Climate change is upon us and its physical effects have started to unfold. That is the broad scientific consensus expressed in the Fourth Assessment Review of the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change. This report takes this finding as its starting point and looks at the social and human consequences that are likely to ensue – particularly the risks of conflict and instability.
Climate, poverty, governance
Hardest hit by climate change will be people living in poverty, in under-developed and unstable states, under poor governance. The effect of the physical consequences – such as more frequent extreme weather, melting glaciers, and shorter growing seasons – will add to the pressures under which those societies already live. The background of poverty and bad governance means many of these communities both have a low capacity to adapt to climate change and face a high risk of violent conflict.
To understand how the effects of climate change will interact with socio-economic and political problems in poorer countries means tracing the consequences of consequences. This process highlights four key elements of risk – political instability, economic weakness, food insecurity and large-scale migration. Political instability and bad governance make it hard to adapt to the physical effects of climate change and hard to handle any conflicts that arise without violence. Economic weakness narrows the range of income possibilities for the population and deprives the state of resources with which to meet people’s needs. Food insecurity challenges the very basis of being able to continue living in a particular locality and, as a response to that and other kinds of insecurity, large-scale migration carries high risk of conflict because of the fearful reactions it often receives and the inflammatory politics that often greet it.
Countries at risk
Many of the world’s poorest countries and communities thus face a double-headed problem: that of climate change and violent conflict. There is a real risk that climate change will compound the propensity for violent conflict, which in turn will leave communities poorer, less resilient and less able to cope with the consequences of climate change. There are 46 countries – home to 2.7 billion people – in which the effects of climate change interacting with economic, social and political problems will create a high risk of violent conflict.
There is a second group of 56 countries where the institutions of government will have great difficulty taking the strain of climate change on top of all their other current challenges. In these countries, though the risk of armed conflict may not be so immediate, the interaction of climate change and other factors creates a high risk of political instability, with potential violent conflict a distinct risk in the longer term. These 56 countries are home to 1.2 billion people.
In most of the conflict-threatened group of 46 states (many of them currently or recently affected by violent conflict) and in many of the group of 56 that faces the risk of instability, it is too late to believe the situation can be made safe solely by reducing carbon emissions worldwide and mitigating climate change. Those measures are essential but their effects will only be felt with time. What is required now is for states and communities to adapt to handle the challenges of climate change.
In most of the countries that face the double-headed problem of climate change and violent conflict, the governments cannot be expected to take on the task of adaptation alone. Some of them lack the will, more lack the capacity, and some lack both. What is required is international cooperation to support local action, both as a way of strengthening international security and to achieve the goals of sustainable development.
Without dropping or downplaying mitigation, the international policy agenda thus needs a significant increase in the energy and resources that are focused on adaptation. Against estimated costs of adaptation that range from $10-40 billion, the resources currently available amount to a few hundred million dollars with another billion somewhere in the pipeline.
At the same time as adaptation must receive more emphasis and more funding, it matters even more that it is the right kind of adaptation and that money is spent in the right way. To organise adaptation as top-down programmes will alienate local communities because it will feel like a series of external impositions, decided by government authorities from which they feel distant and explained by outside experts with whom they have nothing in common.
A different approach is possible, based on peacebuilding, engaging communities’ energies in a social process to work out how to adapt to climate change and how to handle conflicts as they arise, so that they do not become violent. It is an approach that brings the hard science of climate change – which local communities do not and cannot be expected to know in the first instance, and which must be communicated clearly – together with local knowledge and understanding to figure out the best mode of adaptation.
Adaptation and peacebuilding
The double-headed problem of climate change and violent conflict thus has a unified solution – peacebuilding and adaptation are effectively the same kind of activity, involving the same kinds of methods of dialogue and social engagement, requiring from governments the same values of inclusivity and transparency. At the same time as adaptation to climate change can and must be made conflict-sensitive, peacebuilding and development must be made climate-sensitive.
A society that can develop adaptive strategies for climate change in this way is well equipped to avoid armed conflict. And a society that can manage conflicts and major disagreements over serious issues without a high risk of violence is well equipped to adapt successfully to the challenge of climate change. Climate change could even reconcile otherwise divided communities by posing a threat against which to unite and tasks on which to cooperate.
Twelve recommendations for addressing climate change in fragile states
1. Move the issue of conflict and climate change higher up the international political agenda
New initiatives are needed to gain agreement on the importance of adaptation, especially in fragile states, and to develop international guidelines and make available adequate funding.
2. Research the indirect local consequences of climate change
Research is urgently needed on how the social and political consequences of climate change are likely to play out in specific regions, countries and localities.
3. Develop and spread research competence
University and research networks need mobilising and strengthening to develop and spread competence on these issues, especially where consequences of climate change will hit hardest.
4. Improve knowledge and generate policy through dialogue
International cooperation needs to promote dialogue on adaptation among local communities, national governments and regional organisations.
5. Prioritise adaptation over mitigation in fragile states
In fragile states, priority should be given to understanding and addressing the consequences of the consequences of climate change to prevent violent conflict.
6. Develop the right institutional context: good governance for climate change
Developing competence on adaptation needs to be treated as part of good governance everywhere.
7. Prepare to manage migration
Research identifying likely migration flows can help identify both migrant and host communities where dialogue should be started early to prepare to manage the process.
8. Ensure National Adaptation Plans of Action are conflict-sensitive
National Adaptation Plans of Action should take account of a state’s socio-political and economic context and conflict dynamics.
9. Climate-proof peacebuilding and development
Peacebuilding and development strategies should include adaptation to climate change and make explicit how activities on these three interconnected strands strengthen one another.
10. Engage the private sector
Guidelines are needed to help companies identify how their core commercial operations can support adaptation.
11. Link together international frameworks of action
Greater efforts are needed to link the variety of separate international approaches with the related issues of peacebuilding, development, adaptation and disaster management.
12. Promote regional cooperation on adaptation
International cooperation on adaptation is for regional bodies as well as for the UN.