Caught in Climate Security Inaction


Climate security is now mainstream, at least in theory. We know climate change will have significant impacts on armed conflict. Indeed, it probably has already. Raise the subject of “climate conflict” with government officials in most capitals, and they will probably say that urgent action is needed to counter these threats. Yet they may also concede that they are extremely uncertain about what to do.

Experienced international development departments are still working out how to prioritize climate change in their programming — sometimes asking if this is a problem that they can even help to tackle, or merely one they have to adapt to. Militaries know that their operational landscape is going to change radically, but also know that these problems do not have military solutions. There is a longstanding gap between conflict and environmental experts that will take time to overcome. So far, relevant departments in climate- and conflict-affected states, and in donor governments, have no strategies.



Much of this hesitation is down to caution. The intersection of climate change and conflict is a fiendishly difficult area. Two complex systems — one biophysical, one social — are repeatedly colliding, but it’s almost impossible to isolate the effect of even one of these collisions on today’s conflicts.

Is climate change behind the sharp rise in armed violence between farmers and herders across West and Central Africa, which saw casualties in Nigeria grow by 3,000 percent between 2010 and 2016? In many ways it is — longer droughts and extreme weather push herders into competition with farmers for fertile land and water. Or does responsibility lie with the many poor land policies, market pressures that raise the stakes around land access, tense histories, and politicians manipulating those tensions? No doubt these also play a role, and the relative significance of politics and climate in violent trends will vary by place and time.

Programming that misunderstands conflicts can do more harm than good. Efforts as benign as restoring degraded soils can increase land conflicts if not done with care, since they will raise the value of that land and so the competition for it. Since nothing is straightforward, it’s unsurprising the drive for interventions has been slow.

Still, there is no doubt this area of intervention is set to grow, and fast. There are three critical lessons we need to know as we get started.

Start with Environmental Preservation

Climate change and environmental destruction are linked, and stopping the latter is the best defense against the former. This is also the area that conflict experts and development practitioners are best positioned to help with. Climate change technically refers to persistent changes in weather patterns, which manifest in rising temperatures and more extreme weather events. These are happening in conflict zones and are hurting vulnerable ecosystems, and only major international reductions in carbon emissions have a hope of slowing this down. The scale of this challenge helps explain why certain agencies are skeptical of whether they can even try to address the climate-conflict intersection — they are unsure what they could even do about it.

A more immediate goal for practitioners concerned by climate conflict should be the preservation of existing ecosystems and biodiversity. Biodiversity loss, for example, has massive ramifications for livelihoods in conflict-affected states. Losing varieties of grasses diminishes the quantity and quality of pasture for livestock, while losing types of pollinators hurts farmers’ crops. Numerous processes can contribute to biodiversity loss — agriculture that is overly managed and leaves no room for nature; deforestation; and not least armed conflict itself. The International Committee of the Red Cross estimates that 80 percent of global conflicts are taking place in biodiversity “hotspots,” with mostly negative effects on these areas. Species loss is one of the many factors behind the staggering loss of the world’s fertile soils — a third of global cropland has been abandoned in the last 40 years because of soil erosion and degradation.

There are known ways of preserving biodiversity and soil quality on the land that people work — many as simple as planting trees within farmland. To make this work, we should be ready to pay for it. Poor people working in agriculture are often aware of the benefits trees can bring, but they will naturally choose short-term survival when their livelihood is at stake. They will need to benefit from ecosystem protection in the immediate term. This will not stop climate change’s effects, but peoples’ best defense against extreme weather is preserving the natural environments they already have.

But how does one preserve the environment in a conflict zone? It’s a notoriously difficult exercise, and one that has too often relied on bringing in more armed actors and excluding communities. An alternative concept that’s gaining interest is that of “environmental peacebuilding” — a tempting prospect of tackling two problems at once. The reasoning goes that if people have a shared interest in environmental preservation, perhaps even conflicting parties might be prepared to work together on it. Creating a space for cooperation over this relatively neutral topic could, in theory, help build trust, a sense of interdependence, and perhaps help lay the ground for future dialogue.

Although there are still few successes or failures to judge its viability, it’s an exciting area that’s worth investigating. For too long environmental concerns have not been taken seriously in peacebuilding. Even the vogue notion of “sustainable peace” championed by the United Nations for several years made little or no reference to the environment, despite its name. Still, modesty is called for, and people should heed two other critical lessons to secure future environmental peacebuilding successes.

Don’t Mistake Resource Management for Conflict Resolution

Conflicts inevitably involve tussles over resources — natural or otherwise — but this is not all they are. Yet because resource management is an exercise that (usually external) intervenors understand, all too often it becomes a substitute for proper conflict resolution.

While politics may be a division of resources, it seems paradoxical to consider environmental protection in these terms — in a conflict zone or otherwise. However, people depend on natural resources to survive and so a balance should be found between exploitation and preservation — a challenge made trickier by warring factions. To reach a level of sustainability, each party is going to have to make some adaptations, and some sacrifices. The danger lies in turning this into a purely economic exercise, and assuming that a balance that seems materially fair will lead to peace. However, conflict research has made emphatically clear that one can’t “buy” peace with money, land, natural resources, or otherwise. Identity, history, and feeling need addressing too.

For hard evidence of this, there are few better case studies than the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Surveys of both Israelis and Palestinians found that both sides were far more amenable to hypothetical peace deals if the other side made a symbolic gesture that acknowledged their pain and their cause’s legitimacy. By contrast, respondents were infuriated by hypothetical deals that would see them receive financial aid for compromising one of their “sacred,” more symbolic goals.

One surveyed group of Palestinian students (some of whom supported Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad) was enraged by a two-state solution that involved acknowledging legitimate Israeli statehood but included economic aid to Palestinians. However, their opposition to the deal was significantly reduced if Israel was prepared to offer a formal apology for Palestinian suffering. People’s support for peace cannot be bought with resources alone — a fact that gets repeatedly ignored. There is a similar risk of seeing environmentally driven conflicts as fixable with the right kind of resource management. Land, water, and all that comes with it is not a mere resource that can be carved up. It carries peoples’ identity.

Perhaps the most high-profile environmental dispute in the world, the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, demonstrates this well. In April, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed courted Egyptian anger, and the not insignificant risk of a military response, by declaring Ethiopia’s priorities to be countering COVID-19 first, and filling the dam second — possibly before talks with Egypt are finalized. Talks are attempting to reach a technical solution. The tricky thing is that it isn’t just water at stake, but the national pride and identity of two countries.

The dam is one of the few political points that unite Ethiopians, who believe the dam will transform the international image of their country from the famine-afflicted land shown by Live Aid to a self-sufficient regional powerhouse. It also represents shaking off the legal colonial-era yoke that allowed Egypt control over the Nile, not only within its borders but downstream. For Egyptians, the Nile is not just a water source but a national symbol of its heritage, its historical empires, and its regional power. To lose control over the majority of the Nile waters to Ethiopia would be a national humiliation, as well as a possible environmental catastrophe.

It won’t be easy to incorporate these factors into talks when the political stakes are so high. Both countries’ publics are hostile to any impression of appeasing the other. Yet if both sides could be made to publicly acknowledge the other’s viewpoint in an empathetic manner, rather than a dismissive one, it might make a significant difference. Too often violence is driven by a sense that no one is listening, and without a fight their demands will never be heard. Those working in conflict resolution do tend to understand this, and yet it is consistently treated as a lower priority than resource division.

Know Your Goal

In the context of environmental peacebuilding, this kind of symbolic peacemaking may be far harder than it sounds, since the concept of environmental peace itself involves a number of unknowns. How far will conflict parties be prepared to cooperate for environmental protection, if at all? If they do, will it really lead to greater trust? Will that be isolated to a few individuals, or become a more widespread phenomenon?

Without knowing the answers to these questions, it’s hard to tell whether environment or peacebuilding can both be goals, or if one will have to be prioritized. The seduction of untested new ideas is allowing us to believe in endless possibilities. Still, both environmental protection and peacebuilding are worthy goals, and achieving one out of the two would be respectable. This brings us to a third critical lesson, which is that interventions are much more effective when they are honest about what they can achieve at a given time. For environmental peacebuilding, interventions that are optimistic but vague about what they are trying to do are far more likely to fall into the previous trap — assuming natural resource management is a panacea for peace.

For an analogy, consider the endless policy interventions around “conflict minerals” in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Artisanal mining in Congo has changed substantially since these efforts began — in some ways for the better, in some for the worse. There is some evidence to suggest it is now harder for armed groups to deal in extracted minerals, although there were many less positive side effects. However, these interventions evidently haven’t solved the many Congolese conflicts, which raises the question of what they were really intended to do in the first place. Were they intended to create peace, to avoid inadvertently financing rebels, to clean up global supply chains, or to improve human rights in mining sites? That perhaps depends on the eye of the beholder, but the intense focus on minerals distracted attention from what the conflicts were really about — decades of political tensions over land and citizenship rights, and suspicion of foreign intervention. It had the unfortunate side effect of casting Congo’s armed groups as anti-ideological, focused only on profiting from the mineral sector.

Whatever environmental peacebuilding efforts are put forward, they should be grounded in clear research about what is presently possible, but be ready to do more if the opportunity arises. That is, a step-by-step approach, with a clear starting point and a plan for progression in the event of each step’s success, is essential. If progression is not possible, more modest goals can still be important. Limited cooperation for environmental protection alone is certainly worth trying for, though this is perhaps more feasible when dealing with conflicting states. Efforts in non-state conflict will need to contend with people who have no choice but to exist in the same ecosystem. In this case, practitioners will likely need to address deeper issues in the conflict in order to make environmental protection possible, rather than aiming for environmental cooperation first. Helpful starting points could nevertheless be awareness campaigns about climate and environment, to help people understand the changing weather patterns they are living with, how they might better be able to cope, and what advantages cooperation with their opponents might yield.

Governments do not have the luxury of paralysis in the face of the climate emergency and environmental destruction. Action is needed on all fronts, including on the human security front. But we need to know what we’re doing.



Dr. Eleanor Beevor is a research associate at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, where she leads the Climate, Conflict, and Environment research stream for the Conflict, Security and Development Program. She specialises in non-state armed groups and environmental security.

Image: Department of Defense (Photo by Staff Sgt. Candace Mundt)