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GREAT insights Magazine

Linking responses to climate change and conflict

May 2016

Vivekananda, J. 2016. Linking responses to climate change and conflict. GREAT Insights Magazine, Volume 5, Issue 3. May/June 2016.

Explicit recognition of the linkages between climate and security is still missing. Climate change acts as a ‘threat multiplier’, increasing the risk of violent conflict, and inhibiting prospects for peace. Climate finance, if allocated and used in a conflict sensitive way, can be an entry point to tackle deep rooted causes of vulnerability to climate change, disasters and conflict.

Climate and conflict links in the post-2015 aid architecture

December 2015 saw the most significant climate change agreement of a generation. After 21 years of wrangling, the Paris Agreement on Climate Change forged a global deal to curb greenhouse gas emissions. In fact, 2015 was a momentous year for political commitment and agenda setting on the most urgent challenges of our times: not only climate change, but also disasters and poverty, with the adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals in September and the agreement of the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction in March 2015 – all under Agenda 2030. The agreement of these frameworks all mark positive headway for multilateralism and provide important guidance for future development and climate and disaster responses.

But success in translating these agendas into action is stymied by the fact that the new frameworks run in parallel. Explicit recognition of the linkages between different types of risks and vulnerabilities – such as the links between climate and security – is still missing. Tackling climate change, disasters and conflict are not parallel challenges. They are linked risks which need to be met with linked responses.

The links between climate change and conflict are critical to achieving peace and sustainable development. Even with the Paris Agreement to keep warming to 1.5°C, 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 complex process of peace harder to achieve.

No conflict has one single cause and it would be myopic to claim that climate change was the sole cause of any conflict to date. Rather, climate change exacerbates socio-economic and political 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 compounded existing poverty dynamics, 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 itself which caused the conflict, but the existing tensions which were already in place in Assad’s Syria, shifting the tipping point at which conflict ignited.

Climate change as a peace inhibitor

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 as physical hazards in isolation. They combine with the social, political or economic factors at play. Research conducted for the G7 found that in already fragile contexts where risks like poverty, weak governance and conflict are high and ability to cope with these risks is low, climate change acts as the ultimate ‘threat multiplier’, increasing the risk of violent conflict, and inhibiting prospects for peace. 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.

Climate change will continue to inhibit peace unless it is effectively integrated into managing risk and building resilience. Many of those most affected by climate change live in fragile states where under-development is intractable and people’s capacity to manage climate changes is weak. For example, in the Indian states of Odisha, Telangana and Andhra Pradesh, the impact of the 2016 heatwave 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 to impacts on livelihoods and the rising death toll 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.

Choosing the right approach

There is much that can be done to ensure that climate change does not lead to increased conflict, insecurity and fragility. 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 processes – can 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 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.

Furthermore, our efforts to tackle conflict need to take account of climate change, and where possible, use responses to climate change in support of peace and stability to avoid maladaptation. If we want to mitigate drivers of conflict or extremism through the provision of education, training and jobs, it is imperative that those skills and jobs are ‘climate-proof’. For example, there would be little value in providing support for farming to unemployed Syrian young men when long-term drought is the reason they cannot pursue a livelihood in farming, or to reintegrate Somali refugees into pastoralism or fishing livelihoods which are no longer viable. In some cases, such interventions could inadvertently do harm to conflict dynamics through raising expectations around jobs which cannot be sustained.

Beyond Paris: Opportunities for integration

2016 is being heralded as ‘the year of implementation’ of the 2015 global agreements. The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development signifies momentum and political will and there is a lot to be optimistic about. However, the way in which we go about responding to climate change and disasters is critical to ensuring we contribute to more sustainable and resilient communities – rather than exacerbate existing problems and create more trouble in already fragile contexts. Under the Paris Agreement and the current humanitarian aid system, funding for climate change and disaster response is at an all-time high. According to the Global Humanitarian Assistance Report 2015, disaster aid rose for a second year running to a record US$24.5 billion. Yet despite this rise, funding was not sufficient to meet needs. With increasing demands on development aid, it is unlikely that the international aid community can keep on increasing humanitarian aid budgets, instead it needs to ensure more efficient allocation of resources.

Climate finance, if allocated and used in a conflict sensitive way, can be an entry point to tackle deep rooted causes of vulnerability to climate change, disasters and conflict. It can also be an enabler for more cooperation and coordination between aid stakeholders, which can in turn be used to leverage other types of political mobilisation and governance reform. The apolitical nature of climate change can often foster a sense of shared responsibility between all sectors and enable dialogue, coordination and cooperation. More pragmatically, money talks, and climate finance – particularly increasing contributions to the Green Climate Fund – can be a strong incentive for linked responses if this requirement is built into funding tenders. So far, most money is not going to fragile states – where many of the most vulnerable are – which is another issue that can and should be addressed through an enabling aid architecture, which allows higher risk and flexible spending.

The components of the 2030 Agenda cannot be achieved in isolation of each other. Nor can international aid donors hope to make headway in tackling fragility without linking to climate and disasters processes. On 22-23 May 2016, the World Humanitarian Summit (WHS) will bring together humanitarian stakeholders and world leaders in Istanbul in a bid to make the humanitarian system fit for purpose in a rapidly changing world. The WHS presents an opportunity to rethink how we ‘do’ humanitarian aid and to perhaps challenge the received wisdom relating to the humanitarian principles. If the WHS can push us toward new funding streams, policy coordination and implementation strategies, which enable interventions to address the root causes of vulnerability (to the linked challenge of disasters, climate change and conflict), then we have some hope of achieving the triple bottom line of building resilience to climate change, conflict and poverty. A good solid start would be to embed normative principles around conflict sensitivity into climate change and disaster risk reduction frameworks. This will not of course be the solution, but it will enable progress in joined-up implementation of the 2015 frameworks which, at the very least, does no harm in fragile states, and can perhaps even contribute to building peace and stability.

About the author


Janani Vivekananda is Head of the Environment, Climate Change and Security Programme at International Alert.

Photo: Lake Bam, Burkina Faso: enormous environmental challenges such as silting, drastic reduction of aquatic life and conflicts of interest threaten the livelihoods of the 28,000 people living from this lake. Credit: Ollivier Girard for Center for International Forestry Research,

This article was published in GREAT Insights Volume 5, Issue 3  (May/June 2016).

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External authors

Janani Vivekananda