealth funds in resource-rich countries are likely to have their port­folios exposed to increased climate risks, including both physical risk to portfolio assets, arising i.e., from extreme weather events, and transition risk arising from sudden asset price decreases triggered by the in­troduction of mitigation climate policy or rapid change in consumer preferences (Elgouacem et al., 2019).

[18] The weakness of a silo approach clearly emerges in the case of the Water-Energy-Food (WEF) nexus. Current sectoral approaches to climate change mitigation and adaptation may amplify rather than reduce negative externalities and trade-offs within the nexus. While some sector-oriented mitigation and adaptation measures have the potential to trigger synergistic “win-win” opportunities across sectors, oth­er measures, such as hydropower, first generation biofuels, agricultural intensification, and the shift to non-conventional water sources, such as desalinated water, are not always nexus-smart (Giordano & Quagliarotti, 2020; Quagliarotti, 2018b).

[19] The absence of integrated strategies for climate change explicitly aimed at institutional change and aligned with the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) will mean climate trends are also likely to worsen (Tàbara et al., 2019).


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