“What’s at Stake Here is Peace”: Climate and Conflict at Paris Talks

Hundreds of pairs of shoes represent protesters banned from marching ahead of COP21, due to a security lockdown following November's attacks. Paris, France, November 29, 2015. (Mustafa Sevgi/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

In opening the United Nations climate negotiations currently underway in Paris, French President Francois Hollande pronounced “Ce qui est en cause, c’est la paix” (“What’s at stake here is peace”). The event, known as COP21, followed shortly after the attacks in the French capital, which brought any potential connections between climate change and global conflict into sharp focus. At the high-level talks that kicked off the Paris conference, there were frequent mentions of the potential for increases in conflict if countries failed to develop an agreement with sufficient ambition. World leaders including United States President Barack Obama have been making this case for several years, and have increasingly cited the civil war in Syria as supporting evidence.

As the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change makes clear, warming of the climate system is “unequivocal,” the “human influence on the climate system is clear,” and we have already observed “widespread impacts on human and natural systems.” These adverse impacts will place additional pressure on societies through increased heatwaves, droughts, sea level rises, and damages to ecosystems. While the research on the effect of climate change on the risk of armed conflict and other forms of violent unrest is far from settled, climate change is at least anticipated to affect many of the more established pathways to conflict, such as economic growth, which may make armed confrontation more likely in the future. This is especially true in regions already prone to conflict. Removing the risk of significant climate damage is also generally conducive to achieving a number of conditions that may also help to reduce conflict.

With the Paris talks now extending through the weekend, the ministers and negotiators attending remain focused on producing a consensus text on issues including the level of ambition that should be reflected in an end-of-century global warming target, the degree of differentiation between national commitment levels and reporting, mechanisms for finance for mitigation and adaptation efforts in developing countries, and a highly controversial “loss and damage” provision for compensation for the effects of climate change. With these factors in mind, four major potential implications for armed conflict can be identified within the draft climate agreement released at COP21 on Thursday:

Impacts of Economic Growth and Development: Over the last century, economic growth has been largely sustained by the use of fossil fuels. The benefits, however, have largely accrued to a small number of countries. Under the Common but Differentiated Responsibility clause in the UN’s climate change framework, poorer countries have consistently argued that any agreement should not limit their much-needed development. Consistent and broad economic activity is associated with a number of benefits to society. This includes reduction in the propensity for armed conflict through well-established pathways, including reducing grievances and promoting societal links through economic activities. Growth also makes it more costly for rebel groups to recruit, and strengthens national capacities to take on rebel groups. Recognizing these linkages, the draft COP21 text contains multiple references to sustainable development as a “win-win” development pathway, especially for the most vulnerable countries.

Financial Flows for Mitigation and Adaptation: Access to climate finance for both mitigation of, and adaptation to, the effects of climate change has been hotly contested in the negotiations. Many developing countries have made their mitigation commitments contingent on financial support. Presently, the necessary financial mobilization is placed at $100 billion USD per year. Developing plans to offset these costs may also reduce initial concerns about hindering economic growth. Links between armed conflict and other large financial flows can provide some guidance as to what effect this transfer of money might have. A 2014 study reviewed natural resource revenues, official development assistance, and foreign direct investment in developing countries. It identified potential harmful effects through pathways such as decreased economic performance and “rent-seeking.” The structure of policies and programs in the COP21 agreement will therefore be central to ensuring that financing reduces climate impacts and promote societal benefits and does not lead to damaging, and potentially conflict-inducing, economic effects.

Mitigation and Food Production: Climate change and climate policy are likely to affect the agricultural sector. The adverse impacts of climate on food production, as well as possible response measures, are included in the draft Paris text. While there are some signals that volatility in food prices is associated with political unrest, studies of changes in domestic food production in Africa due to climate variability have not observed not strong linkages with conflict. Links between climatic effects on agriculture and conflict and unrest are, however, still evolving. A factor that may influence future findings is the substantial pressure that climate policy may place on land usage through increased biomass usage. As the level of ambition increases, so does the need for energy technologies that have net negative carbon emissions, which would place land for energy and food in direct competition.

Mechanisms to Address Potential Adverse Impacts: An often overlooked pathway is the potential for conflict from poorly designed and implemented climate change response measures. This may be especially true if some unavoidable impacts arrive unexpectedly, producing reactionary policies. For example, while the links between human migration and conflict are also poorly understood, recent experience in Europe shows that large-scale, unplanned movements—such as those that might result from sudden climate disasters—can place stress on receiving countries. While loss and damage provisions remain under intense debate in Paris, the draft agreement’s consideration of an early warning system, risk management, and planned relocation under climate change is a positive step towards coordinated efforts to assist the most vulnerable.

Ultimately, the ability of 196 negotiating parties to reach a meaningful agreement with sufficient ambition to avoid some of the worst outcomes of climate change would go a long way to building general capacity and trust within the international community. Well-designed financial aid flows and integrated carbon markets could support sustainable development, as well as increase economic interdependence. Regardless of whether climate change causes conflict directly or through associated pathways, armed conflict would substantially adversely affect the ability to mitigate and adapt to climate change. Mechanisms to manage potential adverse impacts from changes to climate, as well as response measures, are vital to avoiding conflict and supporting robust and sustained climate change mitigation efforts.

Elisabeth Gilmore is Assistant Professor of Energy, Security and Environment, School of Public Policy, University of Maryland.