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Six Conflict Prevention Takeaways from New Climate and Conflict Research


Syrian refugee center on the Turkish border (3 August 2012)

A new study was released in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Scientists by a group of researchers at the Potsdam Institute titled, Armed-conflict risks enhanced by climate-related disasters in ethnically fractionalized countries. This is the latest in a growing body of research looking at the links between climate change and conflict.

The authors’ main finding is this:

We find evidence in global datasets that risk of armed-conflict outbreak is enhanced by climate-related disaster occurrence in ethnically fractionalized countries. Although we find no indications that environmental disasters directly trigger armed conflicts, our results imply that disasters might act as a threat multiplier in several of the world’s most conflict-prone regions.

Coverage of this study focused on the increased evidence that climate-related disasters and conflict are linked, particularly in ethnically fractionalized societies, and that violence may be more likely as climate impacts continue to accelerate. This is an important finding. However, the implications of this research for generating solutions to climate vulnerability and conflict should be where the discussion goes next. Better understanding where, when, and how conflict is likely to occur, and what role climate change might play in that understanding is of critical importance for future conflict prevention and resolution efforts. In essence, this study gives us another bit of data to help governments, societies, and international institutions mitigate the likelihood of conflict from materializing, and resolve conflicts that are already underway. Here are six takeaways on what this research could mean for conflict prevention.

  1. It may be possible to identify areas of higher conflict probability (in advance of a disaster) based on a confluence of factors, including climate vulnerability and a history of ethnic fractionalism that’s not mitigated by robust power-sharing structures. Climate vulnerability could be used as an indicator of areas conflict prevention practitioners should pay more attention to, especially if these areas already exhibit other factors that traditionally are associated with the increased likelihood of conflict and fragility.
  1. Efforts at climate adaptation could, if done with conflict dynamics in mind, be used to help drive broader conflict resolution. In other words, responding to climate vulnerabilities could serve the dual purpose of reducing state fragility and the likelihood of conflict.
  1. Natural disaster preparedness and response efforts need to be conflict sensitive. This is not just to avoid the possibility of inflaming tensions due to an insensitivity to, or lack of awareness of, conflict dynamics on the ground. Rather, it is an opportunity to bring conflicting parties together against a common risk.
  1. Conflict indices/ predictive tools should take climate vulnerability and natural disaster proneness into account when determining the likelihood of future conflict, and climate vulnerability indices/ predictive tools should take ethnic fractionalism into account when assessing climate vulnerability.
  1. If natural disasters are increasing due to climate change, and there is a correlation between natural disasters and conflict in the types of states identified in the study, this could expand conflict probability to a greater number of states and geographies (including places currently not considered the most climate-vulnerable). In other words, a particular country may not be on the top of existing climate vulnerability lists, but significant internal tensions could make it far more vulnerable than it seems. In short, we need to add additional layers to how we determine a nation’s vulnerability to climate change.
  1. More research is needed, as there are lots of factors at play. For example, it would be interesting to learn what the role of political leadership (or a lack thereof) plays in either exacerbating, or easing, tensions in states with a history of ethnic fractionalism, and what this may mean for the role of political leadership in encouraging conflict-sensitive adaptation to climate change.

That’s just our two cents, though. The full study is worth a read, and can be found here.

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