Making Our Planet Great Again: Climate Diplomacy and Cooperation at COP23

A meeting, hosted by the COP23 president, with heads of state and government, the Secretary-General of the UN, and the Executive Secretary of UNFCCC. PHOTO: James Dowson/UNFCCC/Flickr.

A measured dose of optimism and small steps towards implementing the Paris Agreement were overall good outcomes for this year’s climate conference held from November 6-17, known officially as the 23rd Convention of the Parties (COP23) to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.

Despite global security concerns, there was little of the rhetoric from earlier COPs where the security implications of climate change dominated discussions on the urgent need for action. Instead, there were many—albeit tentative—examples of cooperation, including the Talanoa Dialogue, America’s Pledge, climate risk insurance initiatives, and new funding announcements. Positive developments aside, COP23 closed with substantial uncertainty for finalizing the implementation rules for the Paris Agreement prior to COP24 and serious questions remain as to whether actions will be taken towards limiting the global temperature increase to 2oC above pre-industrial levels, let alone the more ambitious 1.5oC goal forwarded in the Paris Agreement.

The convention opened on a lower note in light of the US administration’s intention to pull out of the Paris Agreement; the present pledges in the Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) only meeting roughly a third of the emission reductions needed to achieve a 2oC temperature goal; and signals that credible commitments from developed countries were being undermined by the inability to bring the Doha Amendment to the Kyoto Protocol into force—leaving a gap in mechanisms for emission reductions and climate actions to 2020. At the same time, the need for action was underscored by severe weather in 2017 and the reaffirmation of the current and future risks from climate change in the US National Climate Assessment’s report on the state of the climate.

The next round of NDCs due in 2020 will perhaps be the true test of the effectiveness of climate diplomacy.

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Let the Desertification Zombie Rest in Peace

The myth of the creeping desert, swallowing green and fertile areas, is hard to get rid of. PHOTO: Creative Commons

The myth that African agriculture and livestock farming is causing desertification originated early in the colonial times. The reason was that colonial authorities wanted to exploit resources for their own profits. Efficient management of natural resources was presented as part of the white man’s burden. The losers were smallholder farmers and herders who lost access to resources.

Desertification in Africa has been declared dead by scientists many times over the past 30 years. Yet, the narrative keeps returning – no matter how hard you kick back at it with facts.

In 1990, I wrote an article in Norwegian titled “Desertification – a myth?”. As part of my first research project, a dissertation in Geography that I completed two years earlier, I had studied aerial photos from northern Mali. The photos showed large areas with dead trees after the mid-1980s drought. The Sahel south of Sahara definitely looked desert-like, and there were many indications that the desert was spreading. However, in the first years after the drought, one could see that the vegetation was returning, and the desert was becoming greener.

Desertification in Africa has been declared dead by scientists many times over the past 30 years. Yet, the narrative keeps returning – no matter how hard you kick back at it with facts.

This process had just about started in the 1990s. At my recurring visits to the same areas in the 1990s and early 2000s, I could observe how the landscape was changing dramatically from one visit to the next. A re-greening of the landscape was clearly taking place. Today, there is a dense tree cover in the areas where I once measured significant deforestation.

New Lake

A new lake, Lac Agoufou, has flooded the main road between the villages Hombori and Gossi in Northern Mali, as evidenced by Google Maps.

Today, it is too dangerous to travel to this area in Mali, due to the conflict between the government and various armed groups. Yet, during my latest visit in 2007, a new lake had emerged: Lac Agoufou.

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– No Land, No Life

The fertile farming lands of Mt Elgon. PHOTO: Nina von Uexküll

Why are individuals willing to join armed groups and fight over land access?

To find answers to this question I studied a militia in the Mt Elgon conflict in Kenya. A key finding of interviews with 75 ex-members of the SLDF militia was that the economic importance of land for farming communities is important for understanding why land became a resource worth fighting for. As one interviewee put it: “No land, no life”. Dependence on land also explains why individuals did not leave the area and became subjected to both taxation and forced recruitment by the SLDF militia.

The economic importance of land for farming communities is important for understanding why land became a resource worth fighting for.

I presented these results recently at the Agriculture Policy Scholars Conference bringing together Agricultural Economists and Political Scientists in New Orleans.

Climate Change, Jihadism and Policy Failures in the Sahel

On the 22 November 2017, the Subcommittee on Security and Defence in the European Parliament held a public hearing on the ‘The Security Dimension of Climate Change – What Implications for EU Common Security and Defence Policy?’.

I was one of three invited speakers at this event, and talked about ‘Climate Security in the Sahel’. Based on several case studies of land-use conflicts in Mali, I expressed general scepticism to the idea that climate change is a key driver of conflicts in the Sahel.

First of all, the Sahel has become greener since the droughts of the 1980s. Therefore, land-use conflicts are not necessarily driven by increasing scarcity. Instead, they have political and historical causes, such as the marginalisation of pastoralists and corruption. Pastoralists are losing access to key dry season pastures and their livestock corridors are increasingly being blocked. This creates conflicts between farmers and herders. In addition, rent-seeking among government officials undermines people’s trust in government institutions, which leads people to take action on their own.

Prior to the crisis of 2012, these frustrations among the rural peasantry were completely missed by international development actors.

The climate-conflict narrative also plays a role in taking political attention away from these much more important causes. We have already seen this in Mali. Before the current crisis took off in 2012, the international community focused on the risks of climate change in Mali, including its conflict potential. At the same time, Mali was praised internationally as a model for African democratic development, despite critical internal debates about the Malian democracy being in crisis, due in part to increasing corruption.

The current wave of jihadist insurgency in Mali has shrewdly exploited these rising anti-elite and anti-government feelings, in particular among pastoralists and small-scale farmers. Hence, their decision to join these groups is primarily based on local grievances rather than religious conviction.

Prior to the crisis of 2012, these frustrations among the rural peasantry were completely missed by international development actors, who continued to praise the Malian democracy and focus on climate change as an important threat to this democracy.

This significant policy failure may be repeated in new security policies if the roots of jihadism in the Sahel are not taken more seriously.

Climate, Peace and Security

Despite rapid scientific progress, firm knowledge about the societal consequences of global warming remains limited.

  • What are the implications of climate change for peace and security?
  • Should we expect more wars and more political instability as the world heats up?

The real concerns linked to climate change are not about shrinking glaciers, eroding coastlines, or changes in precipitation patterns. Nor, strictly speaking, are they about coral bleaching, phenological changes, or species migration.

The primary grounds for concern relate to the consequences these physical changes will have for societal development and prosperity, including human well-being and physical security.

It is somewhat discomforting, then, that there is considerably deeper scientific understanding of the impacts humans have on the climate system than of the effects of climate change on human activity.

The Arab Spring showed that higher bread prices made it easier to mobilize mass resistance to governing regimes. Picture from Tahrir square in Egypt. Photo: Aschevogel / Creative Commons / Flickr

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Welcome to the Climate & Conflict Blog

The Climate & Conflict blog will publish updates from relevant PRIO-based research projects on security dimensions of climate and environmental change.

PRIO presently hosts three research projects that jointly have an overarching goal of addressing the relationship between climate and conflict: CAVE, CLIMSEC, and CROP. Some of the questions these projects ask are: What is the relationship between climate variability, food insecurity, and political violence? How does agricultural productivity relate to conflict risk? Under what circumstances does extreme weather events affect political stability?

Despite wide agreement among policy and NGO communities that climate change constitutes a significant threat to human security, the research community to date has failed to demonstrate a robust and general historical effect of environmental change on armed conflict and generally warn against tendencies to draw sweeping and sensationalist claims about climate-conflict connections.

Just like the nature and extent of environmental change vary across regions, so do societies’ sensitivity to these changes. Our research is dedicated to disentangling such conditional and indirect causal processes because we believe that rigorous, nuanced, and evidence-based knowledge is necessary to device effective policies for minimizing adverse social impacts of climate change.

On this blog, you will find updated information on publications, events, and activities of the members of environmental security-related research projects at PRIO. We encourage you to join the discussion and leave a comment in the comments field.