In his remarks to the UN Security Council on 23 February 2021, UN Secretary-General António Guterres stressed the dramatic impact climate change can have on political, economic and social systems, highlighting that the past decade was the hottest in human history. He also made it clear that climate change cannot be seen as an isolated topic but rather must be connected with peace, stability and security.

While climate change itself does not lead automatically to conflict; peace and security experts are concerned that the impacts of climate change, in combination with other drivers of conflict, can act as a threat multiplier that undermines the stability of states and societies and contribute to political crisis. To explore the relationship between climate change and conflict, we must understand the pressure the effects of climate change put on livelihoods.

Unpacking the link between climate change and conflict

In 2019 more people were forced to leave their homes because of floods, droughts or species extinction than because of armed conflicts. Higher temperatures, shorter wet seasons and heavier rainfalls are damaging crops and destroying soils. This challenges not only food security in affected regions but also the daily life of communities and the work of small-scale farmers, fishers or herders.

There is also a high potential for climate change to trigger social and political tensions by threatening human security and social cohesion. Especially in already conflict-affected or highly inequal contexts, climate impacts can force people to turn to illicit sources of income, for example cultivating illicit crops, or joining armed groups. Furthermore, several protests erupted in countries where the prices of staple food increased. The use of natural resources may also affect the relations between states, especially in regions with a growing number of extreme weather events and water scarcity. Therefore, large infrastructure projects influencing transboundary resources like rivers and lakes may intensify or cause tensions between neighbouring communities and countries already affected by climate change.

Integrated analysis and responses

Over the last decade policy actors and the scientific community have paid increased attention to the relationship between climate change and socioeconomic and political challenges.  It is increasingly recognized that we need to better understand the impact of extreme weather events on conflicts, especially in countries depending on agriculture. But research – as well as action to tackle these compound challenges – is still in its early stage.

A first step is to connect a peace and security analytical lens with an understanding of climate related risks, by analyzing conflict drivers and climate pressure and shocks, taking into account power dynamics, gender norms, ethnic diversity and historical and recent developments. The advantage of this integrated approach is that it allows us to better understand the complex interactions of different actors as well as social, economic and political factors and their exposure to climate change and conflict dynamics. Understanding the linkages between climate and conflict drivers can lead us to designing programmes that are climate-sensitive and address complex challenges in an integrated way, for instance by improving our risk assessments and scenario-planning and by helping to define critical uncertainties; while examining a range of possibilities and the forces driving them in order to ensure sustainable solutions.

One of the biggest challenges for such integrated approaches is at times the lack of reliable data. Therefore, it is important to collect data from different sources, use quantitative and qualitative data to fill gaps, and allow for data and information sharing between and within the different stakeholders operating in this space.

Integrated programming requires joint action and ownership from different stakeholders. To date, international organizations and donors have played a key role in translating analysis into integrated programming. Apart from this, the role of governments is crucial in managing crises and responding to extreme weather events.

Applying an integrated approach to relief strategies and policies can prevent and mitigate negative impacts on people. Poorly designed relief strategies and climate and security policies carry the risk of undermining legitimacy and trigger public unrest. Therefore, climate and security policies should be designed in an integrated manner so as not to intensify tensions or cause unintended conflicts. Accordingly, the local context, governance mechanisms and social cohesion are all elements that should be taken into account. Furthermore, it is important that governments and international organizations make sure to involve local communities at all stages and support efforts to build resilience and reduce vulnerabilities.

Climate sensitive programming for sustaining peace

The UN Secretary-General has placed conflict prevention at the top of the sustaining peace agenda, recognizing that conflict is fueled by a variety of overlapping factors, including climate change. Putting the climate crisis on the radar of peace and security practitioners comes along with the need to better integrate climate security risks into assessments and operations and identify possible intervention points.

UNSSC has partnered with the Berlin-based think tank adelphi to design a course on Climate Sensitive Programming for Sustaining Peace to strengthen climate sensitive approaches to sustaining peace across the UN System. The course provides an overview of the most recent developments in the field of climate and security. Furthermore, participants learn about tools to perform risk assessments, identify entry points and implement key principles for integrated programming. Besides inputs given by UNSSC and adelphi, experts from within the UN system are sharing their experiences during the course.

With this course, UNSSC aims to enhance the skills of UN practitioners to adopt a long-term approach to sustaining peace; ensuring that climate security concerns are taken into account and mainstreamed across analysis and programming for peacebuilding. Furthermore, UNSSC aims to support a growing network of climate security experts, creating spaces for sharing experiences and foster ties between entities and field offices.

Gain new insights in the next edition which starts on 3 May 2021.