Mercator Foundation: Speech by Federal Foreign Minister Steinmeier on Climate Change

Jan 31, 2014

Ladies and gentlemen,

Professor Lorentz,

“Climate change as an international policy challenge”. Ten years ago you would no doubt have found a question mark at the end of such a title. Nowadays you would expect an exclamation mark!

There has been a shift over the past ten years. The first time I attended the Munich Security Conference as Foreign Minister eight years ago, I said it was a good thing that foreign policy concerned itself with crises and conflicts, but that the purview of foreign policy had to be broader. Foreign policy must be able to identify where on the horizon the next generation of conflicts are brewing – in the fight for scarce resources, the fight for arable land, for water.

I gave a little speech on this topic, here at the Munich Security Conference. And I still remember what Horst Teltschik said afterwards: Mr Steinmeier, he said, thank you for coming. But what a shame you didn’t talk about foreign policy.

Back in January 2006, there were many who did not really believe that climate change could become an issue for foreign and security policy. There has been a fundamental sea-change since then. Summit meetings on climate change around the world have since attracted not just environment ministers, and not just foreign ministers, but also heads of state and government.

However, if you look around now, you can’t help but notice that interest in climate change has waned, at the latest since the going got tough at the Copenhagen and Warsaw negotiations. Not only has the topic disappeared from the front pages of German and international daily newspapers, but top Western politicians have also “downgraded” their involvement, to put it politely.

But notwithstanding the vagaries of fashion, the subject is as pressing as ever. The climate scientist Hans Joachim Schellnhuber once said that nature would speak to us. Maybe that was an understatement. In view of natural disasters such as those on the Philippines, or Hurricane Sandy on the East Coast, and in view of flooding, melting ice caps and rising sea levels, I might even go so far as to say that nature isn’t just speaking to us, she’s yelling her head off!

I would thus like to put forward three ideas – political food for thought, as it were – before today’s discussion kicks off, ideas on what foreign policy should contribute to climate protection and energy security now that the first euphoria has worn off.

First, the international climate negotiations remain the pivotal element.

It’s a good thing that the United Nations Secretary-General is not letting up on climate issues. Just yesterday, Ban Ki-moon came to the Federal Foreign Office in Berlin to attend the inaugural meeting of a new Scientific Advisory Board, which brings together experts from around the world with the aim of helping the UN turn scientific findings into hands-on policies. The first major issue to be investigated by the Board will be sustainability.

The Secretary-General has made it very clear that more has to be achieved at the climate summit in Paris than was achieved in Copenhagen. We Germans have offered our active assistance to the French hosts in order to ensure that the political preconditions for a binding climate agreement are given. I discussed this a few days ago with my French counterpart Laurent Fabius. Ban Ki-moon has also asked us to use our German Presidency of the G8 next year to put climate change and its consequences back at the top of the agenda.

If we want to get the topic back in the public eye, we need to do more than shuffle agendas. We need, above all, to be credible. We EU countries can only argue credibly for ambitious international climate targets if we set similar targets for ourselves. The latest Commission proposal of a 40% reduction by 2030 is just such an ambitious target, and sends the right message. That’s not to say that I wouldn’t have preferred even more ambitious goals – for example binding targets for renewable energies and energy efficiency as well. Especially since the non-adoption of such targets is a subtle indication of a renaissance in nuclear power in some countries, a trend I have to decry. Nuclear power stations may not spew out carbon dioxide, but the risks associated with accidents, proliferation and disposal are familiar to us all. I remain convinced that nuclear power is not the way forward! Now it’s up to the European Council to put together an ambitious package.

But even with the most ambitious climate targets, Europe cannot turn things around on its own. Emerging powers such as China, Brazil and India are not only some of the biggest CO2 emitters, but are also influential players in international climate and energy policy. We have not yet found a way of involving these countries closely in the climate negotiations and ensuring their commitment to the process. What new alliances do we need to forge in and around the traditional fora for this purpose?

The second thought to bear in mind is that climate policy is a far-sighted security policy.

Scarce drinking water, drought, failed harvests, rising sea levels, violent storms and flooding: these are not just disasters for the people affected, but jeopardise entire states and peaceful coexistence across whole regions.

This too is a lesson from the early days of our climate diplomacy, and it is just as true now as it was then. Back then one of the focuses of our attention was on Central Asia, a region which is interesting as a bridge between Europe and Asia, and across which resources vary widely. Back then we raised the issue of water scarcity in the region, and initiated cooperation to combat the problem.

With this and other initiatives, we managed to raise awareness and put “climate change and security” on the international agenda, for example in the UN Security Council during Germany’s Presidency, in the G8 thanks to a joint Franco-German motion, and in the EU. Step one, setting the agenda, was successfully completed.

Now it’s time for step two: developing the appropriate foreign policy instruments. These include an early warning system to identify crises in good time, and governance structures to avert any such crises effectively. Maybe we could start by getting used to looking not only at the political hotspots on the map, but also at climate-related hotspots. Where the two overlap, that’s where we really need to get to work.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Climate negotiations and conflict prevention both deal with the consequences of climate change, not the causes. They don’t really get to the essence of the matter. We get to that with my third thought, expressed as a set of questions for policy‑makers. How are we living on our planet? How do we consume, work and manage our resources? In other words, are we willing to grasp climate change by its roots?

The experts say what is needed is a transformative shift in the global economy. This transformative shift would mean no less than disconnecting economic growth from the consumption of resources.

The global population is growing rapidly, and with it the demands placed on our planet’s finite resources.

What could be considered the pioneer project for this transformative shift is already under way here in Germany. We call it the “Energiewende”.

The Energiewende is designed to transform Germany’s entire energy system. There’s more to it than technological and economic innovation. It will result in a fundamental restructuring not only of energy generation, but also of our towns and transport systems, our industry and households. The political disputes of the past weeks have shown how many sensitive nerves the Energiewende has touched here in Germany. 

Ladies and gentlemen,

So what is foreign policy’s role in this pioneer project?

Its first role is to help shape the Energiewende and talk about it in a way that ensures not only its success in Germany but also its allure to and adaptability for other countries. We want to show other countries, especially newly emergent ones, that growth and environmental protection are not mutually exclusive!

The world is watching to see whether Germany successfully manages to transform its energy system. For the whole world will soon have to undergo a similar transformation. This includes China and India, for example, which are only now at the threshold to the industrial era. But already there are days when the people of Shanghai and New Delhi can’t see their hands in front of their faces due to the smog. Countries that can’t be sure they will still be able to survive solely on the proceeds of their natural resources in 20 or 30 years time will also have to make sweeping changes.

Germany foreign policy will assume this pioneering role for sustainability.

We want to initiate new international partnerships – foreign policy partnerships and environmental policy partnerships. In this way we can, on the one hand, help newly industrialised countries, in particular, to satisfy their growing energy needs using less coal, oil and nuclear power, but still cost-effectively. On the other hand, such partnerships will also help the Energiewende to succeed in Germany – and that is the second role foreign policy should play. 

Ladies and gentlemen,

Some people compare Germany’s Energiewende with the Americans landing on the moon. You may think the comparison is exaggerated, or at least slightly skewed. But it does show how such a pioneering project can capture the imagination of a whole society and be the focus of attention far beyond that country’s borders.

No less is needed if the Energiewende is to be a success. To stick with the comparison, let me conclude by saying that by bringing this pioneering project to a successful touchdown, we would be doing the biggest possible service to global climate protection and providing the best possible advert for Germany. With this in mind, let’s make a real effort – at home and in the world at large.

Thank you.

© GermanyUN