One of the key themes that emerged from the just concluded COP27 is the recognition that climate change does not only exacerbate the causes and effects of conflict, but also impacts the capacity of communities and institutions (the African Union or the United Nations, for example) to help make, keep, and build peace in specific contexts. On the one hand, climate change-related effects, such as droughts and floods, undermine the resilience of communities and institutions in places like Iraq and Somalia to maintain and consolidate peace. On the other, conflict-related effects, like displacement or the disruption of livelihood practices, disrupt the capacity of communities and institutions to adapt to climate change in places like Afghanistan or Mali. At the same time, cooperation to manage a shared resource or to cope with natural disasters can also generate peace dividends by strengthening social cohesion and societal resilience. This means that actions to address the effects of climate challenges can also contribute to sustaining peace; vice versa, peacebuilding initiatives can, at times, also strengthen the capacity of communities to adapt to climate change.
The climate security agenda
The climate security debate has gained traction over the last decade, both in scope and level of engagement. Commonly understood as the cause-and-effect relationships between climatic factors and security, the climate security discourse has led to a greater understanding of the compounding and cascading risks and challenges facing global conflict prevention and peacebuilding initiatives. Recent debates at the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) further reinforce the understanding that the far-reaching implications of climate change are not only a national security issue, but a global security concern. Language recognizing the intricate interlinkages between climate change, peace, and security can now be found in numerous Council resolutions and presidential statements.
The increased awareness of these interlinkages led to the establishment of the Group of Friends of Climate Security and an Independent Expert Group among UNSC members. At the UN Secretariat, the formation of the Climate Security Mechanism in 2018 has been an important institutional catalyst for integrating the climate and security agenda more systematically into the Secretariat’s work. The deployment of climate security advisors is seen as a much-needed next step in ensuring that UN peacemaking, peacekeeping, and peacebuilding is informed by climate-sensitive analysis and programming responsive to the local context, and that the UN system’s climate adaptation programming is both conflict-sensitive and designed to generate peace dividends that can help to sustain peace.
Beyond the UN, the African Union (AU), the European Union (EU), the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) have all adopted climate change strategies that have taken into account the implications of climate change for conflict and security. The AU, for example, has to date held ten sessions of the Peace and Security Council to deliberate the implications of climate change on the peace and security landscape in Africa. The EU has also made significant strides in embedding conflict-sensitive language into its climate change policies and programs.
Points of divergence
Looking at the country level, there are a few that don’t agree that climate security should be on the agenda of the UNSC. In December 2021, a draft resolution on climate change and security was vetoed by Russia. The resolution was co-sponsored by 113 member states, the second highest number to date in the history of the UNSC, and 13 out of the 15 Council members voted in favor. The few that do not want climate security on the UNSC seem to have three concerns: (1) they want a clear separation of roles among UN bodies, and are therefore opposed to human rights, climate change, the role of women, or other themes, that are the primary responsibility of another UN body or process, being discussed by the Council, (2) they fear that securitizing the climate agenda may in future lead to coercive action, like sanctions, being taken by the Council against countries whose climate policies are judged to be a threat to international peace and security, and (3) they are concerned that if climate change is on the agenda of the Council, those states that dominate the Council may use it to adopt positions they were not able to achieve through the UNFCCC process where each member state has an equal say.
The IPCC and scientific evidence of the linkages between climate, peace and security
Russia, China, and India have also argued that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) did not find a clear link between climate change and security. The IPCC’s findings on the links between climate and conflict can be confusing. On the one hand, the IPCC finds that the statistical evidence linking climate change to conflict is inconclusive. On the other hand, IPCC reports provide thousands of pages of evidence of how climate change exacerbates food and water security and undermines livelihoods. The IPCC is also clear that these effects of climate change are closely interlinked with political, social, and economic factors, and that together they produce compounding and cascading systemic risks that can have serious implications for peace and conflict. The IPCC also importantly recognizes that conflict undermines the resilience of communities and institutions to cope with the effects of climate change. Perhaps one of the starkest examples in recent memory is how climate-related crop failures in Russia and Ukraine in 2010 led to a spike in the price of bread in North Africa and the Middle East, and combined with long-standing political and economic grievances, contributed to sparking the Arab Spring revolts that toppled several governments in the region and triggered two of the most serious, and still unresolved, conflicts of the early 21st century in Libya and Syria.
The IPCC findings are confusing because they can create a false expectation that there needs to be a statistical correlation between climate change and conflict for the relationship to be scientifically established. The reality is that climate change does not wage war; people do. Climate change may exacerbate existing tensions, for example over access and use of scarce resources between herders and farmers in the Sahel, but it is always up to the people involved to choose competition or cooperation. In most cases, people choose peaceful ways to manage shared resources. In some, they don’t, and in these cases it is possible to trace how the effects of climate change lead to a series of choices that result in conflict.
If the decision whether to cooperate or compete is not predetermined, but resides in the agency of the affected communities or institutions, then the implication is that their capacity to make positive choices can be enhanced by investing in strengthening their resilience and adaptive capacity. It is thus important for UN peacekeepers and peacebuilders to improve their understanding of how investments in social cohesion and public trust can contribute to sustaining peace, including in societies under stress from climate change. This is why the latest IPCC report emphasizes the need to build synergies between climate adaptation and peacebuilding, to holistically address climate-related vulnerabilities as well as fragility and conflict risks.
Implications for UN peacemaking, peacekeeping and peacebuilding
The UNSC does not deal with the average statistical relationship between climate change and conflict. It has to manage the specific conflicts on its agenda. In a joint project undertaken by NUPI and SIPRI, we have, for example, drawn attention to the pathways between climate change, peace, and security in 10 specific cases on the agenda of the UNSC, including in countries such as Afghanistan, Colombia, Iraq, Mali, South Sudan, and Somalia. In the relevant cases, UN special political or peacekeeping missions have to understand how the effects of climate change are exacerbating the conflicts they have been tasked to manage. For example, climate-related weather patterns may result in earlier or later movement of livestock, or herders may change their routes, and such changes in behavior will require peacekeepers to adapt their planned patrols to ensure that civilians are protected and violent clashes are prevented.
Taking the effects of climate change into account does not mean that the mandate of UN peace operations is broadened by adding climate adaptation responsibilities. It means that peacemakers and peacekeepers need to understand how their primary responsibilities—for example, mediation and protection of civilians—are affected by climate change, and how they need to plan and act differently to be able to effectively implement their existing mandates despite climate-related disruptions. It also means that UN peace operations need to take steps to minimize their own environmental footprint.
A case for climate change and sustaining peace
The adoption of the 2016 twin resolutions on sustaining peace provided for a more comprehensive response to conflict, rooted in the understanding that addressing the root causes of conflict is a sure way to attain and sustain peace. Sustaining peace further made a case for inclusivity, coordination, and collaboration in responses to crises. A case for exploring sustaining peace and climate change means that climate change should be viewed as exacerbating the root causes of conflict. This approach means that climate change will be addressed not only as a national and regional security issue, but also as a complex structural dimension of conflict.
This will require, first, that the UN conflict prevention, management, and response mechanisms are climate-sensitive, to ensure that climate impacts on peace and security issues are addressed. Secondly, that comprehensive proximate and long-term responses are crafted to address the influences of climate change on peace and security. In this case, responses to climate change will require a nexus approach, with humanitarian, development, and peace and security actors cooperating to provide much-needed responses at each stage. Furthermore, a nexus response will also create room for a whole-of-UN approach, as envisaged in the sustaining peace resolutions, leveraging the various agencies and their respective capacities to intervene.
New initiatives for integrating sustaining peace
Two recent initiatives make a strong case for integrating sustaining peace and climate change. On November 12, the Egyptian COP Presidency, the Cairo International Center for Conflict Resolution, Peacekeeping and Peacebuilding (CCCPA), in partnership with the UN Development Programme (UNDP) and the AU, launched a new initiative called Climate Responses to Sustaining Peace. The aim of the initiative is to ensure that integrated climate responses contribute to sustainable peace and development in line with national ownership and context specificity. Key pillars of the initiative are: strengthening the climate adaptation and peacebuilding nexus, sustaining peace through climate-resilient food systems, advancing durable solutions to the climate-displacement nexus, and accelerating climate finance for sustaining peace.
Similarly, on November 29, 2022, Kenya and Norway—both elected members of the Security Council—are organizing an Arria-formula side event that makes the case for expanding the climate security agenda to include a strong emphasis on sustaining peace. In the concept note that frames the meeting, the hosts argue that the effects of climate change go beyond their impact on the outbreak and intensity of conflict. They point out that climate change introduces variables that influence the effectiveness of all peace efforts, including the prevention of conflict, peacekeeping, peacebuilding, and transitions out of conflict.
Both initiatives recognize that the effects of climate change are highly interconnected with development, socioeconomic and political factors, and thus make a point of calling for more integrated and adaptive governance responses that can leverage the combined knowledge and capacity of a broad range of civil society and government agencies, as well as the need for climate financing to be more predictable and flexible.
Cedric de Coning is a Research Professor at the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs (NUPI) and senior Advisor at ACCORD. Hafsa M. Maalim is a Research Fellow at the Stockholm Peace Research Institute (SIPRI).