New European Parliament must act on climate change as a systemic threat  

Comment: The recent European election sets a trajectory for policymakers to shy away from the climate agenda rather than giving it the urgent boost needed 

New EU Parliament must treat climate change as a systemic threat

A thousand climate activists gathered in front of Deutz station to protest and march for better climate policy ahead of the Europa election 2024 in Cologne, Germany, on May 31, 2024. (Photo: Ying Tang/NurPhoto/via Reuters)


Mikael Allan Mikaelsson is a policy fellow at Stockholm Environment Institute. Johan Munck af Rosenschöld, is group manager and senior research scientist at Syke (Finnish Environment Institute).

Europe’s first comprehensive climate risk assessment, published in May, sent a clear and unequivocal message: climate risks facing Europe have reached a critical level and urgently require decisive actions from European policymakers.  

Yet the recent EU parliamentary elections – which delivered significant gains for Europe’s far-right and dealt a blow to its green parties – alongside a recently leaked list of EU Council priorities for the next five years, indicate a marked U-turn in the EU’s commitment to climate action.  

The EU has faced a dramatically changed geopolitical situation over the past few years, marked by the upsurge of far-right political forces in several member states, growing trade-tensions with China, and a humanitarian disaster and heightened energy security risk caused by Russia’s war in Ukraine.  

Against this backdrop, EU policymakers have had to make tough decisions on strengthening security in Europe, diverting their attention to defense, security and migration issues, although this has come at the expense of the EU’s much flagged international climate leadership and green agenda.  

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We argue that the EU should stay the course on climate action. Despite geopolitical turns and a backlash from some industries over legislation brought on by the Green Deal, European policymakers have a responsibility to follow through on climate commitments – and thereby avoid the tremendous risks that face us if they do not. 

Exacerbating geopolitical risks 

Protests have included those by European farmers against sustainability provisions in the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy. Recently, the EU Council only just managed to approve the highly anticipated, but embattled Nature Restoration Law, thanks to a rare display of political defiance by the Austrian environment minister.  

The law provides critical policy levers for improving Europe’s much degraded ecosystems, strengthening their resilience towards climate change. Hence this vote was critical, although it may still face a legal challenge.  

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There is ample irony in the notion that political efforts and financial resources should be diverted to enhance Europe’s defence and security capabilities and strengthen the EU’s external borders from human migration. Climate change is certain to exacerbate the impacts and risks from geopolitical conflicts and wars and will be the mega-driver of migration over the coming years. 

And while legislation that requires businesses to take action on climate change and biodiversity loss is certainly going to be burdensome for some, these costs pale in comparison with the effects that climate change will have on the European economy.  

Corporate credit rating downgrades due to companies’ exposure to climate risks have already accelerated, according to S&P Global. And climate-induced disruptions of supply chains are likely to cost the global economy up to $25 trillion over the next 35 years under the current trajectory. Much of this cost will be borne by businesses. 

Ways to protect Europe 

EU-level policies are currently dangerously inadequate to safeguard European lives and livelihoods from the majority of the potentially catastrophic threats that will loom over Europe in the coming years and decades.  

But there are solutions, if bold action is taken in the following areas: 

  • Protect and restore marine and coastal ecosystems by minimising pressures from overfishing, agricultural runoff and other industrial activities to avoid disastrous degradation of marine ecosystems. 
  • Conserve and restore Europe’s forests through the recently passed Nature Restoration Law to safeguard Europe’s ecosystems and their many services on which the European economy and wider society heavily depend. 
  • Leverage the Common Agricultural Policy to strengthen incentives and policy certainty for transforming and adapting Europe’s agricultural sector to extreme heat and drought. 
  • Shore up the preparedness of healthcare systems and resources against the impacts of heat waves on vulnerable populations and outdoor workers, especially in southern Europe.  
  • Bolster investments in climate adaptation abroad. This support will also be critical to reduce cascading climate risks that originate beyond Europe’s outer borders.   

With this comprehensive body of scientific evidence and advice at hand, European policymakers must resist the urge to adopt a tunnel-vision approach and focus solely on near-term risks, but rather approach climate change as a systemic threat to European’s economy, society and natural capital.  

The scientific community already has called on policymakers to reverse the current course of retreat from the EU environmental agenda, in an open letter to the EU’s legislative bodies.  

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The actions taken by the incoming group of elected lawmakers and appointed officials will determine the level of harm and damage European citizens will have to endure over the coming decades. It is critical that European policymakers take the long view.  

The decisions and actions they take today will lock our children’s future onto a path. Only today’s policymakers can make sure that path takes us towards a world that can sustain a functioning social order and human life.  

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