In his speech on climate change and national security on November 10, Secretary of State John Kerry said climate change is already a “threat multiplier,” and that worse is to be expected if climate change continues unchecked. But the relationship between the environment and violent conflict is complex and often indirect. Researchers have been wrangling for years over the role that global environmental change plays in fueling conflict and state fragility.
For example, how exactly did climate change contribute to the Syrian civil war? What mechanisms link environmental change and state fragility? Where can environmental peacebuilding help prevent conflict and encourage cooperation?
These questions lie at the heart of a recently launched online tool by adelphi, the Environmental Conflict and Cooperation (ECC) Factbook. The Factbook highlights case-specific climate-fragility risks and reveals the interplay between environmental change and other factors in conflict and cooperation. It describes security risks related to environmental change in a country or region, the mechanisms by which these play out, and the ways in which these risks and their political impacts can be mitigated.
These conceptual models give a sense of the challenges facing policymakers
The ECC Factbook is accessible through an interactive world map featuring more than 100 conflicts with environmental dimensions. It is aimed at political decision-makers, academics, journalists, and practitioners in the fields of international relations, peacebuilding, development policy, and humanitarian aid, but it also offers the general public an intuitive way to examine these issues.
It was developed alongside A New Climate for Peace, an independent report and knowledge platform commissioned by the G7 governments and coauthored by the Wilson Center’s Environmental Change and Security Program that analyzes the connection between climate risks and fragility and provides recommendations for foreign policy.
Few conflicts can be traced to a single cause, and few environmental conflicts are exclusively caused by environmental change. Even where environmental change – water and land scarcity, changes in weather patterns, deforestation – plays an important role, it does not directly trigger violence. Instead, it percolates through a variety of social processes that mitigate or intensify conflict.
In the case of climate change, the issue becomes even more complicated because individual weather events often cannot be attributed to climate change. Instead, studies may find that a certain flood or drought – as in the case of Syria – was made more likely by anthropogenic climate change.
This complexity makes it easy to challenge bold and simplistic claims about the presumed role of environmental causes. Such claims are indeed often misleading, but it is also false and irresponsible to discount environmental causes.
Each conflict featured in the ECC Factbook is summarized in a factsheet containing an analysis of the history of the conflict and the role of environmental factors, as well as a history of resolution efforts. These case studies summarize and synthesize, but for those that want more, a comprehensive set of references provides convenient entry points for additional research.
The case studies are complemented by a range of infographics and quantitative data that allow users to quickly access and interpret relevant information. Three cases – South Sudan, Darfur and Syria – have been produced as videos, with more to come.
Breaking the Conflict Chain
One of the key components of each of the factsheets is an infographic that visualizes how environmental processes interact with other factors, like economic development, demography, and politics, for each conflict.
These models help explain how inputs like increased water scarcity lead to intermediate results like public frustration with the government and eventually to a final outcome like anti-state grievances.
Covering a large variety of potential mechanisms, these infographics allow for distinguishing between different types of conflicts and the many causes of each. For example, the model below illustrates the impact of climate change on environmental outcomes in Somalia and the resulting social and political challenges.
These conceptual models give a sense of the challenges facing policymakers to break the conflict chain by addressing the various entry points that the different mechanisms and intermediate steps represent. In the case of Somalia, land use change and the resulting livelihood insecurity could be mitigated through measures to avoid illegal enclosures and deforestation, which put pressure on pastoralists. Support for alternative livelihoods could also provide a positive way for people to adapt and reduce reliance on destructive responses, like piracy, narcotics trading, and the charcoal trade.
The factsheets present conflict resolution strategies that have been or could be applied in the respective conflict. We plan to expand and conceptually develop this feature further to include case-specific policy recommendations and suggestions.
A Community Tool
On one level, the ECC Factbook is a collection of factsheets. But it is more than the sum of its parts. Through the interactive world map or a table view, users can explore and compare sets of conflicts. They can filter cases by numerous criteria, such as affected resources, the presence of specific mechanisms, or a free-text search. This allows for meaningful comparisons and dossiers of cases fitting a specific regional or topical interest, which can be exported as PDFs for offline use.
With the initial release of the first 100 conflicts, we are inviting you to use this tool and start a dialogue with us. The ECC Factbook is designed as an open project, and we welcome any suggestions for extending and improving our cases and the analytical tools that we provide, as well as for collaboration and further development. We envision the ECC Factbook to be a tool for and by the environmental change and security community. We would love to hear from you at email@example.com or via our user survey.
Johannes Ackva is a project manager at adelphi and has led the conceptual development and implementation of the ECC Factbook. Benjamin Pohl is a senior project manager at adelphi working on the intersection of global environmental change with foreign, security, and development policy. He has co-developed the ECC Factbook and is a co-author of A New Climate for Peace.
Image Credit: The ECC Factbook by adelphi.