When it comes to national security, the climate crisis is just as – if not more – threatening than traditional concerns like conflict and war. How can Germany embrace climate action?
As Germany prepares for its first ever national security strategy, there is broad agreement that its security environment is becoming more challenging. On top of an accumulating list of global non-traditional security threats, Russia’s all-out invasion of Ukraine earlier this year has shaken the foreign policy assumptions of Germany – the country perhaps most eager to believe in the end of history. To many, this feels like a “back to the future” moment in which great power rivalry supersedes attempts of and hopes for building a better world.
For this reason, Berlin may be tempted to focus its national security strategy primarily on the immediate and traditional foreign policy challenge of countering military threats (something that is necessary and has long been neglected by much of Germany’s political class) and to relegate sustainability to a feel-good side note in the document. But it should resist this temptation.
The current war in Europe is intimately linked to the climate crisis. Russia’s aggression has been financially enabled through other states’ dependency on its fossil fuel supplies. War and climate change also exacerbate each other through the terrible consequences they wreak on vulnerable populations around the world, including food price spikes and growing food insecurity. These consequences stem from the confluence of droughts in many different parts of the world and the global food shortages caused by Russia’s attack.
Human Security Is Systemically Important
However, the climate crisis is not just an aspect of this particular war: it is a fundamental and massive threat to human security around the world and to the foundations of our civilization. A rapidly changing climate threatens the availability of and access to food and water in many regions, while simultaneously increasing health and disaster hazards – to an extent that calls the very habitability of significant parts of the world into question. The destabilization potential linked to these challenges poses significant risks for peace and stability. Human security may sound like a plea for do-goodery, but when viewed at scale, it is systemically important.
What does this mean for Germany’s national security strategy? Global public goods – above all, a habitable planet – are a precondition for our security. Consequently, a viable security strategy must ensure that these preconditions are safeguarded. Fully confronting the ecological threats to our civilization is obviously beyond the power of traditional security policy instruments (or any single state). But that does not mean that we can largely ignore them. Instead, our entire policymaking system needs to be harnessed and aligned with these fundamental objectives. This implies that the global security consequences of domestic policies need to play a much larger role in national policymaking.
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly
Three examples illustrate this point. Over the past 20 years, Germany has massively subsidized the roll-out of renewable energy. As many critics have pointed out, these efforts have had only a limited direct effect on emissions. The reasons for this are straightforward: Germany only emits roughly 2% of global greenhouse gases, it is not geographically best placed for harnessing renewables, and overall EU emissions were capped under the EU’s emissions trading system for much of this time. But, despite this, Berlin’s renewable energy policy had a real, positive and transformative impact: it helped to drive down the cost of renewable technology globally. The fact that it contributed to tackling the far more important 98% of emissions beyond Germany’s borders makes this policy exemplary – and it could have been even more effective had it systematically targeted these global effects, e.g., by investing more of its several hundred billion Euro subsidies into continuous innovation and complementary technologies rather than rewarding roll-out.
However, when it comes to Berlin’s energy policy, the good is mixed with the bad and the ugly. Germany’s promotion of renewable energy was accompanied by significant investments into Russian gas imports, with gas hailed as a “bridging technology”. Mind you, Nord Stream 2 was not an official German policy but a “private enterprise project”, as successive governments in Berlin have emphasized. However, as we all (should) now know, it is not just German society, but large parts of (central) Eastern Europe and, above all, Ukraine that are paying the price for a domestic political decision whose global political risks were downplayed and misinterpreted.
The bad news does not end there. While Berlin’s elites have mostly distanced themselves from the earlier Russia policy and Chancellor Scholz was quick to announce a “new era” (Zeitenwende) in German security policy, one of the early, ugly responses to Moscow’s invasion included a temporary discount on German fuel taxes. Driving up domestic demand for fossil fuels was in clear contradiction to Germany’s foreign policy aims, both in terms of countering Russian aggression (greater demand tends to lead to higher fuel prices and thereby more income for the Kremlin) and addressing the climate crisis.
Domestic Politics as National Security
What all three examples – good, bad and ugly – illustrate is that domestic politics reign supreme. Yet, their impacts on Germany’s national security are not systematically assessed in the policymaking process – or if they are, the assessments are side-lined. If we want sustainable national security, this needs to change.
The idea of the primacy of foreign policy, which was popularized by German historians such as Leopold von Ranke in the 19th century and lives on in the realist tradition of international relations theory, claimed that domestic political orders and purposes are subordinate to great power competition. Empirically, that claim has always been dubious, as rival theories of international relations have demonstrated. However, realism contains useful normative guidance: what ultimately counts is not primarily individual intentions, but systemic results. Thus, domestic policies should be assessed against their global consequences – and what these, in turn, mean for national security. To work, that assessment cannot be narrow, but must include our interest in a livable planet and a predictable international order. It is in this sense that we need to establish the primacy of foreign policy.
Thus, the new German security strategy needs to spell out how and why the threats to human security that result from the climate crisis are just as – if not more – threatening than discrete national security challenges. However, it should not stop at simply embracing the Paris Agreement’s objective of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees, or the SDG agenda and its 17 goals for that matter. Germany’s national security strategy also should spell out how it intends to nudge all significant government actors to make these objectives truly central to their decision-making, and systematically so.
Climate Change and Security
Policymaking must reflect the ‘do no harm’ principle at the global level. While Germany cannot safeguard the planetary boundaries by itself, that is no justification for inaction. Sectoral policies around trade, agriculture, transport, infrastructure investment, and social welfare need to be assessed against their implications for national security, including and especially the indirect pathways that comprise their environmental consequences. Prioritizing an ambitious international climate policy is also an investment in national security.
How can complex government decision-making processes operationalize this principle? One way of enhancing awareness would be to make climate and security considerations mandatory for governmental decisions. There are precedents: German Cabinet decisions (whether they are fiscally relevant or just about sending a police officer into a UN operation) spell out the expected consequences of that decision on inflation. If that seems excessive, I agree. However, there is a much better case to force policymakers to spell out the impacts of their decisions with respect to national security, including the climate crisis, so as to nudge them to consider these explicitly.
Beyond incorporating security concerns into governmental decision-making at large, the German Federal Foreign Office could also spell out its self-commitment to climate and conflict sensitivity. This could include committing to systematically assess whether all of its projects, programs and strategies are climate-sensitive in terms of contributing as little as possible to climate change while being sustainable in the climate-changed world we will be living in. This would mean ensuring that humanitarian and stabilization programming take the (impending) impacts of climate change into account and build peace and resilience into a climate-impacted society. As detailed in a recent DGAP brief, it would also means shifting fossil dependencies into more progressive energy partnerships.
At the same time, it is important to ensure that our climate policies (which we need at scale) are conflict-sensitive. Fundamentally, this means avoiding that marginalized groups – whether at the community, national or continental level – are asked to bear the largest burden of adapting. This implies foregoing ‘easy solutions’, such as blanket bio-fuel mandates that risk driving up food insecurity and instability in other countries through the pressures they exert.
Make National Security Sustainable
2022 demonstrated the shortfalls of Germany’s security policy: Berlin clearly underestimated the military dimension of security in its eastern neighborhood. In its upcoming national security strategy, Germany needs to draw lessons from this failure, and it certainly will. However, both its authors and its implementers must not forget the failures of the preceding 20 years of the Global War on Terror, which were failures of too much – not too little – focus on the military instrument. When it comes to Europe’s southern neighborhood, other foreign policy instruments need to become much stronger to address the root causes of conflict.
The core commitment of the “new era” in German foreign policy was the promise to invest an additional 100 billion Euros into Germany’s Armed Forces. But that commitment needs to be matched by investments into structural foreign policy tasks, from helping to address the massive funding shortage in humanitarian aid (including through anticipatory approaches and disaster risk reduction) to supporting states with losses and damages, adaptation and development.
In sum, Germany’s new national security strategy needs to respond to the traditional security challenges that Russia’s aggression has highlighted this year. However, it must not content itself with only beefing up its military capabilities, but should simultaneously help to ensure that Germany’s entire national policymaking apparatus is consistent with the world of (more) peace, prosperity and sustainability it will no doubt rhetorically embrace. Sustainable development is key to structurally lowering the risks of conflict – and thus to German national security.
This op-ed first appeared on 49security – Views on Germany's National Security Strategy on 13 November 2022.