Remarks to the OSCE Economic and Environmental Committee by Stephanie Epner, Senior Advisor to the U.S. Special Envoy for Climate Change

The United States is recommitting to the flight against climate change.

 Remarks to the  OSCE Economic and Environmental Committee by Stephanie Epner, Senior Advisor to the U.S. Special Envoy for Climate Change

As Delivered by Stephanie Epner,
Senior Advisor to the U.S. Special Envoy for Climate Change
OSCE Economic and Environmental Committee
Wednesday, March 10, 2021

To our hosts, thank you for treating this issue with the urgency it warrants and convening this session. Thank you as well to all of the other panelists – I very much appreciated your comments.  

As you may have seen, John Kerry, our Special Presidential Envoy for Climate, is in Europe this week, but unfortunately I was not able to join him, so I’m joining you from Washington today, where it’s quite early in the U.S., but I’m delighted to be with the delegates this morning. Thank you very much for inviting me to join you. 

Just six weeks or so into his administration, President Biden has demonstrated that climate change will be a core national security and foreign policy priority for his Administration. Already, he has elevated the issue as never before, including by taking the unprecedented step of asking a former Secretary of State, John Kerry, to serve as Special Presidential Envoy for Climate – leading the critical diplomacy to ensure the entire world – including, certainly the U.S. – is taking steps to dramatically reduce emissions – to avoid the worst impacts of climate change and to prepare for the impacts we know are already heading our way.  

But in addition to elevating the focus on climate change, the Administration is committed to integrating climate considerations into our broader foreign policy and security thinking, planning, and decision-making. Climate change is not something that can or should be addressed through one channel or one multilateral forum. It has to be part of our shared efforts across the board. After all, we know that climate change is not an issue that can be separated out from other challenges– economic challenges, health challenges, and certainly security challenges.   

Because if you’re concerned about global security, you have to be concerned about the implications of a warming world. 

First, there are the direct impacts of global warming on our populations and our communities – the increasing frequency of severe storms and the implications for physical safety and critical infrastructure. The rising seas that quite literally pose an existential threat to some countries. And even the increasingly deadly heat itself.  

But what should be equally concerning from a security perspective are the indirect consequences of climate change – the so-called threat-multiplier effect. When resources grow increasingly scarce, when agriculture fails, when fisheries collapse and biodiversity is undermined or extinguished – when people can’t make a living the way they once could, and they become increasingly desperate, it can add fuel to the metaphorical fire. Many of the most fragile states in the world are the very states that are most vulnerable to dangerous climate impacts. There is a disproportionate impact on less developed countries. There is a disproportionate impact on women, on poor communities – on marginalized communities. The estimates vary, but it’s safe to say tens if not hundreds of millions of people will be forced to make the very tough decision to leave their homes. This is a humanitarian crisis in the making and, potentially, concerning from a regional security perspective.  None of these impacts is in service of stability or security.   

I realize that these linkages are well understood by this group – and that they have been recognized by the OSCE in various decisions and declarations, including the 2007 Madrid Declaration on Environment and Security, the 2009 Athens Ministerial Council Decision on Migration Management, and the 2014 Basel Ministerial Council Decision on Enhancing Disaster Risk Reduction. More broadly, the importance of the physical environment to the OSCE’s comprehensive concept of security has been established since organization’s founding and in some of its most essential documents. 

This is encouraging, because in our view, the OSCE is well placed to engage on this issue, and to lead. We also understand that for the OSCE to take any steps, all participating States much reach consensus on what those steps should be, and the organization must have the capacity to support them—while not replicating work done by other international organizations.  We believe 2021 is the right moment for OSCE participating States to demonstrate leadership by not only identifying but also by taking tangible steps to address security risks stemming from climate change. 

In our view, the “value-added” of the OSCE regarding the climate-security nexus comes from filling the gap between international-level commitments and national commitments and assisting participating States at their request to identify and mitigate the most serious security threats posed by climate change.  This could include, for example:  

  • A comprehensive assessment of the organization’s climate-security related resources and projects, also focusing on the role Field Missions and Aarhus Centers can play across the OSCE area;
  • A more formal organizational focus on the climate-security link; and
  • A concentrated effort to map out and better identify climate change hotspots and the security threats they pose as a first step.

We would also be interested in exploring potential technical assistance to participating States, so they can conduct their own assessments of national and economic security impacts of climate change.  

Finally, the value of the OSCE has always been in finding ways to enhance security and avoid conflict. We are uniquely positioned, through this forum, to brainstorm and develop ways for participating States to devise collaborative approaches – or, perhaps, expand already-existing approaches – to mitigate the worst security threats posed by climate change. That may include ways to protect critical infrastructure, to winterize power grids – the way the U.S. recently saw firsthand was necessary in light of the unprecedented weather in Texas – to promote food protection and climate-smart agriculture, and to manage resources like water more efficiently. To varying degrees, these kinds will protect the security of all participating states. 

Thank you very much. I am eager to hear from others and very much looking forward to our conversation.