Climate change, conflict and fragility: understanding the linkages, shaping balanced responses

Janani Vivekananda | Exclusively written for | December 2009

Issues:Climate change, Competition over resources

Thousands of negotiators, activists and lobbyists have descended on Copenhagen for two weeks to attempt to seal a global deal on climate change. Issues on the negotiating table include how much wealthy polluters like the US put towards financing measures to help people in poorer countries cope with the impacts they are already experiencing, and how the rich states will share their low carbon technology with poor states so that the unindustrialised world can still develop without relying on fossil fuels.

But as the negotiations unfold, one very real issue unlikely to be given much discussion space is the heightened risk of violent conflict. Factors linking climate change and the potential for conflict include a number of powerful threats to human security, such as water scarcity, land degradation, decreased food production. The risk will be greatest in poor, badly governed countries, many of which have a history of armed conflict. International Alert’s report ‘A Climate of Conflict’ estimates that just under three billion people live in 46 conflict-affected countries, where climate change could create a high risk of violent conflict, and a further in two billion people living in an additional 56 countries face a high risk of instability as a result of climate change.

Attention to the security implications of climate change is slowly increasing among politicians and strategists in the developed world, yet climate change negotiators are largely silent on the matter. Specialists in climate change are not generally well informed about it and, although development specialists universally agree that the poorest will be worst hit by climate change, they have not resolved how to deal with the issue of fragile states in climate negotiations.

It is essential to address this issue, but necessary to do so carefully. The potential conflict implications are among the most compelling arguments for rich states to take action against climate change. But there are three notes of warning.

First, there is the risk of over-stating the conflict dimension in an attempt to persuade a sceptical, even disaffected or merely ill-informed public to support cuts in carbon emissions. Fuelling fears that climate change will generate threats like terrorism and mass immigration* will lead to oversimplified and inaccurate perceptions of the security angle. In the political debate, exaggerated positions will inevitably be vulnerable.

Secondly, securitising the issue runs the risk of a damaging response that overlooks cost-effective and sustainable options in favour of high cost and probably ineffective military ones. The point here is that policy responses must be based on a thorough understanding of not only the reality of the conflict risk but also of how it is shaped. Effects of climate change such as more frequent natural disasters, long-term water shortages and food insecurity could combine with other factors and lead to violent conflict. The reason why this can happen lies in the context of poverty, weak governance, political marginalisation and corruption. These factors limit the capacity to adapt to climate change and simultaneously drive conflict. Policy responses need to look not only at the immediate risk of violence, for example by reforming the security sector, and not only at the specific environmental impacts, for example by taking steps to reduce the risk of disaster, but also at the broader context of failures of governance.

Thirdly, climate negotiators have not paid attention to fragile states and conflict risks. Most negotiators are climate and legal experts whose remits do not extend beyond the talks. They have neither incentive nor expertise for taking account of the complex web of that links climate, conflict, governance and development.

Nonetheless, to be effective, the global agreement must make it possible to address these linkages. This means taking the discussion beyond the question of how to raise climate funds for adaptation and mitigation, into thinking about how to spend and what governance and institutional changes are needed so spending can be effective.

Policies for adaptation have to respond to the political and social realities in which they are intended, or they will not work. Climate change impacts are linked to conflict, development, government, human rights, trade and the world economy. The problems are interlinked and so the responses must be interlinked.

International Alert’s latest report ‘Climate Change, Conflict and Fragility’ recommends that adaptation strategies should be more conflict-sensitive. Water management in water stressed countries for example should be decided by understanding the systems of power and equity. This must involve the poorest and most marginalised, and avoid pitting groups against each other.

Likewise, peace-building needed to be climate-proofed by paying attention to the availability of resources for livelihoods such as agriculture - which could be under pressure because of climate change - for returning ex-combatants or people displaced by conflict.  For example, in Liberia, which is in the process of recovery from war, many ex-combatants are returning to villages hoping to make a living from agriculture. But climate scientists predict that crop yields in parts of West Africa could halve by 2020. The prospect arises of returned fighters becoming resentful unemployed farmers, and thus potential recruits, with their combat experience, in a new conflict.

The efforts of rich countries to shift to a low-carbon economy must be peace-friendly and supportive of development. We don’t want a repeat of the hasty actions in 2007/8 that saw the diversion of food crops and land use to biofuel production playing a role in pushing food prices up, causing conflict in over 30 countries.

Getting the negotiators in Copenhagen to understand these interlinkages will mean there’s a good chance that responses to climate change could yield a double dividend: increasing resilience to climate change and to violent conflict. Failure to take account of the linkages though could result in the millions or billions of dollars of new funding actually becoming part of the problem.


*For example, see the US public education campaign on climate change, September 2009

Janani Vivekananda is Senior Climate Policy Adviser on climate change and security at International Alert, the London-based peacebuilding organisation. She co-authored Alert's latest report Climate Change, Conflict and Fragility, and A Climate of Conflict: The links between climate change, peace and war, published by International Alert in 2007.


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