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Four climate frontiers: How mediators can make peace and help protect the planet

As humanity pushes the safety limits of one planetary boundary after another, the impact of climate change on conflict demands urgent and creative action by the peace sector.

Violent storms, drought, biodiversity loss and environmental degradation are displacing people and intensifying competition for natural resources in many parts of the world.

That, in turn, is fuelling violence and threatening the effectiveness and sustainability of peacemaking efforts.          

On the upside, climate action and peace action can align and positively reinforce each other.

For the peace mediation sector, four “frontiers” lie ahead if we hope to help prevent the worst outcomes of climate change and environmental degradation.

©Sebastian Kratzer
©Sebastian Kratzer

Evolving as mediators to integrate climate data and impact  

Peacemakers need to take climate change and its effects seriously. To do that, we need to change how we think and work.

Integrating a climate lens in conflict analysis: To get the full picture, we need to look at environmental factors as part of peacemakers’ assessments of the vulnerability, resilience and coping capacity of the conflict actors, civilian groups and contexts. Climate data is now more accurate and better at forecasting, allowing peacemakers to develop more precise climate security scenarios.

The tools and approaches of mediation: Peace processes, dialogues and negotiations will have to make more space for scientists and civil society in assessing the impacts of climate change and preventing them from interfering with peace work. Peace process design will have to find better ways of linking scientific and technical tracks to political ones.

The range of possible outcomes from peace mediation is increasing: This can range from actual environment and climate-sensitive peace agreements to cooperation on addressing the impact of climate change or environmental degradation, even in the absence of political solutions. It may also lead peacemakers to areas that do not know violent conflict yet, but whose conflict risks are drastically rising due to climate change and environmental degradation. 

Better integration of an environment and climate lens in conflict analysis is happening, be it through research-driven efforts like Weathering Risk or the UN’s push to install Climate Security and Environmental Advisors in some of its peacekeeping and political missions.

Yet adapting the actual proceedings and outcomes of peace mediation still has a long way ahead. Few peace and political settlements integrate an environmental sustainability or climate adaption dimension.

During actual fighting, of course there is the need to prioritise actions to silence the guns.

But as the environment can often be a weapon and a victim of war, ceasefires and violence reduction efforts can and must do better. And how peace settlements deal with climate change will ultimately determine how sustainable and just they will be.

Dealing with the shared risks and impacts

We know that many conflict-affected settings are also the most vulnerable to climate change.

This double burden means communities and people living there will face immense challenges as environmental effects become ever more accentuated, raising the risks of conflict.

So, the vicious cycle spins out of control. And it does not stop at the community level. States share many cross-boundary resources – fish stocks, rivers, forests – that are also suffering from climate change and unsustainable use, heightening existing tensions with neighbours.

But it need not be that way. The peacemakers’ tools can support communities and states in adapting to the impact of climate change in several ways:

  • Local level peace agreements can integrate sustainable resource-sharing provisions
  • Mediation and dialogue can help conflict parties and communities develop joint peace, conservation and climate-adaptation efforts
  • Peacemakers can be at the forefront of getting climate finance to places that are the most climate vulnerable, suffer from conflict and may be under control of armed groups

As the influence of the “war on terror” narrative declines in foreign policy, new opportunities for these kind of actions will arise.

(According to one expert at the EU’s 2023 Peace Mediation Community of Practice, terrorism has become one of the “shared challenges that cross borders” and comes after “climate change, food insecurity and communicable diseases” and just before “energy shortages and inflation” in the latest US National Security Strategy.)

We are seeing some of these new opportunities play out already, including a recent local peace agreement in Nigeria that featured elements on the core drivers of the conflict and also on the ways that the communities aim to jointly deal with their environmental and climate adaptation needs.

This points to another frontier of peace mediation – how to implement this expanded vision of security and peace, which requires operational partnerships between peace, development, conservation, agricultural and climate actors that only sparsely exist right now.

Contributing to protecting the biosphere

The biosphere – the totality of Earth’s ecosystems and the second core planetary boundary next to climate change – is a key determinant in terms of planetary health, stability and sustainability. We rely on the biosphere for the air we breathe, the water we drink and the many resources we need to produce the goods we consume.  

The link between biosphere integrity and peacemaking may not be immediately obvious.

But as the loss of nature drives whole ecosystems to the tipping point, we will witness more and more large-scale and rapidly unfolding crises, including mass displacement and conflicts. What is more, in the “green” transition to reduce carbon dioxide levels and halt climate change, we need new types of minerals.

These minerals are often found in areas where conservation is necessary to maintain the Earth’s biodiversity. But many of these areas also know armed conflict and fragility or are controlled by non-state armed groups.

As the world marches along the green transition, the new “green gold rush” risks inadvertently causing more conflicts in these areas and reinforcing the existing biodiversity crisis. This also risks being further complicated by growing geopolitical tensions and inter-state conflict. 

Peacemakers will have a role to play in preventing this worst-case scenario.

By helping communities, governments and the private sector to negotiate peaceful, equitable and sustainable access to these areas that meets our world’s mineral and biodiversity needs, mediators can bring us back from the brink of a planetary boundary we cannot afford to cross.

All this should lead us to a wider definition of security – one that integrates the interconnectedness of environmental and social systems, and recognises conservation and protection as key pillars of longer-term local and global stability.

Supporting global climate negotiations and action

Despite some progress towards implementing the Paris Agreement, criticism of global climate negotiations remains focused on their legitimacy, fairness and effectiveness.

If there is one sector that has experience in dealing with protracted and intractable issues, it’s peace mediation.

Over time, mediators and peacemakers have developed ways of thinking and applying creative options to resolving many of the world’s conflicts (many more, in fact, than have ever been solved through traditional “security” approaches).

Many challenges inherent in negotiations are shared by the climate world and the peace world, such as:

  • Rules on unanimity can make decision-taking cumbersome and set high bars for agreement, inevitably reducing the ambition of what can be agreed
  • Extreme public attention is good for increasing the pressure for outcomes but bad for actually finding them
  • Power imbalances at and beyond the negotiation table complicate finding just agreements and actually implementing them

To address these challenges, the peace sector has had to find ways to balance discretion and transparency, to weigh up decision-making structures and outcomes that are workable (but not always fair) and to adapt negotiations to what happens (often quickly) off the table.

We can imagine and explore how such innovative mediation approaches and lessons could help to unblock or circumvent global climate negotiations – including varied uses of informal and lower tracks, sequenced approaches and actions outside of the agreement.

Small steps towards large frontiers

The first two “climate frontiers” – evolving as mediators and helping to deal with shared risks – are within reach. With more support and attention, they can be realistically delivered.

The third frontier on protecting biodiversity and the biosphere may seem distant now but will quickly become important as the need for critical minerals accelerates and the environment gets drawn into geopolitical and armed conflicts.  

The fourth frontier – contributing to the global fight against climate change – may be out of reach (and maybe outside the mandate) of peace mediation. But at the very least, the hard lessons learned across many conflicts could help improve the fight against climate change.

As COP28 delivers the first ever “peace” theme, we have the opportunity to raise awareness and get closer to reaching these important climate and peace frontiers. Every small step forward counts, like in a peace process.


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