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Climate Justice and Climate Conflicts as a Security Policy Challenge in the 21st Century

Demands for climate justice

In climate ethics, which is a sub-discipline of applied ethics, there has been an intense debate over the substance of demands commonly referred to as demands for “climate justice”.1 Three main focuses have emerged. First, there is a dispute over the fair share of compensation for climate damage. A basic fact of climate change is that the main polluters – the countries and individuals with high emission paths – do not suffer the greatest harm. The damage that is visible today includes flood damage, droughts, periods of extreme heat, land inundation, severe weather events, storms and exceptional precipitation. The people who are ultimately harmed are those who live in the affected regions and have to cope with changing living conditions. Second, there is a discussion about a fair allocation of the dumping space in the atmosphere that is still available for greenhouse gases, without exceeding maximum warming targets.2 This is about distributing the “pollution rights” that can still be allocated without leading to a climate collapse, based on fair principles. However, researchers now think it is very risky not to cut emissions to zero as soon as possible. Third, the rights of individuals are being discussed again in light of a situation where serious changes to environmental and living conditions are occurring, and with regard to the resulting consequences – such as climate migration.

Different claims are asserted in each of these three spheres of climate justice. In general, the issue is one of agreeing on a just and fair sharing of the burdens arising from climate change in a global context. Not only does the “polluter pays” principle apply here, imposing special burdens on rich nations, but also the burdens arising in the pursuit of reduction targets should be distributed justly – this can be called fair burden-sharing. In particular, when it comes to sharing the burdens associated with climate goals, a capacity principle is considered fair: those who are able to do the most should do the most, given the urgency of the situation. All three principles should also be applied to the distribution of burdens imposed by adaptation measures, i.e. adaptation goals, as well as to transformation goals. Apart from dealing with damage, the most costly task in the future is likely to be the shift to climate-neutral technologies and a climate-neutral economy. Actually achieving these goals is not only a matter of justice to future generations; it is equally important that the cost should not be imposed on the weakest.

Climate justice and near-future issues

Many demands for justice are backward-looking, though they are no less important for that. Such demands quantify the just claims of climate victims against the main users of the atmosphere as a dump for large amounts of greenhouse gases. Currently, however, the discussion is taking a new direction. The consequential damages of climate change have assumed such proportions that the costs are now exploding, entire regions of the world are suffering from extreme weather conditions, and countries are losing the capacity to support their populations.3

One consequence of this situation which has received far too little attention is an increasing instability of the international order. It would be naïve to think that the international order was founded on justice. But in a situation where a pragmatic security policy is reaching its limits anyway, demands for climate justice serve as a background factor conducive to a groundbreaking and constructive approach. Above all, states must not get away with hiding in the international arena when faced with just demands. From the standpoint of climate ethics, a number of demands can be formulated with regard to the global context:

  • According to the polluter pays principle and the capacity principle, rich states have an obligation to actively support victims of climate damage, including in the international context. In particular, obligations to support adaptation and transformation efforts are required.4
  • It is not only because the consequential damages can still be limited that an effective reduction of greenhouse gases must take place in the shortest possible time. Rather, the demand is also based on the rights of future generations to a natural inheritance that not only does not imperil their livelihoods and existence, but also continues to enable a life lived in freedom.5
  • In contrast to that which applies to international agreements negotiated between sovereign states, the insistence on voluntariness must be suspended when it comes to duties of constructive and cooperative engagement with climate change. A duty to cooperate on climate goals is a legitimate demand, since climate protection is about cooperating to protect a global and at the same time essential life-sustaining collective good. Accordingly, the global community should be able to punish any failure to act.6
  • Finally, the duty of foresight and the obligation to provide assistance should be discussed. Climate impacts are not limited to disastrous living conditions. They also produce refugees and violent conflicts. From an ethical perspective, protecting people is an absolute requirement that transcends national borders. But to state this requirement more precisely first requires a deeper analysis of security policy considerations.

Climate justice and security policy: the principled dimension

In order to assess the security policy issues associated with climate change, it is necessary to recall the foundations of the international order. A new approach to preventing and outlawing war through the League of Nations and the Kellogg-Briand Pact (1928) seemingly met with little success. However, the creation of the United Nations and the declaration of universal human rights after the Second World War set a clear limit to violent conflicts between states through a system of collective action. Admittedly, however, this has been put to the test on occasion.7 One problem arose in connection with the state’s internal sovereignty and the fact that its actions in relation to its own citizens are difficult to sanction in this system, as the acceptance of this sovereignty was seen – with good reason – as being essential for the avoidance of wars. The limits of this approach became abundantly clear during the wars in the former Yugoslavia, and the genocide in Rwanda (1994). This led to the negotiation of a political “auxiliary construct” referred to as the Responsibility to Protect (R2P). It should be pointed out in particular here that R2P aims to prevent not only violent conflicts but also large-scale violations of human rights in peacetime. It is also possible to intervene with the approval of the UN Security Council, without the consent of the state concerned.8 But what happens if R2P, this so-called third “pillar”, is also applied to climate protection?

Notwithstanding the question of whether this is possible or useful, French president Emmanuel Macron clearly had something similar in mind during the recent Amazon fires. As the rainforest burned, and in view of its importance for the world climate, he offered to provide a French military presence to help protect the forests from arson. Supposedly this was not or could not be adequately provided by the Brazilians themselves. In a reflexive response that might have been predicted, the Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro rejected the proposal out of hand as a colonialist impulse from a former colonial power.9 This episode hit a nerve, which understandably is a recurring theme in discourses around climate targets and how to meet them. Macron’s offer highlights the gulf between the polluter states and those states that end up disastrously affected by the polluter states’ actions – while not even being granted the right to play industrial catch-up.

It remains unanswered whether the French president suggestively referred to R2P and to what extent this political “auxiliary construct” in the field of assistance or even military intervention is the most suitable principle for penalizing actions that harm the climate. But anyway, the question arises in the long-term historical context outlined above of how climate justice and security policy can be linked and reconciled in the 21st century. This will certainly be subject to a number of internal nuances and caveats. The fact remains, however, that the principle on which modern states (and associations of states like the EU) are based – namely that of mobilizing and exploiting resources without limit – has actually become untenable. Unless one willfully closes one’s eyes. Yet a renunciation of national egoism and the quantitative “ever more”, which is surely conceivable and desirable, is blocked from a security policy perspective by the question of what principles can and should guide practice. Climate justice could help to develop guidelines in this context. And these would be at least as demanding as hinted at in the example of protecting the Amazon rainforest and its inhabitants.

Climate justice and security policy: a pragmatic dimension

The outlined considerations on the relationship between climate justice and security policy could be described as proactive, inasmuch as they attempt to take a fundamental look at the problem of climate change, or better: the threat of climate catastrophe, in the context of transnational action. However, security policy always has a side that must act in the here and now, without losing sight of tomorrow and the day after tomorrow. Yet it is precisely here that we are not starting from scratch.

Consideration of climate change has long since found its way into the thought and actions of the German armed forces (Bundeswehr) at institutional and statutory level, for example in their handling of resources or in the “2016 White Paper”. As far as is known, however, no other civilian-military complex on earth has taken a more thorough and comprehensive look at the significance and consequences of climate change than the United States. Surprisingly, this has less to do with political directives than it is rooted in the military’s self-image as a professional institution. It is a course that was embarked upon in the noughties, and maintained even during the Trump era. The consequences of climate change and a constructive approach to its expected development are seen as being of immediate importance to the functioning of the U.S. military.10

Five interlinked scenarios are considered. A first scenario involves humanitarian disasters such as the consequences of Hurricane Matthew in the late summer of 2016, which caused devastation particularly in the Caribbean. A second scenario concerns failing states like Syria, where climate change – as in other scenarios – should always be recognized as a threat multiplier, and never seen in isolation. Third, global impacts of regional events can be expected. One example is the 2010 heatwave in Russia, which led to a shortage of grain on the world market due to a Russian export ban. A fourth scenario consists of possible great power conflicts over resources. The possibility of resource mobilization as Arctic ice melts is seen as the most likely source of conflict at present. The fifth and final scenario considers domestic military deployments, as in the case of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. In all these scenarios, the U.S. military of course does not regard itself as the only instrument capable of crisis management. But it does see itself as being called upon to act as best it can, and to be prepared accordingly.

In view of this pioneering role of the United States in security policy relating to climate change – which will undoubtedly gain an even sharper focus under the new president, Joe Biden – it would seem permissible to ask whether and how Germany intends to establish a clearer profile in this respect. Especially since more resolute statements at national level would be appropriate after the ruling by the German Federal Constitutional Court on the prioritization of climate protection.11 The possible effect of such statements would have to be seen in the context of existing security policy partnerships – but one should not be allowed to hide behind these, as sometimes seems to be the case. Anyone in Germany who wants to talk about climate justice for future generations, even in a global context, will then also have to take a closer look at the role of the Bundeswehr and draw conclusions. With regard to the five scenarios mentioned, it is evident that the Bundeswehr is or will only be capable of acting in an alliance context, be it transatlantic or European. But we should ask what the state of readiness actually is, when it comes to taking meaningful action on such an elementary level as providing assistance in inevitable future disasters (floods, famines, waves of refugees, and so on). While civilian aid organizations such as the Federal Agency for Technical Relief (THW) do exist, they are limited in terms of the large-scale equipment and number of personnel available to them. It is worrying that even the idea of equipping the Bundeswehr with more medical staff triggered astonishment in the political arena.12 But perhaps a rethink is possible here too.

Three security policy options for the future

Let us broaden our horizons once more and consider the challenges posed by climate change as an international task. Three security policy alternatives emerge from the considerations set out above. Each of them offers a basis for forward-looking principles of action for political actors and military leaders in times of imminent threat from climate change.

First, it may be necessary to sharpen the definition of international obligations toward climate refugees and climate victims, which are also grounded in the protection of human rights, and assume responsibility as part of an expansion of R2P. Even if the obligation upon states to assume a protective responsibility for the benefit of broken states remains disputed, there is an immediately obvious obligation to protect the population in the climate scenario. In the face of increasing climate disasters, which put additional strain on particularly vulnerable states at their most vulnerable points, the urgency of interventions in favor of maintaining functions of order and care will increase. More and more states will find themselves in the awkward position of no longer being able to help themselves, while at the same time insisting on their sovereignty as autonomous countries. A strategy of international responsibility to protect populations in threatened states would have to cover both resilience and post-disaster assistance. It is even conceivable that R2P could include precautionary duties, provided that climate disasters and the consequences of destruction and displacement are immediately foreseeable. However, both the justification basis (as seen in the example of protecting the Amazon), and the pragmatic side are questionable. Which nation will be able to afford to protect the world’s climate victims from such a global catastrophe?

Second, it may be the goal of security policy in the future to increase national self-protection by strengthening alliances. Even in a global world that is growing ever closer together, the issue of security is today still closely linked to national security interests. States have a primary obligation to their citizens when it comes to protecting fundamental vital interests. Even in a global world that is structured by international alliances, the logic of national self-protection is the main motive for interaction. With regard to climate change, however – but this also applies to other international threat scenarios – it becomes clear once again that no state is able to protect itself, no matter how well positioned it is in security matters. Climate action must necessarily be cooperative action. This is especially true with regard to the shared goal of timely and effective reduction of greenhouse gases, which is also cemented by international agreements. The defining question of the future may be whether the international community will manage, through alliances, to achieve a stable international security situation to avert the threat of climate change, while at the same time strengthening their national self-interests.

Third, it must be remembered that climate change is an extremely dynamic phenomenon. It carries very high risks, in part precisely because of how it impacts on the security situation. Given its dynamic nature and the potential for extremely dangerous developments, states and the military are called upon to see and understand climate events as a catalyst. It is a matter of recognizing that multi-factor threat scenarios call for new capabilities of anticipation and institutional response. Linear risk assessments need to be replaced by systemic analyses and flexible institutional possibilities. Intelligent, goal-oriented alliances must be forged, including across borders. At the very least, it will be necessary to replace a wait-and-see attitude – which at best is able to fight a fire while it is already spreading – with anticipation and also responsible action at all institutional levels. There is very little time left.

1 For a survey of key contributions to the discussion, cf. Gardiner, Stephen M., Caney, Simon, and Jamieson, Dale et al. (eds.) (2010): Climate Ethics. Essential Readings. Oxford and New York; Kallhoff, Angela (2015): Klimagerechtigkeit und Klimaethik. Berlin und Boston. Another leading work is: Shue, Henry (2014): Climate Justice. Vulnerability and Protection. Oxford.

2 Cf. Singer, Peter (2002): One World: The Ethics of Globalization. New Haven.

3 The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) regularly publishes status reports on climate change and the expected environmental damage. Cf. (all internet links accessed June 3, 2021).

4 Cf. Moellendorf, Darrell (2016): “Taking UNFCCC Norms Seriously.” In Heyward Clare and Roser, Dominic (eds.): Climate Justice in a Non-Ideal World. Oxford, pp. 104-121.

5 Cf. Page, Edward (2007): Climate Change, Justice and Future Generations. Cheltenham.

6 Cf. Kallhoff, Angela (2021): Climate Justice and Collective Action. London and New York.

7 Cf. Hathaway, Oona A. and Shapiro, Scott J. (2017): The Internationalists: How a Radical Plan to Outlaw War Remade the World. New York.

8 Cf. on the R2P principle: Bellamy, Alex J. (2009): Responsibility to Protect. The Global Effort to End Mass Atrocities. Cambridge.

9 Cf. and

10 Cf. Klare, Michael T. (2019): All Hell Breaking Loose. The Pentagon’s Perspective on Climate Change. New York.




Angela Kallhoff

Angela Kallhoff is Professor of Ethics with special emphasis on Applied Ethics at the University of Vienna. She leads research projects on natural ethics, was head of the Nano-Norms-Nature research platform, and is co-director of the Vienna Doctoral School in Philosophy. Her research covers political ethics, natural ethics, climate ethics and the foundations of ethics. Her book publications include “Climate Justice and Collective Action” (2021), “Politische Philosophie des Bürgers” (2013), “Why Democracy Needs Public Goods” (2011) and “Ethischer Naturalismus nach Aristoteles” (2010).

Thomas Schulte-Umberg

Dr. Thomas Schulte-Umberg is currently Assistant Professor (post-doc) at the Department of Historical Theology in the Faculty of Catholic Theology at the University of Vienna. He studied history and Catholic theology at the University of Münster, has worked at various universities and research institutes in Germany, and was a visiting scholar at the University of Notre Dame (South Bend, Indiana) as well as a post-doc fellow of the German Historical Institute in Washington, D.C. His main area of research is the relationship between religion and war in the 20th/21st century, currently especially during the First World War in the territory of the Habsburg Monarchy.

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All articles in this issue

Out of the Greenhouse – Jointly and globally, the climate change security risk can still be prevented
Michael Czogalla
Climate Change as a Risk Amplifier – On the links between climate change and conflict
Michael Brzoska
If You Want Peace, Protect the Climate!
Andreas Lienkamp
Climate Justice and Climate Conflicts as a Security Policy Challenge in the 21st Century
Angela Kallhoff, Thomas Schulte-Umberg
Why We Need a Green and More Comprehensive International Security and Defence Policy
François Bausch
More Tasks, More Resources, More Inclusion – Requirements for humanitarian assistance in times of increasing climate risks
Oliver Müller


Richard Nugee Christophe Hodder