How we can link our responses to conflict and climate change

    Last week saw the most significant climate change agreement of our lifetimes. After 21 years of wrangling, world leaders finally managed to reach a deal to curb greenhouse gas emissions. At the same time, weighing heavily on the same leaders’ minds is how to deal with the pervasive threat of terror.  The aim in both cases is to safeguard the right of current and future generations to live safe, secure and fulfilled lives. The fact that the climate conference took place in Paris grimly underscores this duality. But it isn’t simply that tackling climate change and conflict are parallel challenges. Rather, they are linked risks which need to be met with linked responses. Here’s why:

    Even with the Paris agreement to keep warming to 1.5 degrees, the effects of warming already in the system will play out for at least the next two decades, impacting conflict, security and fragility. Climate change played a role in the ongoing political economy of conflict in Darfur and Mali and in food insecurity across the Sahel. Climate change has also played a complicating role in recent conflicts in the Arab Spring, most notably in Syria and will certainly make the complicated process of peace harder to achieve. 

    Of course, no conflict has one single cause. Rather, climate change can exacerbate issues that can already cause conflict such as unemployment, volatile food prices and political grievances, making them harder to manage and increasing the possibilities of political instability or violence.

    For example, the five-year drought from 2006-2011 in Syria was the nail in the coffin, making fragile livelihoods of rural farmers untenable. With failing crop yields and falling incomes, many  moved to urban centres such as Daraa, putting a strain on weak infrastructure and scant basic services. It wasn’t the drought in itself which caused the conflict, but the existing social, political and economic tensions which were already in place in Assad’s Syria, shifting the tipping point at which conflict ignited.

    What determines how climate change might contribute to conflict lies in the understanding of the ways in which climate change and security risks interact. The effects of climate change, such as more frequent hurricanes, long-term changes in rainfall and temperature and sea-level rise are not experienced in isolation. They combine with the social, political or economic factors at play. In already fragile contexts where risks like poverty, weak governance and conflict are high and ability to cope with these risk is low, climate change acts as the ultimate ‘threat multiplier’, increasing the risk of violent conflict, and inhibiting prospects for peace.

    And climate change will continue to inhibit peace unless it is effectively integrated into managing risk and building resilience. Many of the most affected by climate change live in fragile states where under-development is intractable and people’s capacity to manage climate changes is weak. The response to our recent floods here in the UK for all their shortcomings are unlikely to push local communities towards violence. Yet in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu, the impact of the devastating floods is combined with poverty, endemic corruption and long-standing perceptions of marginalisation of the poorest by the central government in Delhi. Here, the failure by local or central government to respond adequately could pose a very real risk of violence or political instability. This possible instability will make it harder for these communities to adapt to climate change and for authorities to provide adequate adaptation support, locking them into a vicious cycle of conflict, poverty and climate vulnerability.

    There is much that can be done to ensure that climate change does not lead to increased conflict, insecurity and fragility. Research conducted for the G7 found that climate change is the ultimate multiplier of threats. Take any risk to security such as volatile food prices or competition over local resources, add in climate change and the situation gets degrees worse.

    Addressing the root causes of vulnerability to climate change – such as the lack of livelihood diversification, political marginalisation, unsustainable management of natural resources, weak or inflexible institutions and unfair policy processescan help ensure countries plan for uncertainty and peacefully manage a range of possible futures which climate change presents.

    Taking account of these links between climate change, conflict and fragility is central to building resilience in an ever uncertain world. Obviously, the best way to reduce the threat is to get the best possible deal at Paris to reduce future greenhouse gas emissions. But with dramatic changes already under way, people need to adapt. And how people and governments adapt, especially in fragile contexts, is critical. Better policy responses are required to ensure that how we tackle climate change does not inadvertently fuel conflict. For example, a large push towards renewable energy in 2007 saw a switch of land use from food production to growing crops for biofuels which was perceived to contribute to higher food prices and resultant food riots in over 40 countries around the world. There were also instances of conflict over land taken from people for growing biofuels.

    Furthermore, our efforts to tackle conflict and global terrorism needs to take account of climate change, and where possible, use responses to climate change in support of peace and stability. If we want to reduce the risk of people falling into extremism through the provision of education, training and jobs, we need to make sure that those skills and jobs are ‘climate-proof’. There would be little value in providing support for farming to unemployed Syrian young men when long-term drought was the reason they cannot pursue a livelihood in farming.

    With whatever is agreed at Paris, there will be new money going towards responding to climate change. If these resources could go towards addressing vulnerability, then they can achieve the triple bottom line of building resilience to climate change, conflict and poverty. To give some examples: we could support the provision of sustainable livelihoods in largely agrarian fragile contexts like Mali, we could buffet communities from the volatility of food prices in import dependent countries like Yemen through regulating speculation on food commodities on the global market; we could ensure social safety nets are in place to protect the poorest when fuel and food subsidies are removed in Egypt, will all address some of the root causes of conflict as well as vulnerability to climate impacts.

    Now that leaders in Paris have agreed a global deal to reduce emissions, we need adequate funds to support the poorest and most vulnerable adapt and we need to find ways for developing countries to progress in a low-carbon way. But the way in which these agreements are implemented in fragile states will determine whether we can safeguard the prospect of current and future generations to live safe, secure and fulfilled lives in the face of both climate change and conflict. Single sector interventions will not deal with compound risks. Integrating policies and responses in three sectors – climate change adaptation, development and humanitarian aid, and peacebuilding – is critical to ensure efforts on all three of these fronts can help strengthen resilience to climate-conflict risks and create a climate of lasting peace.

    Janani Vivekananda is the Head of Environment, Climate Change and Security at International Alert where she is responsible for research, advocacy and implementation support on climate change, environmental and natural resource related dimensions of peacebuilding and security. She has been working on climate change and security issues since 2006 and has published widely on the subject.


    Photo credit: United Nations Photo /