Climate change and conflict – understanding and acting on the connections


Climate change and conflict – understanding and acting on the connections

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Date: 16th June 2020
Type: Feature

A team from ODI and Practical Action Consulting found that it is hard to draw any firm conclusions about the links among climate change, conflict and fragility, based on the evidence. However, development agencies can take clear, constructive steps to promote more stable, peaceful societies and a healthier environment.

Does climate change cause conflict in today’s world? And should we be worried about more conflict in a future world that will be even more affected by climate change?

A new review from ODI, Climate change, conflict and fragility: evidence review and recommendations looked at more than 300 sources of academic and grey literature to find the answers to these questions.

These questions have been hotly debated in global political fora and have even been scrutinised by some of the world’s largest military powers.

The review finds that there is weak and contradictory evidence to tie climate or extreme weather events directly to human conflict in the past, and there is only a shaky basis on which to predict these links in the future. The review considered scientific assessments as well as individual case studies where climate factors, natural hazards and natural resource scarcity and conflict exist, such as in the Lake Chad Basin (see photo, right).

That’s not to say, however, that climate change could not drive increased conflict for scarce natural resources, as it disrupts ecosystems. Rather, we found a complex picture.

Economic, social and political conditions set the scene for conflict

  • Studies about the past role of climate factors in resource scarcity and conflict tend not to be scientifically rigorous about attribution to climate change: i.e., most studies fail to investigate properly whether the extreme rapid or slow-onset events in question are attributable to human-made climate change or whether they were just part of natural climate variability.
  • Resource scarcity (driven by climate factors) often promotes greater cooperation among countries and actors, for example, water sharing agreements. It’s not a given that resource scarcity drives conflict. What is more, at the micro level, in the overwhelming majority of cases, where climate contributes to natural resource scarcity, it often causes poverty and deprivation – and people suffer, but only infrequently turn to overt violent conflict.
  • In these situations, individuals and households may choose to migrate elsewhere, on a seasonal or permanent basis, in order to seek more secure livelihoods and meet their immediate development needs.
  • Climate can be a ‘magnifier’ of conflicts that already exist in society. If a society is already on edge due to economic deprivation, deep inequalities, ethnic or political tensions and rivalries, then environmental disruption from weather and climate factors can spark trouble. The strength of existing institutions, governance and security processes, social protection systems and other safety nets to provide people with food, water and economic security all play a role in diffusing tensions, fulfilling people’s basic needs and avoiding conflict.

Disasters can cause disruption and social conflict – but it’s not necessarily violent

As for disaster events: the evidence as to whether, where and how natural hazard-related disasters affect the incidence of conflict is mixed.

We use the UN definition of disaster as: ‘a serious disruption of the functioning of a community or a society at any scale due to hazardous events (such as a drought or earthquake) interacting with the underlying vulnerability, exposure and capacity contexts of various groups, and the infrastructure, services and ecosystems they rely on, leading to one or more of the following: human, material, economic and environmental losses and impacts’.

On balance, it appears that disaster events contribute to social conflict. In some cases, they lead to violent conflict through their indirect impacts on societal conditions and patterns of risk. What is often missed in popular media and political discourses is that disaster events and disaster risk management activities can promote cooperation and collaboration and enhance social cohesion.

Whether and how disaster risk management processes can harness opportunities for dealing with climate- and other hazard-related disasters in fragile and conflict affected contexts and whether joint disaster risk reduction (DRR), climate adaptation and mitigation, peacebuilding and conflict prevention are viable, remains under-explored.

Where do we go from here? An action plan for climate-resilient development in fragile contexts

The relationships among climate factors, natural resource scarcity and conflict point to a need to integrate stabilisation and peacebuilding principles and multi-hazard resilience into development interventions.

The answer is not ‘more arms’, but the patient and intentional fusion of environmental protection and restoration work with conflict resolution and the cultivation of economic and political stability.

ODI’s review of the evidence suggests six priorities for action to guide the development investments of national governments, funding agencies and international and multilateral development organisations. All are already enshrined in global policy frameworks:

  • Keep average global temperature rise as low as possible, to limit climate change-induced damages to land, water, oceans and related ecosystems. Urgent and worldwide climate change mitigation is imperative, including halting and reversing land degradation and unsustainable land use changes, and phasing out fossil fuel production and consumption.
  • Adapting to climate change and building climate resilience is vital, given the noticeable negative impacts climate change is having on land- and ocean-based ecosystems. This is particularly the case in societies where livelihoods depend heavily on natural resources, as is the case in most fragile and conflict affected contexts.
  • Given the reliance of human society on the Earth’s biodiversity, protecting and restoring the health of other species and habitats will be instrumental to our own long-term survival. Climate change is among the drivers of biodiversity loss and ecosystem degradation, but direct changes to land and sea by humans (such as over-fishing and deforestation) play a greater role. Tackling climate change in ways that also address habitat and species loss is vital to humanity’s long-term future.
  • Climate-resilient development initiatives in fragile and conflict affected contexts are imperative – and must be undertaken in ways that reduce or avoid emissions, or at a minimum avoid locking in high-emission pathways for the future. Violent conflict strips individuals and communities of their lives and dignity, and many of the basic elements of development. It also impoverishes people in multiple ways, and reduces their choices in life. Development initiatives in fragile and conflict affected contexts are difficult to establish and take forward. The same good practice strategies to overcome these operational difficulties for development projects can apply equally to climate change adaptation and mitigation interventions.
  • Dealing with both sudden- and slow-onset climate- and hazard-related disaster risk requires functioning and effective climate and disaster risk management systems, institutions and capacities. Advancing disaster risk management in fragile and conflict affected contexts is vital to ensure that climate-related disaster risks do not undermine social stability or governance functioning. To ‘leave no one behind’, this will require new approaches to enable disaster risk reduction outcomes in contexts where the state is not the primary arbiter, including in areas where non-state armed groups operate.
  • Poorly designed climate change adaptation and mitigation programmes have the potential to exacerbate inequalities in communities and create greater frictions – with social tensions and even the potential for small-scale armed violence. Where such programmes are not conflict-sensitive, they can inadvertently deprive some groups to the benefit of others and inflame social tensions. As a minimum, climate and hazard interventions must ‘do no harm’ and, to the extent feasible, support conflict prevention and peacebuilding objectives. Based on these well-established facts, it is recommended that development agencies focus their efforts on the delivery of conflict-sensitive disaster risk reduction, natural resource management and climate change adaptation and mitigation programmes.

Most agencies already have robust approaches for delivering development in fragile and conflict affected contexts. Such frameworks could be readily adapted for use in climate change adaptation and mitigation projects and programmes, in order to cultivate peace and stability at the same time as improved development and environment outcomes. For instance, the following principles from the UK Department for International Development could be applied to all climate change adaptation and mitigation work:

  • Fair power structures that broaden inclusion, accountability and transparency over time, while managing tensions to prevent violence in the short term.
  • Effective and legitimate institutions, both state and non-state, that build trust with those they govern, and which grow more effective over time.
  • Inclusive economic development that creates widespread benefits, reduces incentives for conflict and curbs illicit economies.
  • Conflict resolution mechanisms, both formal and informal, that help manage conflict, help people cope with the legacies of violent conflict and strengthen women’s roles.
  • A supportive regional environment that enables communities to become more resilient to transnational stresses and shocks.

Read the full report: Climate change, conflict and fragility: evidence review and recommendations.

The research team comprised: Katie PetersMairi DuparSarah Opitz-StapletonEmma Lovell, and Yue Cao, (ODI), and Mirianna Budimir and Sarah Brown (Practical Action Consulting).
The report was commissioned by the United Kingdom Department for International Development (DFID) and Canada's International Development Research Centre (IDRC).
Image: above right, Lake Chad basin humanitarian crisis, image courtesy Govt of Norway - Utenriksdepartementet.


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