The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has released its sixth synthesis report, which covers the progression of climate change, its widespread impacts and risks, as well as possible mitigation and adaptation measures. As with last year, a variety of pathways that can increase threats to peace and stability are covered throughout the report. While these pathways, including food, water and livelihood security, are threats in their own right, these issues can also compound with other local contextual factors, like social cohesion or population size and density, leading to further challenges to human security. Among others, the report highlighted cause for concern in these areas:
Over the last fifty years, climate change is likely to have slowed the growth in agricultural productivity across the globe (IPCC 2023, 2.1.2, p. 15). This has led to widespread food insecurity, particularly affecting communities in Africa, Asia, Central and South America, Small Island Developing States (SIDS), the Arctic, and Least Developed Countries (LDCs). Small-scale food producers, including agricultural workers and low-income households, are experiencing the largest adverse impacts. These communities are also among the lowest contributors to climate change (IPCC 2023, 2.1.1, p. 6).
Currently, half of the global population experiences severe water scarcity for at least part of the year (IPCC 2023, 2.1.2, p. 15). Highly connected to food security, Africa, Asia, Central and South America, SIDS, and LDCs are most impacted. Over the past year, hotter temperatures and extreme climatic events have exposed millions to water insecurity. Non-climatic drivers have also contributed to this insecurity in combination with climate change to further cause scarcity and other water security issues. Meanwhile, ocean warming and acidification are adversely affecting fisheries and shellfish aquacultures, damaging biodiversity and leading to food insecurity and livelihood loss for those reliant on the sector (IPCC 2023, 2.1.2, p. 15). A lack of both water and food is driving competition over remaining resources, which other reports have shown can lead to violent conflict.
Through its impacts on food and water systems, global health has been compromised by climate change. Food and water-borne diseases are becoming more widespread, with already vulnerable communities experiencing the worst effects (IPCC 2023, 2.1, p. 15). Hotter temperatures and the growing number of extreme heat events are causing avoidable deaths in all regions of the world (IPCC 2023, 2.1, 16). Mental health impacts have also been widespread, with challenging temperatures and extreme weather events adversely affecting mental wellbeing and causing trauma (IPCC 2023, 2.1, p. 16).
Effects across the planet vary from increased levels of poverty at the individual level to significant economic damages regionally. Climate-exposed sectors, including agriculture, forestry, fishery, energy, and tourism, have been particularly impacted, with corresponding effects on food and water security. Extreme weather events ranging from floods to wildfires have directly impacted livelihoods and damaged the infrastructure required to sustain them. These effects have not been confined to the area of hazard, with livelihood impacts stretching beyond the immediate area of impact. Social equity including gender equity has been damaged (IPCC 2023, 2.1.2, p. 17).
The report emphasises differentiated effects across urban and rural divides. Rural areas tend to be more reliant on climate-sensitive livelihoods, heightening vulnerability, while infrastructure damage was noted as a key threat to urban livelihoods, particularly when essential sectors, including sanitation, energy, transport, and water systems are compromised by extreme weather events (IPCC 2023, 2.1.2, p. 15).
Extreme weather events and other effects of climate change are driving displacement within countries and across borders. African countries are facing mass displacement, with the largest impacts (relative to population) being seen in Caribbean and Pacific Island Countries (IPCC 2023, 2.1.2, p. 16). A combination of interrelated drivers, such as migration, inequality, and increased urbanisation, are further causing exposure to climatic hazards (IPCC 2023, 4.3, p. 62). Settlements are frequently informal, hosting large, growing populations of IDPs and refugees. Fragile infrastructure is more vulnerable to extreme weather events, rendering displaced populations even more at risk.
Adaptation and maladaptation prospects
Every sector and region has demonstrated efforts to adapt to changing environmental realities (IPCC 2023, 2.2.3, p. 21). Many of these have been effective. Urban greening, wetland restoration, and the maintenance of upstream forest ecosystems are reducing flood risks and urban heat. Cultivar improvements, on-farm water management and storage, community-led adaptation, sustainable land management approaches, and other efforts have also been successful in some regions (IPCC 2023, 2.2.3, p. 22).
However, adaptation is inhibited by a number of factors, with efforts to adapt sometimes even making matters worse. The main barrier constraining effective adaptation is insufficient finances, with developing countries both more vulnerable to climate change and less likely to be able to afford to adapt (IPCC 2023, 2.3.2, p. 29). This issue is on the rise, with a widening disparity between the estimated cost of adaptation and allocated finances. Maladaptation, whereby intended adaptation efforts increase the adverse effects of climate change, is also growing. Including inappropriate, uninformed responses to climatic issues, maladaptation wastes resources, exacerbating the effects of climate change, and further entrenching inequalities, particularly affecting marginalised groups and vulnerable communities (IPCC 2023, 2.3.2, p. 28).
While climate change does not directly cause conflict, an interaction of climatic and non-climatic factors can work as risk drivers with cascading effects on security (IPCC 2023, 3.1.2, p. 37). For example, climate change leads to food insecurity, supply instability, and competition, which combined with other factors including pandemics or existing conflicts, create compound security threats (IPCC 2023, 4.3, p. 64). The effects of climate change, including food and water insecurity, migration, and more, increase competition for natural resources like water, grazing areas, wood, and others.
Meanwhile, regions already experiencing conflict tend to be more vulnerable to climatic hazards. These conflicts are inhibiting Agriculture, Forestry, and Other Land Use (AFOLU) mitigation options, creating cycles of instability (IPCC 2023, 4.5.4, p. 17). The report emphasised that global agreements on climate change will reduce the impacts of conflict on populations. It also noted the importance of transboundary cooperation to resolve issues like conflict and climate change that are not confined to nation states (IPCC 2023, 4.8.4, p. 83).
Where do we go from here?
Each of the impacts of climate change are highly interdependent, working to cause and exacerbate one another, sometimes even creating new risks. Conflict, in particular, can be an outcome of these compound drivers, which in turn hinders adaptation and mitigation, often leading to the repetition of cycles of climate insecurity over time.
In order to take effective action, peer-reviewed scientific studies that inform the IPCC need to be complemented by local and granular evidence from communities that are experiencing the largest impacts from climate change. By combining both quantitative and qualitative approaches, our own research in countries and regions like Mali, Eastern Africa and Jordan offer tailored analysis and tools to better understand climate-related risks to human security, potential entry points and build sustainable peace.
The synthesis report has outlined how some progress has been made to slow this threat with mitigation and adaptation efforts being undertaken. At the same time, these advancements have not been sufficient. An overhaul of the status quo and rapid scaling up of solutions that centre the needs of the most affected countries and communities is necessary to limit global temperature rise, reduce the severity of climate change impacts that threaten human security and peace, and enable our ability to adapt to changes that are already here.