Climate change can result in violent conflicts – peacebuilding NGO

By Michael de Laine, Copenhagen, 4th December 2009

One of the effects of climate change is a heightened risk of violent conflict, especially involving poor, badly governed countries with a recent history of armed conflict, the independent peacebuilding organisation International Alert says in a new report. This risk adds to their burdens and makes it harder for them to adapt to climate change. Climate change negotiations focus on the availability and control of finance, rather on the complexities of climate adaptation and the need to harmonise adaptation initiatives with development.

As climate change unfolds, one of its effects is a heightened risk of violent conflict, says the independent peacebuilding organisation International Alert in a new report, ‘Climate change, conflict and fragility – Understanding the linkages, shaping effective responses’.

This risk is at its sharpest in poor, badly governed countries, many of which have a recent history of armed conflict. This both adds to the burdens faced by deprived and vulnerable communities and makes it harder to reduce their vulnerability by adapting to climate change.

According to the organisation, which has worked for over 20 years in areas such as Africa, South Asia, the South Caucasus, Latin America, Lebanon and the Philippines to lay the foundations for lasting peace and security in communities affected by violent conflict, policy discussions about the consequences of climate change are beginning to acknowledge the conflict and security implications.

“However,” International Alert says, “these concerns are not being properly taken on within the complex negotiations for a new international agreement on reducing global warming and responding to climate change. In the negotiating context, the discussion focuses on how much money should be available for it and how that money will be controlled. This discussion pays scant attention to the complexities of adaptation, the need to harmonise it with development, or the dangers of it going astray in fragile and conflict-affected states and thereby failing to reduce vulnerability to climate change.”

Shaping adaptation policies means going beyond the most immediate natural and social effects of climate change and looking to the context in which its impact will be felt, the report states. This is because it is the interaction between the natural consequences and the social and political realities in which people live that will determine whether they can adapt successfully to climate change.

“Doing this means addressing the realities of the system of power in fragile and conflict-affected societies, a structure of power that often systematically excludes the voices of all but a privileged few,” International Alert says. “Policies for adapting to the effects of climate change have to respond to these realities or they will not work. At the same time, the field of development itself will have to adapt in order to face the challenge of climate change. Neither development, adaptation nor peacebuilding can be regarded as a bolt-on to either one of the other two. The problems are interlinked and the policy responses must be integrated.”

In establishing the overall goal of international policy on adaptation as helping people in developing countries adapt successfully to climate change even where there is state fragility or conflict risk, the report makes eight specific policy recommendations:

  1. Adaptation to climate change needs to be conflict-sensitive – responding to the needs of the people, involving them in consultation, taking account of power distribution and social order, and avoiding pitting groups against each other.
  2. Peacebuilding needs to be climate-proof, ensuring that its progress is not disrupted by the effects of climate change that could and should be anticipated.
  3. Shifts towards a low-carbon economy must be supportive of development and peace – unlike what happened with the rapid move to biofuels.
  4. Steps must be taken to strengthen poor countries’ social capacity to understand and manage climate and conflict risks.
  5. Greater efforts are needed to plan for and cope peacefully with climate-related migration.
  6. Institutions responsible for climate change adaptation need to be structured and staffed in a way that reflects the specific challenges of the climate-conflict inter-linkages. For this to be possible, institutions must restructure in such a way as to maximise the participation of ordinary people and build accountable and transparent public institutions.
  7. Development policy-making and strategic planning in the future, at both international and national levels, need to integrate with peaceful climate adaptation planning. Compartmentalisation between these areas is no longer viable.
  8. A large-scale systematic study of the likely costs of adaptation is required, including the social and political dimensions along with economic sectors that have so far been left out of most estimates.

The consequences of climate change, the incidence of violent conflict and the corrosive effects of state fragility are all major problems, and taking them on together is to take aim at a very difficult target, International Alert says.

“But they must be taken on together because these problems are not isolated from each other,” the organisation says. “At the same time, the fact that they are linked problems helps identify linked solutions that benefit from synergies and that have an impact on several targets at once.”

International Alert says the appropriate overarching goal of international policy on adaptation is to help people in developing countries adapt successfully to climate change even where there is state fragility or conflict risk – which it sums up in the policy goal ‘building resilience’ with the backing of five policy objectives that together constitute a coherent agenda:

  1. Adaptation to climate change needs to be conflict-sensitive. In fragile and conflict-affected contexts, all interventions must respond to the needs of the people, involve them in consultation, take account of power distribution and social order, and avoid pitting groups against each other.
  2. Peacebuilding needs to be climate-proof. For example, post-conflict reconstruction and the reintegration of ex-combatants into their villages must take account of the long-term viability of the land and natural resources available for lives and jobs.
  3. Shifts towards a low-carbon economy must be supportive of development and peace. For example, there must be no repeat of the rapid move to biofuels, which not only reduced food availability, but also threatened to drive millions of people off the land.
  4. Steps must be taken to strengthen poor countries’ social capacity to understand and manage climate and conflict risks.
  5. Greater efforts are needed to plan for and cope peacefully with climate-related migration.

International Alert says these tasks are feasible – “demanding, certainly, but distinctly achievable.”

Two fundamental shifts are required: in the way institutions are organised, and in the way the climate-conflict inter-linkages are addressed.

  1. Institutions responsible for climate change adaptation – whether under the architecture of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), international financial institutions, development agencies or peacebuilding organisations – “need to ensure that their internal systems and structures promote adaptation even where there is state fragility or conflict risk. In these complex and delicate situations, adaptation must do no harm, and ideally help the goal of peace along its way. For this to be possible, institutions must restructure in such a way as to maximise the participation of ordinary people and build accountable and transparent public institutions.”
  2. Strategies must adapt to meet the combined challenge of climate change, conflict risk and state fragility. It is wrong to imply that henceforth there will be old-style development with adaptation on top. It may be that there will be a continuum from development activities that are not affected by climate change to development activities whose entire purpose is adaptation, but overall policy and strategy will present a new form of development. That means development assistance will need to adapt too.

According to the report, a crucial step towards these objectives and the appropriate modes of implementation is a large-scale systematic study of adaptation costs.

Current estimates of the costs vary widely and are reportedly so short of the mark that they will not very helpful to planners, International Alert says.

It adds that these estimates “ignore costs of climate change impacts against which adaptation – as presently conceived – cannot protect people, such as those that stem from elite resource capture and discriminatory regulations on land rights. A comprehensive and holistic assessment and costing of adaptation is a priority if we are to have any hope that climate change adaptation can reduce the risk of conflict and fragility.”

Whether the new form of development is (or can be permitted to be) more expensive than the outlay to which donors are already committed has yet to be calculated, the organisation says.

“But it seems likely that much and probably most expenditure on adaptation will simply be indistinguishable from expenditure on development because the activities will be fused,” it adds. “It is in the context of this challenging agenda and these practical considerations that the next steps on an uncertain road need to be designed.”

The report, prepared by International Alert and the Initiative for Peacebuilding – Early Warning (IfP-EW), is based on a research paper that was originally commissioned by the UK Department for International Development.

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