Turning up the Heat: Climate Change, Conflict and Peace

70% of the countries that are most vulnerable to climate change are also among the most fragile countries in the world. When addressing conflict prevention, we need to understand the pathways through which climate change and conflict interact. Responses have to be as multidimensional as the threats.

A soldier poses next to a pharmacy sign in northern Mali (UN Photo/Blagoje Grujic)

We have known for a while that living on a hotter planet will increasingly lead to security challenges. The UN body for assessing the science related to climate change, the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, made the case that climate change impacts can undermine human security already in 2014. And it was over a decade ago that the UN Security Council recognized that climate change poses a threat to international peace and security. There is also broad scientific agreement that greater human insecurity increases the risk of violent conflict. 

Like everything else related to climate change, we are not talking about risks that will manifest themselves in a distant future. Rather, climate change is already interacting with political, social and economic stresses to fuel political instability and conflict around the world. Combining indexes of state fragility and climate vulnerability, we showed that, in 2019, 70% of the countries that are most vulnerable to climate change are also among the most fragile countries in the world.

The problem, however, is not just what we have already seen, but also what we can expect to see. When it comes to addressing situations of vulnerability and fragility and preventing them from escalating into conflict, it is essential that we are able to fully grasp and understand the pathways through which climate change and conflict interact. So how much do we really know about the links between climate change, fragility and conflict? 

In our “10 insights on the links between climate and conflict”, we pulled together existing evidence and experiences from different regions to describe how complex interactions between climate change and other social, political, economic and environmental drivers of conflict and fragility can play out. Several patterns emerged.

Interaction of climate change with other drivers of conflict

First, climate change impacts on critical resources such as land and water can exacerbate competition and disputes between communities and groups, especially in areas where conflict management mechanisms are weak and where there is a history of social, economic and political exclusion. Our research in the Lake Chad Basin found that competition over natural resources has flared in recent years, as fertile land has become scarcer because of climate change, adding another source of tension in a region that has endured years of conflict and displacement. 

Climate change impacts will also make livelihoods less secure, pushing people to migrate. While internal migration in itself is an important economic driver and coping strategy, it can also create tensions with underserved host communities and stretch capacities in rapidly growing urban areas. Bangladesh’s capital Dhaka, already the world’s most crowded city according to UN Habitat, sees on average 400,000 people arrive every year – many of these migrants are fleeing the country’s climate-vulnerable coastal and southeastern regions. The result is sprawling slums, worsening sanitation and health conditions for their inhabitants, unmanageable traffic and air pollution, and ever-diminishing job opportunities, while anti-migrant sentiments, social conflict and crime are on the rise

In addition, where livelihoods are lost or made insecure due to climate change, people may decide to turn to illegal or problematic coping strategies, including joining non-state armed groups. In Afghanistan, there are reports that increasingly arid and hot conditions due to climate change have encouraged farmers to plant more opium poppy – a drought-resilient and water-efficient crop that is also used to produce heroin. The drug trade, in turn, is an important income stream for anti-government groups including the Taliban, as reported by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime

Importantly, some of our responses to climate change, both to mitigate it and to adapt to it, can also have unintended side effects that can increase social tensions and the risk of conflict. A 2020 report of the International Crisis Group described how, in central Mali, the digging of additional wells to support livestock farming in the face of droughts has been one of the drivers of reignited violence between jihadists and self-defense groups in the region in recent decades.

In order to address these complex risk dynamics and to avoid further exacerbating climate and conflict risks, we must integrate action across key policy areas. Our responses to climate-related security risks have to reflect the multi-dimensionality of these systemic risks. One key element of our response is to integrate action across peacebuilding and climate change adaptation. But how does such integrated action look like? And in particular, how can we avoid creating overly complex projects that are difficult to implement in fragile and conflict-affected contexts?

Integrating peacebuilding efforts and climate change adaptation

We have reviewed the existing evidence from research existing integrated programming as part of the Climate Security Expert Network’s climate fragility research paper series and identified a number of lessons learned. While there is no universal set of activities that deliver peacebuilding and climate change adaptation benefits in every conflict context, there are three general entry points that are useful for addressing climate-related security risks:

1.    Improving natural resource management, for example around land and water, can help build resilience against climate shocks while at the same time (re)building relationships between conflicting groups. For example, Mercy Corps recognised the positive effects their peacebuilding centres had on building local resilience against extreme weather events in the Greater Horn of Africa. They not only improved relationships within communities but also helped them to effectively cope and adapt during a drought.

2.    Climate-resilient and sustainable livelihoods are often part of both adaptation and peacebuilding programmes. It is key to ensure that these programmes both invest in climate-resilient livelihoods and deliver peacebuilding benefits—only then can they address the root causes of conflict, such as marginalisation and exclusion, and not just provide temporary jobs.

3.    Peace-positive climate change adaptation is another entry point. Climate change adaptation projects can be used to pro-actively build peace. For example, UNEP’s climate change and security project uses disaster risks management activities to rebuild trust between marginalised groups and the government. In some cases framing climate change as a common external threat can also help to foster collaboration, as shown by USAID’s Pace Centers for Climate and Social Resilience in Ethiopia.

The past years have seen not only increasing recognition of the links between climate change and conflict at the highest level in the EU, the G7, and the UN Security Council, but also more institutional changes and investment in action on the ground. For example, the UN has created the Climate Security Mechanism to strengthen its capacity in that area, and many multilateral and bilateral agencies and organisations have started to develop their own portfolios in that area.
But more remains to be done. As it becomes clear that the most effective responses are those that work across sectors and policy areas, we need to rethink the existing financial incentives and multilateral models to enable integrated action. This rethink will also help address the spin-offs from the COVID-19 pandemic, which otherwise risk combining with climate risks to exacerbate existing situations of fragility and conflict – or even create new ones. 

Dr. Beatrice Mosello and Lukas Rüttinger, Senior Advisors, adelphi


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