Rising Tides, Rising Stakes: Climate Change, Conflict, and the Pursuit of Sustainable Peace

Climate change acts as a threat multiplier, exacerbating existing challenges by escalating food insecurity, water scarcity, and resource competition.

The global impact of climate change on peace and security is a prominent concern at the upcoming COP28 UN Climate Change Conference in Dubai this December, as emphasized by UN Secretary-General António Guterres in his significant address on the state of the planet. Guterres highlighted climate change as a major threat to peace, stating that the repercussions of environmental degradation hinder poverty eradication and jeopardize food security. Furthermore, he noted that addressing climate change becomes more challenging as disruptions lead to instability, displacement, and conflict.

The recent release of the UN Environment Programme’s Emissions Gap Report 2021, titled “The Heat Is On,” underscores the urgency of the situation. The report reveals that the current commitments made by countries are steering the world towards a temperature increase of 2.7°C by the century’s end. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warns that even a 2°C rise would significantly impact food security, human health, and overall security.

The heightened risk of conflict is exacerbated in nations experiencing climate change-induced events such as droughts, diminished harvests, or the destruction of critical infrastructure leading to the displacement of communities. According to a study conducted by Stanford, climate factors have influenced armed conflict risk by varying percentages, ranging from 3% to 20% over the past century.

The study anticipates a significant increase in this influence in the years to come. Moreover, countries entrenched in conflict face a disproportionate impact from climate variability and extremes. This is attributed to the limited adaptive capacity of individuals, systems, and institutions already grappling with the repercussions of ongoing conflicts, as emphasized by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). Consequently, the impacts of climate change have the potential to compound existing structural vulnerabilities, acting as a multiplier of threats and risks.

Climate Change and Conflict: Understanding the Linkages

Climate change acts as a threat multiplier, exacerbating existing challenges by escalating food insecurity, water scarcity, and resource competition. Concurrently, it disrupts livelihoods and prompts migration, intensifying the complexity of global issues. When coupled with other planetary crises like land degradation and the overexploitation of the environment, climate change has the potential to render already precarious situations untenable. The intricate relationship between climate change and conflict is further complicated by its impacts on poverty, mental health, food security, and migration dynamics.

Droughts, floods, land degradation, and resource exploitation impose constraints on communities, limiting their harvests, causing the loss of livestock, and leading to diminished incomes, ultimately fostering conditions conducive to violent conflicts. As these climate-induced stressors persist over time, the strain on natural resources, coupled with demographic, economic, and political pressures, can erode a nation’s capacity for self-governance. This degradation, in turn, contributes to internal conflicts and, in extreme cases, even state collapse.

How Climate Change generates Conflict

In the economic realm, there is compelling evidence indicating that a temperature increase of 1°C can precipitate a decline of over 2 percent in economic growth, particularly impacting impoverished nations and causing disruptions in crop and food production. The consequential rise in food prices not only poses a significant threat to food security but also amplifies the probability of violent conflicts. Furthermore, economic shocks in fragile countries have the potential to expose the demographic of young, unemployed individuals to recruitment efforts by armed groups, exacerbating existing security concerns.

In the social context in resource-dependent communities, conflicts frequently arise among distinct social groups contending for limited resources. Across historical contexts, the dynamics of cooperation and conflict have undergone shifts within the lives of these communities as they vie for increasingly scarce resources. Examined from a human security perspective, climate change has the potential to impede growth and diminish the resilience of vulnerable communities, ultimately trapping them in a cycle of chronic poverty, heightened vulnerability, and sustained loss.

Within politically charged landscapes, nations with low-income status residing in deteriorated environments confront an elevated susceptibility to economic shocks, compelled migration, and the disruption of political institutions. The interplay of economic vulnerability, migratory pressures, and political instability becomes particularly pronounced in these circumstances.

Creating New Forms of Disempowerment and Social Tension

Climate change not only has the capacity to exacerbate existing conflicts but also has the potential to disempower communities, pushing them further into the throes of discord. Particularly susceptible are communities with fragile infrastructures, facing the dual threats of property deprivation and the imposition of new practices that erode their rights to sustainable livelihoods.

The intricate links between climate change and violent conflict are elucidated through four discernible mechanisms. First, there is the degradation of livelihood conditions, marking a significant catalyst for unrest. Additionally, shifts in migration and pastoral mobility patterns contribute to the complex interplay between climate-induced changes and conflict dynamics. Tactical considerations by armed groups further underscore the nuanced relationship, as they adapt strategies in response to environmental alterations.

 Finally, the exploitation of local grievances by the elite acts as a fuel for heightened tensions, aggravating the impact of climate change on conflict escalation in diverse regions. This multifaceted web of interactions highlights the need for comprehensive understanding and targeted interventions to address the intricate relationship between climate change and conflict dynamics.

Absence of “Fit-For-Purpose” institutions to tackle Climate conflict

Climate change, as a phenomenon capable of exacerbating existing conflicts and introducing new threats, has starkly exposed the shortcomings of current institutions in effectively managing the scale and severity of these conflicts. Institutions play a dual role, functioning as both the software and hardware through which climate strategies are implemented. When institutions are weak, their ability to anticipate conflicts arising from climate-related challenges is compromised, relegating them to passive observers rather than proactive mitigators of conflicts.

The unequal allocation of incentives and resources has the potential to plant the seeds of disempowerment and conflict, simultaneously eroding the governance mechanisms upon which institutional climate frameworks rely. This imbalance can weaken the overall effectiveness of climate strategies, hindering their capacity to address emerging challenges. Furthermore, the loss of credibility in traditional institutions amplifies the perception of a dysfunctional state, incapable of adequately addressing issues of environmental sustainability. This undermines public trust and exacerbates the challenges associated with climate-induced conflicts.

Peace-building Strategies; The Way Forward

According to the International Institute for Sustainable Development, neglecting to incorporate climate adaptation considerations into peacebuilding plans and post-conflict development agendas poses a significant risk to their long-term sustainability. The synergy between conflict and climate change necessitates a proactive approach, requiring the advancement of new legal and policy frameworks, increased funding, and enhanced programming. This approach is crucial in addressing the complex interplay between conflict and climate change, ensuring a more resilient and sustainable future.

In fragile and conflict-affected situations, there is a vital need to support community assets and livelihoods. By doing so, vulnerability can be reduced, and resilience to shocks can be enhanced. This targeted support is indispensable for fostering stability and sustainable development in regions grappling with the dual challenges of conflict and climate-related risks.

An imperative in this context is the provision of policy-relevant research. By delving into findings that can be translated into practical policies and peace-building practices, a more informed and effective response to the interconnected issues of conflict and climate change can be developed. This research-based approach ensures that strategies are well-grounded and capable of addressing the nuanced dynamics at the intersection of these critical global challenges.

Conclusion

In conclusion, it is imperative that peace-building efforts evolve to become more attuned to climate considerations, enhancing their ability to navigate and respond effectively to the intricate challenges of contemporary peace-building contexts. A critical aspect involves a thorough assessment of climate-related security risks, promoting extensive cross-agency knowledge exchange and learning, and capitalizing on synergies to foster sustainable peace. Proactive identification of climate action as an opportunity for building enduring peace is essential, addressing both short-term adaptation needs and long-term resilience goals. Moreover, embracing a rights-based approach necessitates states to uphold and prioritize the fulfillment of all human rights for every individual. This commitment involves preventing harm caused by climate change, ensuring the availability of necessary resources, and empowering people to take appropriate actions in the face of these complex challenges.

Rameen Siddiqui
Rameen Siddiqui
A thought leader and youth activist with main focus areas being Sustainable Development, Political Economy, Development Justice and Advocacy. A member of the United Nations Major Group for Children and Youth (MGCY). Also a Youth Member of United Nations Association of Pakistan (UNAP).