Africa: Climate may not directly cause conflict, but is key to peacebuilding

Climate change is not a direct driver of conflict. Most scientists agree on this and this is reflected in the report of Working Group II of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. There is no straight line between climate-related risks and conflict-related outcomes.

The report compares the impacts of climate change with those of other global trends. These include “biodiversity loss, global unsustainable consumption of natural resources, land and ecosystem degradation, rapid urbanization, human demographic change, social and economic inequality, and a pandemic.” He finds that:

Compared to other socio-economic factors, the influence of climate on conflicts is considered relatively weak.

But the Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability report acknowledges the relationship between climate and human security, which has been the subject of debate among researchers and policy makers. And it provides insight into how climate can, under certain conditions, amplify security risks, with implications for sustainable peace. For example, the report’s summary for policymakers highlights that the interaction between climate and non-climate factors will result in:

compounding overall risk and cascading risks across sectors and regions.

For those affected by overlapping crises, the complex relationship between the factors is all too real. It is their lived experience.

We have seen this in our work with the Consortium of International Centers for Agricultural Research (CGIAR). The CGIAR is a global research partnership, focused on improving food and nutrition security, reducing poverty and enhancing natural resources.

Resource Conflicts

According to the report of the expert group on climate change, up to 3.6 billion people live in areas vulnerable to climate risks. These areas are concentrated in sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, Latin America and small island developing states. They are also associated with governance issues, poverty, limited and unequal access to essential resources, violent conflict and dependence on climate-sensitive livelihoods. Historical and ongoing injustice is another common feature.

Together, these factors make people vulnerable to multiple risks and create “traps” that can last for generations.

Climate-related risks also cross borders. They operate through supply chains, markets and resource flows. They affect multiple sectors, including water, energy and food.

Climate shocks and stresses – extreme and variable rainfall, floods, droughts, heat stress – lead to substantial losses in food production. These shocks affect food security. Heat stress is also expected to have a negative impact on working hours and labor productivity.

Household well-being is then threatened due to rising food prices and falling household incomes. These effects turn into health risks like malnutrition and even death.

Any effort to understand and break these vicious circles must also consider power and inequality. Burdens and benefits are not equitably distributed.

The Climate Panel report recognizes that even actions aimed at reducing risk can have adverse consequences that amplify inequalities and marginalize people. For example, poor land use and poor planning and development, especially in areas with insecure land tenure, can undermine ecosystems and livelihoods.

Recognizing and integrating various forms of knowledge – indigenous, local and scientific – can be essential for planning relevant interventions. Durable solutions will include different actors and sectors.

Inclusive planning tends to create flexibility and “low regrets” options, such as conservation of natural areas and ecosystem-based adaptation. These options can help promote long-term peace by building trust and reducing the risk of resource conflict. It is useful to ground people’s rights approaches when planning and financing risk reduction and adaptation.

The links between climate, conflict and fragility

With global warming levels above 1.5°C, it would not only be more difficult to achieve a climate-resilient development future, as the report shows. It may be harder to achieve peace – especially in hotspots where climate-related risks overlap with conflict-related fragility. The report recognized that supporting climate-sensitive economic activities and promoting women’s empowerment can contribute to peace.

What we have discovered in this latest report from the Climate Panel and through CGIAR research is that there are ways to integrate food systems, agriculture and climate science into security policies and peacebuilding efforts around the world.

For example, our new initiative Building Systemic Resilience Against Climate Variability and Extremes uses the science of food and agriculture to foster peace. This is done by improving the resilience of smallholder production systems to withstand severe climate impacts.

Advocating for a climate security lens does not mean that climate is directly responsible for human security risks. Rather, it is a matter of emphasizing the distribution of risk. The intention is to examine who is vulnerable, who is responsible and what is unequal.

Grazia Pacillo, Senior Economist, CGIAR FOCUS Climate Security Co-Lead, CGIAR System Organization; Ana Maria Loboguerrero, Research Director, Climate Action, CGIAR System Organization; Elisabeth Gilmore, Associate Professor of Climate Change, Technology and Policy, Carleton University; Peter Läderach, climatologist, CGIAR System Organization, and Tanaya Dutta Gupta, doctoral candidate in sociology at the University of California, Davis, and climate security specialist at the CGIAR FOCUS Climate Security, CGIAR System Organization

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