What does climate change have to do with conflict? Part 1

The Initiative for Peacebuilding’s report on climate change, conflict and fragility covers policy recommendations and adaptational capabilities that will be necessary to hedge off violent conflict in fragile or weak states.  One needs only see the example of the Haitian earthquake, the current flooding in Pakistan or even the aftermath of hurricane Katrina in the southern US to know that extreme weather can have an effect on peace and security in an area. Whether or not you believe climate change is caused by man-made global warming makes little difference; major weather patterns are currently disrupting areas where peace is fragile at best or where war may already be full-blown. Massive death or displacement of people, combined with state fragility, means overwhelmed security services and government systems, and a lot of angry people who feel completely abandoned.  The impact is felt the greatest among the poorest and most vulnerable members of society who have little means to escape and inequitable access to necessary resources. This inevitably heightens the risk of violent conflict in an area.

Current international negotiations on reducing global warming and responding to climate change almost entirely ignore the aspect of this heightened risk of conflict. Development and humanitarian workers are rarely well informed about the security implications that climate change will have for their work and so adaptation is not being included in long-term rebuilding or restructuring policies within organizations. These potential conflict implications are one of the most compelling arguments for richer states to take serious climate change action as the costs will be massive from loss of life, livelihood and humanitarian assistance and peacekeeping perspectives. Current estimates of costs range from $49 to $380 billion per year by the year 2030, without even taking into account private sector and peacebuilding problems. However, over-stating the conflict dimension can lead to oversimplification and inaccurate perceptions of security which risks overlooking cost-effective and sustainable options in favor of high cost and likely ineffective militarized ones. The key remains in shifting the way institutions are organized, their ability to cope with change and the way they are interlinked with one another.

Managing water supply is vital. Not only is it necessary for human life, but water shortages also affect agriculture causing increased food insecurity, especially for the poor.  The risks to human health from both water borne diseases caused by poor water management and inadequate diets caused by food insecurity will put increased pressure on already strained medical and government resources. Water shortages and food insecurity often lead to violent conflict where poverty, weak governance, political marginalization and corruption reign supreme. Climate change will only exacerbate this problem as already fragile systems become even more overburdened.

Migration of people increases the likelihood of conflict, as newcomers are seen as an unwanted burden that compound social pressures or even transfer conflict from one location to another. Attempting to block immigration with regulations and physical barriers may exacerbate the conflict risk. Migration will be primarily to urban centres, which will increase the strains of maintaining livelihoods and many of the current mega-cities are already in low-lying coastal areas which are at long term risk from rising sea levels. Changing climate will result in the fluctuation of the supply of key resources, which will in turn affect land values and will present money-making opportunities for the already rich and resourceful. Social and economic consequences will not be randomly or “fairly” distributed among the population—in most cases, the rich will get richer while the poor will be the ones to suffer.

Current natural science knowledge is also unevenly distributed and used, with the richer countries having greater access than the poorer countries. Lack of information leads to poor policy making and weak adaptation, which means there is a greater chance of conflict. For example, the UK currently has over sixty different climate change models to work with. Nepal, who has for the past several years been experiencing severe weather changes, has none.

So how can fragile states deal with these inequities and potential conflict risks? In the next post, I will detail the report’s recommendations for adaptation to climate change.

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