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Climate Action is Critical for Sustaining Peace

USA, 2015: The Sustainable Development Goals are projected onto the UN Headquarters in New York City.

‘Sustaining peace,’ which recognizes the comprehensive social, political and economic factors that contribute to conflict prevention and maintenance of peaceful societies, has become a cornerstone for current peacebuilding thinking. “How can we avoid conditions that can lead to conflict in the first place?” asked Juan José Gómez Camacho, Permanent Representative of Mexico to the UN, during a UN meeting on sustaining peace and preventing conflict on September 22, 2016. While the UN often cites the SDGs as a powerful tool for achieving these conditions, climate action and the Paris Agreement to limit global temperatures to below two degrees Celsius have so far remained on the periphery of sustaining peace discourse.

In 2015, the UN conducted a Peacebuilding Review. It notes climate change caused “deterioration in the quantity and quality of water” as a conflict driver, but also the limited understanding of links between climate and fragility. Then, last April, the UN General Assembly and Security Council drew on this Review and adopted two identical resolutions on sustaining peace. While the final resolutions’ texts do not explicitly mention climate conditions, they do state that, “development, peace and security, and human rights are interlinked and mutually reinforcing.” By expanding the perspective of conflict prevention to include the holistic maintenance of environments that are conducive to peace, the UN linked building safe and peaceful societies to the full spectrum of SDGs. Given the significant threat climate change poses to African developmental gains, efforts on sustaining peace require responses to rising global temperatures.

Climate change directly threatens socio-economic development outcomes. As a 2013 World Bank report outlines, the impacts of climate change are widespread and increasingly severe with successive degrees of warming beyond pre-industrial levels. For example, a temperature increase of less than two degrees Celsius by the 2050s could reduce total crop production in Sub-Saharan Africa by ten percent, with further warming increasing the potential loss to around 15 to 20 percent. These reductions correspond to potential increases in hyper-arid and arid areas across the continent, especially in southern Africa.

Reduced water access will dramatically affect both food security and livelihoods, not least because agriculture is predicted to remain the employer of 46 percent of Africans by 2020. Among other compounding effects, warming is also forecast to increase undernourishment and the prevalence of diseases, such as Malaria, which may hinder childhood education. Climate change will impact the social, political, and economic landscape of the continent, and with it the potential to achieve the SDGs and conditions for sustaining peace.

The dual UN resolutions highlight the SDG priorities of “sustainable economic growth” and “poverty eradication” as important for sustaining peace – both threatened by climate change. As a paper by researcher Tord Kjellstrom outlines, the physical and mental stresses of exacerbated heat exposure negatively impact working capacity around the world, and correspondingly countries’ ability to achieve sustainable economic growth. Ghana and Nigeria’s 2030 projections, for example, have total climate change costs amounting to 8.9 percent and 7.6 percent of GDP respectively.  While workplace-cooling schemes may be used to alleviate these losses, recommendations maintain “global mitigation of climate change” as the most effective protection of health and economic progress.

Inclusiveness of global economic growth for poverty reduction is also affected by climate change, as climate shifts disproportionally impact vulnerable populations, often with limited government support. “There won’t be durable peace unless people can enjoy the benefits of development,” Miguel Ruiz Cabañas, Undersecretary for Multilateral Affairs and Human Rights at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Mexico, said at the same September 22 meeting.

In anticipation of increasing climate changes, the UN has prioritized resilience-building strategies that seek to sustain peace by preparing communities for climate shocks and increased resource stresses. The Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction, for example, is a non-binding agreement adopted by UN member states in March 2015 aiming to reduce the substantial “disaster risk and losses.” Similarly, the UN Secretary-General’s Climate Resilience Initiative (A2R) seeks to “accelerate action to strengthen climate resilience in support of the 2030 Agenda.” Both prioritize global cooperation for improved anticipation of and responsiveness to climate shocks. If successful, improved resilience may better insulate vulnerable populations against excessively negative climate impacts that could contribute to a breakdown of peaceful social relations.

In certain cases – northern Mali for example – extreme and increasingly variable weather conditions have been linked to the outbreak of conflict. However, climate change’s relationship to violence is complex, often viewed more as a compounding factor than a root cause, despite worsening climatic conditions’ social impacts. adelphi’s report “New Climate for Peace: Taking Action on Climate and Fragility Risks” articulates this relationship, defining climate change as a “threat multiplier” that can “aggravate fragile situations and may contribute to social upheaval and even violent conflict.” Despite the link between conditions for sustaining peace and climate change, action to improve these conditions is far from assured. Proactive strategies will help people manage climate change peacefully. But proponents of sustaining peace must also look beyond improved anticipation and preparation toward advancing the necessary changes in energy production and consumption to keep global temperatures well below the two degrees stated in the Paris Agreement.

Thinking ahead

Encouraging politicians and businesses to invest in climate action to sustain peace over the longer-term can be difficult. “We live in a world that has become highly enamoured and driven by short-term gains and short-term returns,” explained Macharia Kamau, who holds the three positions of Permanent Representative of Kenya to the UN, Peacebuilding Commission Chairperson, and UN Special Envoy on El Niño and Climate. Lacking incentive to think beyond current election or business cycles may lie at the heart of abbreviated timelines for investment and policy action on issues like climate change and conflict prevention. But this does not make the shift in thinking any less necessary. During numerous meetings at the UN General Assembly this September, senior diplomats and UN officials emphasized the emergence of a proactive mindset associated with the adoption of Agenda 2030 and the sustaining peace resolutions. This prioritizes reimagining the UN’s role as less of a crisis response unit and more of a pre-emptive long-term planner for crises aversion.

Mexico’s establishment of a Group of Friends on Sustaining Peace, which currently includes 30 UN member states with four from Africa, is a good step toward galvanizing and normalizing long-term, comprehensive thinking for sustaining peace. But more political momentum is certainly necessary. As the Paris Agreement comes into force with over 55 ratifications (only 16 from Africa) representing over 55 percent of global emissions, advocates of sustaining peace should harness this broad-based political momentum by highlighting the links between climate action and conflict prevention.

“Action and implementation” of the Paris Agreement commitments is the stated objective of this November’s COP22 meeting in Marrakech, Morocco. Action on climate change will require looking boldly past immediate political and economic costs in favour of long-term stability, developmental dividends, and conditions for peace. In the short term, countries may see the economic rational for immediate investment in climate action, but countries should also realise and act upon the opportunity this provides for sustaining peace.

Jonathan Rozen is a Research Associate at the Institute for Security Studies (ISS).