Sustaining peace in a climate of change

A U.N. report on peacebuilding ignores climate change, missing a key to a peaceful world, says International Alert’s Janani Vivekananda.

syria refugees
Refugees fleeing the conflict in Syria against the backdrop of an arid landscape. Worsening climate change will exacerbate both bank failures and conflict. Image: Dona_Bozzi /

The world is at its most volatile and dangerous since the Cold War. The escalation of conflict in Syria this week, and Congo’s spiralling back into bloodshed are emblematic of the sharp uptick in conflict in recent years - which is vastly outstripping our ability to cope with the consequences.

At the same time, the world is facing unprecedented climate extremes. Last year, hurricanes, floods and tropical storms devastated parts of the Caribbean, North America and South Asia, whilst drought and desertification push thousands more towards extreme hunger in the Sahel.

Arctic ice is at its thinnest level ever and an iceberg the size of Luxembourg broke off the Antarctic ice shelf. These risks are not simply occurring in parallel. They are mutually reinforcing.

From the global refugee crisis to the spread of terrorism, climate change can compound the drivers of insecurity and conflict, whilst conflict makes coping with climate shocks ever harder. Failure to address the drivers of these conjoined risks is forging new risks and ever more complex emergencies.

It’s against this backdrop that the United Nation’s Secretary General António Guterres unveils his report on peacebuilding and sustaining peace – an attempt to render the UN better able to cope with the conflicts the world faces.

This is welcome and important. But alarmingly, despite the widespread acknowledgement of the risks posed by climate change to peace and security, even including within the UN Security Council, the seminal report does not mention climate change and its importance in any effort to build and sustain peace. 

What’s it all about?

The Secretary General’s report is a response to the 2015 review of the UN’s peacebuilding architecture. The review found significant and systemic shortcomings in UN peacebuilding which were due to a general misunderstanding of the nature of peacebuilding and from the fragmentation of the UN’s work into separate areas.

The process of reform initiated to address the review’s findings were marked by the unique adoption of identical resolutions by the Security Council and the General Assembly on 27 April 2016.

The two resolutions, which have since become known as the “sustaining peace resolutions”, emphasised the importance of a comprehensive approach to sustain peace, particularly through the prevention of conflict and addressing root causes of conflict.

What’s the problem?

It is good - albeit predictable - to see a focus on prevention and tackling root causes of conflict. But while the report speaks about linking peace to development, human rights and humanitarian action, it does not consider the implications of climate or environmental change on peace and security.

Not taking account the significant role of climate change in driving root causes of conflict and affecting conflict prevention efforts risks rendering these well-intended words not fit for action.

Peace, like conflict, is complicated. The root causes of conflict and indeed peacebuilding fall across a range of sectors – including climate change.

The first rule of addressing conflict is to start with the context. Climate change affects all contexts: in conflicts over land and water it can make the availability of these resources more volatile; in conflicts fuelled by poverty and unemployment it can increase livelihood insecurity and compound poverty by decimating crop yields.

In the face of unprecedented climatic extremes which are only predicted to increase, failure to take account of the implications of climate change on the contexts and circumstances of any given conflict means a failure to fully grasp the root causes of the problems.

For example,  in the Lake Chad basin, analysis of root causes of the on-going crisis reveals that development issues, such as political marginalisation, inequality and livelihood insecurity, combined with increases in climate variability, particularly irregular rainfall, contribute to an ideal breeding ground for recruitment into armed groups, violence and fragility.

In already fragile contexts such as Mali, climate-change related drought is a contributing factor to ongoing instability and one that makes any form of stabilisation and peace far harder to achieve.

How for example, do you reach a political settlement over allocation of natural resources such as fresh water when climate change is changing the availability and access of water which will render any water sharing agreement short-lived?

Or how do you reintegrate ex-combatants into decent, alternative livelihoods if the only jobs available or offered are in highly climate-vulnerable agriculture and likely to increase their livelihood insecurity and fuel their grievances?

According to UN Deputy Secretary General Amina Mohammed, making U.N. peace and security efforts, and development and humanitarian work fit together is “essential for preventing conflict and mitigating risks, (and) fostering more sustainable outcomes”.

Sustaining peace can only be achieved through a broader vision of prevention. This must include understanding the role climate change plays in conflict, and the importance of addressing climate change risks to prevent them from catalysing conflict. 

In the face of unprecedented climatic extremes which are only predicted to increase, failure to take account of the implications of climate change on the contexts and circumstances of any given conflict means a failure to fully grasp the root causes of the problems.

What should be done?

Sustaining peace is a laudable ambition and should be an explicit and deliberate policy objective for all states, regardless of whether they are beset by violent conflict. The absence of climate change in Guterres’ report is a missed opportunity.

Nevertheless, there are some opportunities to address these gaps.

In the report, the Secretary General calls for common understanding and common analysis of major risks and opportunities to support risk-informed development strategies.

Integration of climate change into such risk analysis approaches is vital, and would fall in line with risk assessment approaches already being developed by other entities such as the OECD and the G7.

The report also calls for the restructuring of the UN’s peace and security work to create better coordination and shared aims with other efforts. This would be well complemented by the proposal by Sweden and set out in the Hague Declaration on Planetary Security, to establish an institutional mechanism for climate security within the United Nations.

The United Nations plays a crucial role in assessing climate-related security risks, and developing plans accordingly. But just as peacebuilding falls across different areas, the responsibility and capacity to assess climate-related security risks presently falls across different institutions with different mandates.

An institutional mechanism for climate security would support the UN system – and indeed other global governance mechanisms – in joint risk assessment and risk management assistance, coordinating its work on climate-related security risks, which are all vital components of preventing conflict and sustaining peace.


Janani Vivekananda manages the climate change and security programme at International Alert. This article is republished from the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

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