Climate change is no longer an abstract issue we may face in the future. Devastating forest fires, the hottest June on record in the United States, lethal flooding in Europe and Asia, and extreme droughts in Africa reveal that the climate is already changing with extreme consequences. Even more concerning than these events alone is the reality that the drivers of climate change, violent conflict, and fragile states compound each other. Climate change exacerbates unstable social, economic, and political conditions, while conflict and fragility can hinder effective climate change response and adaptation. The U.S. can address the compound risks created by both of these issues only through integration of conflict prevention and climate change in its foreign policy and development assistance.
Understanding the Compound Risks Between Conflict and Climate
Climate change and violent conflict pose profound risks for global fragility and security. The World Bank predicts the effects of climate change could push an additional 100 million people below the poverty line by 2030. Estimates suggest that by 2050, 50 percent of the world’s population will live in water-stressed regions and that—without sufficient climate financing—200 million people in fragile states will require humanitarian aid. Since 2010, the number of major violent conflicts has tripled. 2020 saw 220 violent conflicts and 40 full-scale and limited wars, and one in 33 people worldwide will need humanitarian assistance in 2021—a major 40 percent increase from 2020. The stabilization in reverse from the COVID-19 pandemic has made it more difficult for governments to address climate change and increased the likelihood of conflict.
When combined, climate change, violent conflict, and fragility aren’t just additive, they actually create compound risks. A groundbreaking G7 report identified seven compound risks created by the interaction of climate change and “other pressures and contextual factors”: local resource competition, livelihood security and migration, extreme weather events and disasters, volatile food prices and provision, transboundary water management, sea-level rise and coastal degradation, and unintended effects of climate policies. 26 of the 39 states with highest or high fragility also face high climate risks, and in 2017 14 of the 34 countries facing food insecurity experienced both conflict and climate shocks.
How do these compound risks form? First, climate change exerts pressure on systems of governance and can impact the availability of resources and how groups distribute those resources among each other. For instance, the Middle Belt of Nigeria is seeing an uptick in violence caused by tensions over land and water resources amid increased food insecurity, while climate-related water resource challenges in the Lake Chad Basin are intensifying violence and humanitarian needs.
Second, conflict and fragility can prevent states from responding to the impacts of climate change and building climate resilience, mainly by weakening government’s management of political, economic, and social processes as well as draining government resources for emergency needs. Look at Mocoa, Colombia, where inadequate government management of deforestation and resettlement of displaced citizens has increased vulnerability to flood risks.
Previous Significance of Climate Change in U.S. Foreign Policy and Development Assistance
The Global Climate Action Plan formed during the Obama Administration proposed a reduction in carbon dioxide emissions, aimed to preserve forests, and encouraged the use of alternate fuels—a policy framework that President Trump quickly canceled. The Biden Administration has reversed the Trump Administration’s decision and appointed former Secretary of State John Kerry to serve as the first U.S. Special Presidential Envoy for Climate, a position that enshrines climate change as a critical policy issue and ensures high-level interagency coordination on climate change.
President Biden also announced Executive Orders such as Tackling the Climate Crisis at Home and Abroad and Planning for the Impact of Climate Change on Migration, along with new climate finance commitments to double annual public climate finance by 2024 and mobilize private finance. In addition, USAID’s in-development agency-wide Climate Strategy—scheduled for release this November—presents an opportunity to strategically re-think the positioning of climate change in U.S. foreign policy and development assistance.
Recommendations for the U.S. to Integrate Conflict Prevention and Climate Change in its Foreign Policy and Development Assistance
The U.S. needs to adapt to the compound risks that come from the interaction of climate change, conflict, and fragility through a comprehensive integrated approach. Merging strategic frameworks of action, guidelines of programming and practice, and evidence sharing between the conflict prevention and climate communities can create a dynamic system just as formidable as the stubborn and evolving challenges it seeks to address.
Elevate Climate Principles into Conflict Prevention, and Vice Versa
The U.S. needs to comprehensively elevate climate change within its foreign policy, security, and development assistance apparatus, beyond existing instruments such as the State Department’s Office of Global Change, the Office of the Special Presidential Envoy for Climate Change, and USAID’s Climate Change Leadership Council. This means forming policy guidance and implementation plans to develop cross-cutting programs and reporting requirements, especially in conflict affected and fragile states. This process is underway through executive actions such as Biden’s reinstatement of Obama’s Presidential Memorandum on Climate Change and National Security, but rigorous implementation is required.
The elevation of climate principles will provide a lens through which strategic, context-specific climate responses can be integrated into development and diplomatic efforts in fragile states, for example through efforts to improve food security and strengthen water infrastructure and resource management.
A thorough adaptive learning, monitoring, and evaluation system can help the United States better understand and act on the interconnected and dynamic nature of compound climate-conflict risks, while creating more flexibility in the budget and allocation processes can enable prioritization of participatory decision-making and community ownership. The United States must consult with women, youth, Indigenous groups, people of color, and other marginalized groups through an intersectional approach that recognizes and strengthens sources of local resilience and centers the segments of the population most impacted by climate change to design and implement meaningful programs.
At the same time that conflict, governance, and humanitarian assessments need to identify climate-related risks and recognize where there are adaptation opportunities, efforts to decarbonize and mitigate greenhouse gas emissions must incorporate risk-reducing conflict prevention programs to ensure that efforts to respond to climate change do not exacerbate existing—or create new—conflict risks. Holistic use of conflict risk assessments in the design, planning, implementation, and evaluation of climate programs can also greatly increase their effectiveness. For instance, a USAID climate adaptation program in the Ancash region of the Andes in Peru discovered so much contestation between local interests that it had to pause its planned work to focus first on community dialogues and conflict resolution before being able to effectively carry out its climate program. And finally, while there is, at minimum, a need to ensure conflict-sensitive design in climate responses, there is also an enormous opportunity to prevent conflict and foster peace through strategic climate action that proactively addresses grievances and the underlying sources of fragility and conflict.
The United States can also engage with the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change’s (UNFCCC) National Adaptation Plan (NAP) process as an entry point for integrated research and systematic program consideration within the climate-conflict nexus. Specifically, the United States can support the integration of conflict-climate change research and action into the NAP planning processes and provide technical and material support for implementation and information sharing between countries.
Prioritize Human Rights, Context, Communities, and People in Conflict and Climate Integration
Just as climate and conflict risks compound one another, so do climate threats and human rights violations. This link finds evidence in the murders of monarch butterfly activists Raúl Hernández and Homero Gómez, the disproportionate killing of indigenous people supporting environmental activism, and the association of gender-based violence and poor conservation results. In addition, displacement caused by climate change’s extreme weather patterns can undermine political and electoral rights, including the right to vote in elections.
In recognition of this nexus, the United States needs to provide funding to organizations that protect threatened environmental activists and support communities resisting corporate incursions. The United States also needs to consider wider structures and systems such as laws and policies concerning freedom of speech and accountability to NAP standards at the national and subnational level. Scaling these efforts through international frameworks can address the harmful impacts of weak governance, social exclusion, and unequal power sharing that drive climate security risks. In all of this, the United States must prevent exclusion of marginalized groups, and mainstream diversity and inclusion in climate change programs.
Localized understanding and action are also essential within climate change response/adaptation and conflict prevention. The connections between climate and conflict vary at the local level, which requires a place-specific approach to integration of these two issues. The United States must support local actors and local solutions and build up local institutions and capabilities to ensure country partners and local actors are on equal footing. Local actors already working within the conflict/climate nexus—such as the Sudd Institute in South Sudan—can receive capacity-building assistance on the connection between climate and conflict, as well as support to develop new context-specific programs, like in the Peace Centers for Climate and Social Resilience in Ethiopia.
The United States needs to prioritize efforts from programming through a people-centered approach that brings both sustainable change and near-term benefits for people’s lives. Conflict-affected and fragile states typically suffer urgent and successive crises, which can shorten people’s problem-solving timeframes amid immediate emergencies. Climate program benefits can, at times, be framed more inclusively in terms of near-term, locally prioritized economic, social, or environmental advantages, rather than explicitly labeled or limited to a focus on climate mitigation and adaptation outcomes. This attention to sequencing and broader benefits can help both beneficiaries and implementers deal with the integrated nature of real world climate-conflict systems and the range of impacts on people’s daily lives.
Create Shared Knowledge and an Overarching Long-Term Strategy Between the Conflict Prevention and Climate Communities
To truly understand and respond to climate fragility compound risks, the United States must ensure that climate and conflict experts and communities of practice understand one another. Climate experts need to understand how climate impacts and programs can influence power dynamics and worsen social, political, and economic vulnerability, while conflict experts must grasp the impact of climate change on local contexts and the influence of conflict on climate resilience and adaptive capacities. A common, simplified climate security language that is evidence-based and cross-disciplinary can help both sectors see risk and resilience as integrated rather than siloed.
Non-climate sensitive conflict prevention work can undermine climate resilience and exacerbate environmental tensions and non-conflict sensitive climate change programs can spark conflict or undermine social resilience. A shared climate security language can seize the attention of policymakers and spur strategic investments, as well as allow the United States to follow a more rigorous “do no harm” approach that avoids unintended consequences. The United States can look to existing models like the Weathering Risk Initiative by adelphi, initiatives like the Wilson Center and UCAR’s Improving Predictive Capabilities project, and disciplines like critical geography to envision climate change as a “risk multiplier” within a multidimensional system.
Finally, the United States must establish a shared, overarching climate and conflict long-term strategy to create a clear picture of the “end game” that outlines ideal collective outcomes looking 5, 10, and 50 years into the future. This can merge transnational geographies and dynamics around climate fragility–such as climate migration in the Sahel and transboundary water management issues in the Ferghana Valley from increased droughts and floods—along with localized impacts. Such an overarching strategy can also bridge large-scale climate predictions (that typically focus on many possibilities for the entire globe) and small-scale localized peacebuilding initiatives through shared metrics and evaluation processes.
A shared strategy can form a robust climate security community of practice that moves beyond acute crises and also considers longer-term patterns and trends with an eye toward preventively mitigating risk and strengthening resilience to a range of future stresses and shocks. With comprehensive early warning and response mechanisms such as climate disruption indicators, and longer-term funding commitments that go beyond annual budgets, climate and conflict experts can work together to better address the intertwined multi-sector issues and opportunities that the world faces today.
Cynthia Brady is a Global Fellow with the Wilson Center’s Environmental Change & Security Program.
Liz Hume is the Acting President and CEO of the Alliance for Peacebuilding.
Nick Zuroski is a Senior Associate for Communications, Campaigns, and Policy at the Alliance for Peacebuilding.
Sources: adelphi, Alliance for Peacebuilding, BBC, Climate Refugees, E-International Relations, Flood Resilience Alliance, Foreign Policy, Heidelberg Institute for International Conflict Research, International Committee of the Red Cross, International Foundation for Electoral Systems, International Union for Conservation of Nature, Mountain Research and Development, National Public Radio, Nature Climate Change, NBC Boston, NBC News, Planetary Security Initiative, Reuters, The Guardian, The New York Times, The Sudd Institute, The White House, Time, United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, U.S. Agency for International Development, U.S. Department of State, World Bank, World Bank Group.
Photo Credit: Food for Peace program participants work on the Nyalungana swamp reclamation activities, part of the Tuendelee Pamoja (Moving Forward Together) program, part of USAID’s Development Food Assistance Program in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, courtesy of Tanya Martineau, Prospect Arts, Food for the Hungry/USAID U.S. Agency for International Development.