Main page content

‘An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure’: U.S. conflict prevention policy in a world of climate change

The crisis in Ukraine is rightly at the centre of U.S. foreign policy attention but, even in the midst of that justified focus, the latest IPCC report unflinchingly reminds us of another emergency: we are running out of time to avoid the most devastating effects of climate change, including the social, economic, environmental and security risks that can actually drive war.

Ukraine spotlights for us that these challenges are nothing if not intertwined. President Putin could not wage this war against Ukraine without a fossil fuel dependent global economy and the resulting oil and gas profits that make his agenda possible. The old ways of doing things led us into this trap; if we had made bolder moves to invest in a more resilient future earlier, we might have actually avoided it. We must learn from our errors in foresight.

The U.S. needs to remain committed to a conflict prevention agenda which recognises the ever-increasing influence of climate change. The Biden administration has two policy tools available that offer some hope: the 2019 U.S. Global Fragility Act (GFA) and the accompanying 2020 U.S. Strategy to Prevent Conflict and Promote Stability. Shifting the focus from near-term crisis to more comprehensive longer-term planning and investment, the GFA compels the U.S. government to create a more unified strategy “to help countries move from fragility to stability and from conflict to peace” (Strategy 2020, 3). Under the GFA, the U.S. must set no less than five priority countries or regions – a step that is already overdue. The multi-year implementation plans associated with these priorities offer an essential moment of opportunity to integrate what we already know about how climate change is influencing nearly every aspect of human society – from livelihoods to disease to infrastructure – especially in many GFA countries of concern. Further delay in setting these priorities and moving ahead with climate-informed implementation plans will only undermine our preparedness.

We won’t be starting from scratch. A growing body of literature is unpacking the complex ways in which climate change acts as a ‘risk multiplier’ and pinpointing opportunities for preventative action in the process.

An upcoming report on Mali, presented at the World Bank’s Fragility Forum this week, offers important real-world lessons to help us get the analytics and then the operational responses right in the GFA priority countries and regions.

For those not familiar with the context, violent conflict in Mali has emerged significantly over the past decade, first in the regions of Gao, Kidal and Tombouctou, then in Mopti and Segou, and now increasingly in southern and western regions. Today, conflict dynamics overlay local histories of contestation playing on grievances and fueling intercommunal tensions. Violence is exacerbated by arms availability and marked by militarisation, militia-isation and impunity.

As the report explains, climate change is not making things any easier. Climate variability, both geographically and over time, is not new for Mali but recent decades have seen a notable change in unpredictability. Environmental pressures include land degradation, more frequent extreme weather events, changing rainfall patterns and increased heat stress. Local livelihoods are increasingly difficult to sustain due to a combination of pressures ranging from climate change and corruption to insecurity and social exclusion.

It is a complicated picture and therefore essential that any conflict prevention strategy recognises the ways in which climate change affects not only the physical world but also the way people move, make decisions, and interpret risk. For example, changing climatic conditions, including increasing temperature and declining rainfall, threaten crop production in a country where most people are dependent on agriculture. Adding to that strain, only seven per cent of land is suitable for cultivation and only one per cent of national crop land is equipped for irrigation. Farmers can’t decide when to plant, pastoralists split their herds or sell, fishers feel forced to engage in overfishing by catching younger and breeding fish. Adaptation has meant expanding farmlands, constructing dams and irrigation channels and using greater amounts of chemical fertilisers, pesticides and herbicides.

All of these shifts can induce new forms of contestation and conflict as pastoralists confront agriculturalists over grazing routes and chemical pollution infiltrates water, reducing fish stocks. At the same time, younger people are often adapting by moving to urban areas, breaking traditional inter-generational family bonds and exacerbating gender-based vulnerabilities for the women and girls who most often stay behind.

As climate change increases the risks faced by citizens, the pressure on governments to guarantee core functions and deliver basic services also increases. Failure to meet people’s expectations exposes weak governance systems, negatively influencing people’s perceptions of governments’ legitimacy and effectiveness. Armed opposition groups can also capitalise on this breakdown in trust. Evidence from Mali and elsewhere has shown that conflict risks are higher when governments can’t guarantee citizens the basic conditions that help them cope with climate change: responsive institutions, economic stability, security and a voice in decision-making.

These factors are at play in many countries and regions that are candidates for prioritisation under the GFA. In these places, we see that climate change can exacerbate, or even drive, unstable social, economic and political conditions at the same time that conflict and fragility can impede effective climate response and adaptation. These are not additive layers of risk, they are compounded risks. The reality is messy.

Meanwhile, the shock of Russian aggression against Ukraine has reminded us again of the terrible reality of war and how quickly it can unfold. Even while we focus on restoring stability in Ukraine we should do everything in our power to prevent conflict happening elsewhere. That means selecting the priority countries under the GFA as quickly as possible and moving forward with investments in conflict prevention that are actively informed by the evolving reality of climate change.

We know the cost of not acting and, increasingly, we know where to look for ideas that can generate some solutions and put us on a better path.

Cynthia Brady is a global fellow and senior advisor at the Wilson Center, and an associate of adelphi. She was previously Senior Peacebuilding and Conflict Advisor at USAID.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.