What does climate change have to do with conflict?

April 26 2012: Rebecca Sargent looks at how climate change and extreme weather effects peace and security. Climate change creates huge risks for increased conflict, and countering this requires a fundamental shift in the way institutions are organized and the way inter-linkages between organizations are addressed.

This post was originally published on the Ashoka Peace Blog.

The Initiative for Peacebuilding’s report on climate change, conflict and fragility covers policy recommendations and adaptational capabilities that will be necessary to hedge off violent conflict in fragile or weak states.  One needs only see the example of the Haitian earthquake, the flooding in Pakistan or even the aftermath of hurricane Katrina in the southern US to know that extreme weather can have an effect on peace and security in an area.

Even the aftermath of hurricane Katrina showed that extreme weather can have an effect on peace and security. (Photo credit: Rob Sheridan)

Whether or not you believe climate change is caused by global warming makes little difference; major weather patterns are currently disrupting areas where peace is fragile at best or where war may already be full-blown. Massive death or displacement of people, combined with state fragility, means overwhelmed security services and government systems, and a lot of angry people who feel completely abandoned.  The impact is felt the greatest among the poorest and most vulnerable members of society who have little means to escape and inequitable access to necessary resources. This inevitably heightens the risk of violent conflict in an area.

international negotiations on reducing global warming and responding to climate change almost entirely ignore the aspect of this heightened risk of conflict
Current international negotiations on reducing global warming and responding to climate change almost entirely ignore the aspect of this heightened risk of conflict. Development and humanitarian workers are rarely well informed about the security implications that climate change will have for their work and so adaptation is not being included in long-term rebuilding or restructuring policies within organizations.

These potential conflict implications are one of the most compelling arguments for richer states to take serious climate change action as the costs will be massive from loss of life, livelihood and humanitarian assistance and peacekeeping perspectives. Current estimates of costs range from $49 to $380 billion per year by the year 2030, without even taking into account private sector and peacebuilding problems. However, over-stating the conflict dimension can lead to oversimplification and inaccurate perceptions of security which risks overlooking cost-effective and sustainable options in favor of high cost and likely ineffective militarized ones. The key remains in shifting the way institutions are organized, their ability to cope with change and the way they are interlinked with one another.

Managing water supply is vital. Not only is it necessary for human life, but water shortages also affect agriculture causing increased food insecurity, especially for the poor.  The risks to human health from both water borne diseases caused by poor water management and inadequate diets caused by food insecurity will put increased pressure on already strained medical and government resources. Water shortages and food insecurity often lead to violent conflict where poverty, weak governance, political marginalization and corruption reign supreme. Climate change will only exacerbate this problem as already fragile systems become even more overburdened.

Migration of people increases the likelihood of conflict, as newcomers are seen as an unwanted burden that compound social pressures or even transfer conflict from one location to another. Attempting to block immigration with regulations and physical barriers may exacerbate the conflict risk. Migration will be primarily to urban centres, which will increase the strains of maintaining livelihoods and many of the current mega-cities are already in low-lying coastal areas which are at long term risk from rising sea levels. Changing climate will result in the fluctuation of the supply of key resources, which will in turn affect land values and will present money-making opportunities for the already rich and resourceful. Social and economic consequences will not be randomly or “fairly” distributed among the population—in most cases, the rich will get richer while the poor will be the ones to suffer.

Current natural science knowledge is also unevenly distributed and used, with the richer countries having greater access than the poorer countries. Lack of information leads to poor policy making and weak adaptation, which means there is a greater chance of conflict. For example, the UK currently has over sixty different climate change models to work with. Nepal, who has for the past several years been experiencing severe weather changes, has none.

So how can fragile states deal with these inequities and potential conflict risks? The report outlines five main policy objectives for reducing climate-induced conflict:

  1. Adaptation needs to be conflict- sensitive
  2. Peacebuilding needs to be climate-proof
  3. Shifts toward low-carbon economies must be supportive of development and peace
  4. Steps must be taken to strengthen poor countries’ social capacity to understand and manage climate and conflict risks
  5. Greater efforts are needed to plan for and cope peacefully with climate-related migration

Ensuring these policy objectives requires a fundamental shift in the way institutions are organized and the way inter-linkages between organizations are addressed. Institutions responsible for climate change adaptation need to be structured to maximize the participation of ordinary people and focus at the local level to hedge against uncertainty. This includes disseminating information in ways that ordinary people can understand and utilize.

The first step that is necessary is to undergo a large-scale systematic study of the likely costs of adaptation that includes both the social and political dimensions. This study needs to be done in tandem with thinking about how that money should be used, what governance and institutional changes must be made and considering the role of actors from development and peacebuilding communities, as well as the private sector in adaptation. These sectors must work with existing structures to create more adaptable institutions that are able to draw on shared research, ensure the right people know how to access the right information, interpret the information, communicate it in the field and are able to adapt and evolve to accommodate uncertainty. These new institutions must consider things holistically, by wrapping issues of climate change, conflict and governance, poverty and livelihood all together.

Discovering how power is organized within the current structures will help in the building of new structures that can alleviate the privileged access to economic and political opportunity, and ensure that the provision of goods and services does not become a corrupt money making scheme. Good governance means increased resilience to violent conflict or poverty. In many cases this will mean not merely how are institutions “presently organized (to) meet the challenges of climate change,” but rather “how should institutions be organized in order to meet these challenges?” It becomes a case of adapting development to adapt to climate change. Separating development and adaptation funding is fundamentally misconceived as cooperation across and between sectors is necessary for any real chance at success.

Many rich countries will be simultaneously shifting to low-carbon economies to meet demands on climate change adaptability. This shift must be peace-friendly and supportive of the adaptive development happening in poorer countries. For example, a switch to bio-fuel in richer countries caused food prices to rise by 30% in 2008, which directly caused violence in over 30 countries. This type of shift will be counter-productive. Migration must also be dealt with in a responsible manner, with immigrants seen as an asset for local society rather than a burden in their new areas.

Internal incentives for receiving funding within existing donor institutions are frequently based around meeting quantitative targets rather than qualitative issues that might be more appropriate. Establishing rules, norms, guidelines and incentives that reward for innovation will better equip a country to manage uncertainty. Large-scale humanitarian responses will be necessary on top of the restructuring.

This report outlined the necessary adaptation needed in fragile states, but completely neglected that of powerful states, which are susceptible to climate conflict as well. One needs only look to the ongoing humanitarian crisis in the southern states years after Hurricane Katrina to know that even rich states are often ill-equipped to deal with weather crises. If these crises are compounded and not isolated to one location within a nation, or result in large-scale destruction of entire areas, even rich states may be unable to deal with the crises that emerge. The expectations in richer states for action is higher, therefore state failure may be reacted to with all the more intense violence. Informing the public of options and creating local structures able to deal with uncertainty are necessary to hedge against this type of crises in richer states as well.

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Comments

There are 2 comments Show comments

jackson komora on April 27, 2012

I like article like these ones that are so much onhumanitarian issues and the environment striking some kind of balance to enhance human survival

Ethel Achoh Tebid on May 2, 2012

It is very important for peace builders to understand the intricacies of Climate change as regards to conflict and peace.Most often than not environmental factors play a great role in intrastate and interstate conflicts.In Africa the conflicts are diversified sometimes it could be about grazing land (Sudan with the janjaweed),while desertification can cause boundary differences. Other elements such as Land,oil,natural resources are most often than not the catalyst for conflicts.
When we are aware of that fact politics is not the most essential tool for conflicts ,alot of these conflicts would be prevented.

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