Becoming prime time
In 2007, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon described the conflict in the Darfur region of Sudan as the world’s first climate change conflict and placed the topic on the international agenda. The connection made at the time was that the ongoing conflict between farming and pastoral communities over water scarcity and grazing land was caused in part by changing rainfall patterns as a result of climate change. This stirred up the political and scientific debates about the climate-conflict nexus. And these debates are ever-growing, with climate security consistently placed high on the political agenda and increasingly included in official strategy and security papers. But it is also being taken up by more and more different stakeholders and discussed on countless platforms. One such example is the COP conferences under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change: the current one, COP 27 – November 2022, sees world leaders, experts, policymakers and researchers coming together to discuss action to fight climate change in various domains, but also side events that are addressing the climate-conflict nexus. Although such an exchange is extremely necessary in the face of a changing climate with global implications, climate action must be approached with caution.
Understanding before acting
Scientific research on the climate-conflict nexus has so far yielded varying and even competing results. This is partly due to the sheer volume of different indicators and methodologies applied, leading to different interpretations of results. But this also shows the complexity of the multifaceted interplays of numerous factors, such as social, political and economic ones, between climate and conflict. Furthermore, the ongoing scientific and political debates on climate security have so far failed to produce a consensus on the characteristics of climate change as a security issue, how suitable countermeasures should look, and whether linking climate change to security is to be welcomed from a normative standpoint. However, this has not stopped a range of political actors from claiming that climate change leads to conflict, often without differentiating that climate change acts rather as an indirect driver of conflict in the sense that existing vulnerabilities are further exacerbated. This distinction may seem small on paper, but if disregarded, the practical consequences are severe.
First, it leads to the creation of a dominant narrative that is easily picked up by the media and uncritically transferred into public discourse. Thus, non-experts in the field are being deceived and duped, which can be used by policymakers as a means to convince on climate-related action or, for example, to gain support for and justify interventions in the name of climate security in the future. Secondly, false premises about the climate-conflict nexus can lead to ineffective and potentially harmful approaches. For example, in Mali, a West African country whose region is defined as a climate hotspot, a development project that included building wells to secure water access due to intensifying drought periods eventually exacerbated communal tensions as the construction increased the value of land. This underscores the need for EU-funded projects to consider the contextual setting in which a such projects are placed.
EU climate action
Today, the EU is the world’s largest donor on climate action abroad. It was also one of the first bodies in the world to frame climate change a ‘threat multiplier’ for instability and conflict, placing the issue at the heart of EU security policy. The 2019 EU Global Strategy implementation report illustrates this integration process as it states that “climate action has become integral part of our work on conflict prevention and sustainable security.” But the EU is still very much learning by doing. In October 2021, the EU in its political and security policy committee adopted a concept for an integrated approach to climate and security, which provides a roadmap for EU activities and programmes on the ground. By identifying concrete cases where climate change is very likely to undermine security and trigger conflict, such as in West Africa’s Lake Chad Basin, the Aral Sea region of Central Asia, Iraq, Afghanistan and the Arctic, it provides a systematic framework for the EU to move forward in the areas of conflict prevention, response and resolution.
Policy instruments to enable this include early warning systems (Horizon Scanning), the deployment of environmental advisers within its Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) missions and the provision of special training for EU military personnel. Although the EU acknowledges that climate adaptation measures and climate resilience programmes go hand in hand with conflict prevention, the finance flows between conflict prevention and climate change adaption efforts are mismatched, as explained by an EEAS official. Overall, the EU is still in the starting blocks.
As such, the EU will need to keep an eye on three main points going forward. Firstly, there is a need to continue promoting research in order to better understand the complex interplay of climate and conflict in various contexts. Secondly, the prevailing narrative in politics, media and public discourse about a direct link between climate change and conflict must be countered and nuanced. Finally, EU policy actions in terms of climate mitigation and adaptation instruments, funding and programmes must have comprehensive approaches that entail context and conflict sensitivity.
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Daugalies, S. (2022) Illuminating the Climate-Conflict Nexus, IDRN, 24 Nov. Available at: https://idrn.eu/illuminating-the-climate-conflict-nexus/ [Accessed dd/mm/yyyy].