Why Addressing the Climate Crisis Can Help Build More Sustainable Peace

23 August 2021, 0844 EDT

Thirty years of research underlies the realization that climate change poses substantial national, international and human security risks, but analysts have only recently shifted their focus toward how to simultaneously build peace in post-conflict environments and grapple with the dual challenges of mitigating and adapting to climate change. In a recent article in World Development article, we propose what causal pathways can simultaneously facilitate climate change adaptation, increase resilience, improve natural resource governance, and build more sustainable peace. 

Recognizing the Climate Crisis

The alarming tone and conclusions of the recently released Sixth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental panel on Climate Change demonstrates that we cannot build and sustain peace without explicitly addressing climate change adaptation and resource governance. Indeed, climate change is an existential challenge to nature and our societies and a central security concern that is changing security landscapes around the globe.

At a recent symposium at Harvard University John Kerry, the US special presidential envoy for climate change, declared “The climate crisis is just that… But it is also a national security issue.” The recent climate leaders’ summit, hosted on Earth Day by the Biden administration, forcefully showcased this new reality as it tried to bring needed energy to global climate action debates ahead of the UNFCCC COP 26 in Glasgow later this year. The April summit highlighted multiple countries and alliances, including the UK and NATO, affirming climate change as an important component of the Biden Administration’s security road map.

Climate impacts inhibit peacebuilding

In short, it is clear that climate change fundamentally alters what it takes to build durable peace in post-conflict states and societies. With 6 of the 10 largest UN-led peace operations in areas highly exposed to the impact of climate change, this should not surprise us. But changed realities take time to process and accept, especially when they require significant changes in our thinking, policies and long-standing institutions. Recent research on Somalia and Mali by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, SIPRI, shows that in highly exposed countries, the effects of climate change on host communities can seriously inhibit peacebuilding efforts.

Climate change fundamentally alters what it takes to build durable peace in post-conflict states and societies.

Indeed, both slow-onset climate-related impacts such as reduced rainfall, droughts and desertification of farmland, as well as rapid-onset hazards such flooding, can set back work to increase food and natural resource security as part of the peacebuilding process. Lack of economic opportunities linked to these impacts can hold back disarmament, demobilization and reintegration efforts. Such impacts can lead to population displacement and migration, which increase the demands on and competition for natural resources in migration corridors and destinations. Effects like this can also undo the careful work done to negotiate power- and resource-sharing arrangements. The absence of basic services and adequate mechanisms to respond to climate change impacts can also further weaken governments in affected regions and undermine their fragile legitimacy. This creates opportunities for local armed and criminal groups—or for any would-be “spoilers”—to exploit.

Moving beyond military solutions

The changed nature of peacebuilding in an age of climate change means that an overly exclusive focus on hard security and “defense roadmaps” misunderstands current and future realities and challenges and ignores research findings. As a recent Foreign Policy article argued: “Military solutions won’t end terrorism in the Sahel. Addressing the environmental factors destroying livelihoods and fueling extremist groups’ recruitment could.”

One promising policy pathway for addressing the environmental factors lies in shifting our thinking from focusing on the risks of conflict, to the opportunities for building peace. Environmental peacebuilding does just that. Emerging in the 1990s against the backdrop of the debates about the relationship between environmental change and violent conflict, researchers began to argue for cooperative solutions in the face of natural resource scarcity. Scholars, such as Ken Conca, outlined the first theoretical framework and empirical studies of  environmental peacemaking, suggesting that “carefully designed initiatives for environmental cooperation” could indeed facilitate positive peace.

These environmental peacebuilding initiatives sound like yet another long list of things for peacebuilders to do. But research shows that environmental and resource governance and management—if done right—can reduce future conflict risks, adapt communities to the effects of climate change and—most critically—offer pathways towards positive, resilient peace. In the last few years, a new generation of scholars has provided even more insight into where, when and how cooperation over natural resources can facilitate peace in cases such as Afghanistan, Colombia, Timor-Leste, Niger, or Myanmar.

Of course, the environmental peacebuilding concept has shortcomings, such as its frequent inter-state focus, and a set of potential and existing adverse effects. And until recently, a clear, causal explanation of why environmental cooperation and improved natural resource management contributes to the construction and maintenance of durable peace was often missing. Such causal clarity is necessary for scholarly inquiry, and to inform practical applications in policy development and programmatic initiatives for effective natural resource governance in post-conflict countries and communities.

So why would environmental interventions build peace?

In a recent article in World Development, we examine the wider benefits of natural resource management and offer three pathways to guide thinking and policymaking on how programmatic action within communities can facilitate resilience building, improve natural resource governance and contribute to more sustainable peace.

Improved resource governance and climate adaptation initiatives have positive impacts on peacebuilding

Improved resource governance and climate adaptation initiatives have positive impacts on peacebuilding via three pathways: (1) the contact hypothesis, where facilitating cooperation between groups over natural resources decreases “bias and prejudice”; (2) transnational norm diffusion, such that “introducing environmental and other good governance norms” encourages “human empowerment and strengthens civil society”; and (3) state service provision, whereby public service provision meets communities’ needs and improves their trust in government.

These pathways, and the research upon which they are based, afford policy makers opportunities to identify and understand development, environmental management, and peacebuilding opportunities across broad areas of their work. Improved natural resource management, and attention to resilience building and climate change adaptation, can reduce political fragility in post-war communities and societies and help to build lasting, more sustainable peace.

Climate change is altering security landscapes in hosts of ways, including in post-conflict states, societies and communities. Of course, improved natural resource management in an age of climate change will not magically cure all of the ills of war-torn societies. But, it is now clear that it has become an important part of strategies and programmatic initiatives designed to mitigate violence and build and sustain more resilient peace.