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Conflict Prevention and Resolution Must Incorporate Climate-Adaptation Policies

Horn_of_Africa_lack_of_RainfallThis is a post by guest contributor, Charlotte Baskin-Gerwitz

The international community widely acknowledges that climate change is a pressing issue. President Barack Obama’s 2010 National Security Strategy recognized that climate change is a national security threat, impacting both the homeland and American interests abroad.  The Strategy warns: “the danger from climate change is real, urgent and severe.  The change wrought by a warming planet will lead to new conflicts over refugees and resources; new suffering from drought and famine; catastrophic natural disasters; and the degradation of land across the globe.”  The broader national security policy community has also come to recognize climate change as a “threat multiplier,” increasing the risk of conflict when combined with other factors; however, not enough attention is yet being paid to its importance in conflict prevention and resolution.

Climate change, natural resources and conflict

Most conflicts in modern times are intrastate, often fuelled or financed by natural resources.  University of Uppsala’s “Armed Conflict, 1946-2011” database shows that 26 of the 27 armed conflicts globally in 2011 were intrastate while the UNEP’s “From Conflict to Peacebuilding” report approximates that 40% of civil wars have been associated with natural resources.  As resources come under increasing stress due to climate change, these intrastate conflicts may become even more likely.

Recent studies suggest that climate change, resources and conflict are connected.  For example, conflicts in the Middle East have involved rising food prices due to global drought and accessibility of water.  In East Africa, climate-exacerbated stresses on pastoral and agricultural communities have precipitated intrastate “range wars.”  The Overseas Development Institute’s (ODI) 2013 report on natural disasters and conflict claims that natural disasters and climate-induced vulnerability influence conflict and instability by exacerbating inter-clan conflict, criminal activity, and heightening tensions between herding and pastoral peoples.

This resource-stressed conflict is particularly visible in sub-Saharan Africa.  As the region is exposed to longer and more extreme droughts and floods, there will be an increased threat of water and food insecurity, migration, and poverty, raising the risk of conflict.  As recently argued by Fraser C. Lott, Nikolaos Christidis, and Peter A. Stott in Geophysical Research Letters, the human-induced droughts of 2010 and 2011 affected both the long and short rains in the region, leading to crop failure and widespread famine in Somalia.  As Somalia continues to face severe drought, declining agricultural output and forced migration will remain a concern.  Without climate adaptation policies and a strong governmental infrastructure to put them in place, the chances for long-term progress in the country will be undercut, and the likelihood of sustained conflict will remain high.

Models for addressing climate change in conflict prevention and resolution

Environmental factors and conflict mitigation are often addressed as separate issues by conflict prevention specialists and conflict resolution negotiators.  For example, the UNEP report states that resource-driven conflicts are twice as likely to relapse within five years after negotiations, but that less than a quarter of negotiations have focused on resource management.  As climate change and conflict reinforce each other, climate change adaptation and conflict resolution efforts need to be integrated.

A necessary step in the policy community should be to include environmental concerns in conflict resolution.  For example, participants in the Wilson Center’s Adaptation Partnership concluded that holistic climate adaptation strategies should be worked into peace agreements and negotiations to address the root of the problem through strong institutional flexibility and accountability.  Measures to reduce risk from climate-induced hazards must be actively used to promote dialogue and prevent conflict.  This might best be done through community-based initiatives that build institutional capacity for national-level disaster risk management. As the ODI report argues, at a local level, organizations can more easily recognize the role of natural hazards in igniting and exacerbating conflict; various bodies can address conflicts over natural resources to prevent or mitigate conflict.

NGOs such as Tearfund, Saferworld, the IIED Community-Based Adaptation in Africa program, and Conservation International’s Climate Action Partnership utilize participatory, local, natural resource management through state-building. The organizations attempt to help communities create locally developed and run natural resource management. By reducing pressure on contested resources through new techniques and technologies, the risk of intrastate conflict can be mitigated.  Policy makers should consider these models when incorporating climate adaptation into conflict prevention and resolution efforts.

Action from the international community

The limited governmental infrastructure of fragile countries like Somalia poses a hurdle to lessening the effects of climate change on conflict.  By using the example of community-based climate adaptation, future effects of climate change on the Somali people, and those in similarly vulnerable states, might be lessened – thereby reducing the risks associated with droughts and famine.  As climate change increases pressure on natural resources and raises the risk of conflict, the international community should take steps to include climate adaptation in conflict prevention and resolution.


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