Climate change should be a priority for European foreign policy

February 8th, 2011 by Loretta Minghella

Loretta Minghella is a Director of Christian Aid.  This article was published originally on Public


Governments across the European Union, including the UK, must integrate climate change into their foreign policy agendas and give it top priority.

Less than a generation ago, climate change was something of a ‘fringe’ issue – a distant threat which struggled to compete with more immediate problems such as the cold war and acid rain.

By the 1990s, man-made warming of the earth’s atmosphere had become recognised as a major environmental threat. The vast majority of the world’s governments signed up to the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and, with some notable exceptions, went on to sign the 1997 Kyoto Protocol which commits them to action.

Loretta Minghella of Christian Aid (click image to expand)

Now, nearly two decades on from the convention, it is clear that we’re dealing with something far bigger and more complex than a ‘green’ issue which – like acid rain or the hole in the ozone layer – can be solved with controls on a few culprit chemicals.

The gases which are causing climate change are produced by processes currently fundamental to the affluent lifestyles to which billions of people around the world aspire.

The effects of global warming are also intensely political – they include conflicts over the resources people need in order to survive: land, water, food, fuel and the atmosphere itself.

These are matters which every government – but especially one which aspires to being ‘the greenest government ever’ – has to take extremely seriously.

One stark example of a conflict exacerbated by climate change is the violence in Darfur, Sudan, which the United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki Moon has said was probably caused in part by global warming. As a result of the decline in rainfall over two decades, he suggested, there was no longer enough food and water for everyone who wanted it and one of the outcomes was fighting.

Or take some of last year’s weather-related disasters – the severe droughts and floods in West Africa, the catastrophic flooding in Pakistan and the heatwave in Russia, which damaged the country’s grain harvest and fuelled the rise in grain prices on the international market. That rise, in turn, was linked with food riots in Mozambique.

Scientists are not all of one mind on the extent to which recent events are caused by climate change but they can – and do – say that such extremes will become more common as the world warms. And in an increasingly globalised world where problems in one country ripple out to others, does anyone believe that rich countries themselves are immune?

Migration is probably relevant here, although it is important to say that the vast majority of the world’s refugees and internally displaced people live in poor countries, not rich ones. To give just one example of how climate change could cause people to migrate, the United Nations has estimated that desertification will cause some 60 million people in Sub-Saharan Africa to move towards North Africa and Europe between 1997 and 2020. The impact of such a massive population shift would be profound.

Technology and trade are also important parts of the picture in a warming world. All countries will need clean energy and other technologies to ‘green’ their economies and trade will be an important means of spreading such technologies across the world. It is in everyone’s interest that this happens.

In short, it is clear that dealing with climate change and its consequences will be at the heart of mainstream global politics this century. It is a problem which demands the attention of entire governments, not one which can be shunted off into environment ministries.

Global warming also demands an international solution, since no one country or even continent can solve it alone. Nothing less than a transformation of the global economy is needed and in order to achieve it, governments will have to work together.

Developing countries have a particularly strong moral basis for claiming help from wealthier countries, because they are most vulnerable to the effects of a problem for which they have least historical responsibility. They need to lift their citizens out of poverty – and they and the rest of the world needs them to do so in ways which will not greatly exacerbate the climate crisis.

The larger emerging economies – most notably China, now the world’s largest emitter of carbon dioxide (in aggregate, although not per capita terms) – also have the power to exert a different kind of pressure. Without their participation in a global deal to combat climate change, the rest of the world will have less and less hope of preventing a dangerous level of temperature rise.

Closer to home, it is imperative that the UK and European Union integrate climate change into their foreign policy agendas and give it the top priority it demands. Since the passage of the Kyoto Protocol, Europe has become too keen to engage with the United States and to align its strategy on climate change with US domestic politics, which have so far prevented America tackling global warming with anything like the urgency it deserves.

This willingness to put the United States’ position before the rest of the world has caused Europe to downgrade the views of all the other key players on the climate stage – notably China, India, other emerging economies and also the least developed countries, which are most vulnerable and least to blame.

Putting climate change back at the very top of Europe’s foreign policy agenda will allow the EU, which was historically seen as the leader in global efforts, to tackle the crisis, to regain its global leadership role. It will also help Europe to capitalise on the opportunities for bilateral and regional dialogue as it pushes forward an ambitious, just climate agenda.

(click on Christian Aid to go to website)

This article is from the Public Service website.  Reproduced with permission on Sustainable Guernsey.

  1. No Comments

Have your say