Will climate adaptation move us toward peace?

Climate adaptation has been praised for its potential for contributing to peace. It is highlighted for the potential to remake systems and equip the world to better cope with the impacts of climate change. However, these remain hopeful claims until rigorous research is done on how this might take place and what type of peace we might expect to result from the implementation of climate adaptation.

Policymakers and practitioners are increasingly integrating the environment and climate change in peacebuilding work. For example, the UN Environment Programme has stressed the need to put the environment at the center of prevention and resolution of natural resource conflicts. Researchers too have begun to link climate action with peace. Some researchers have gone as far to suggest that failure to account for climate in peace activities could make them not only short-term, but even harmful.

This point of departure in part comes in response to consensus that climate change poses challenges for development and for increasing vulnerabilities. Climate change may aggravate insecurity through a variety of mechanisms and complex dynamics. As a ‘threat multiplier,’ climate change is and will increasingly pose challenges to human security and entrench existing tensions, disproportionately impacting the poor and others in vulnerable situations. In particular, many communities that are most at risk to climate change have also experienced conflict. In post-conflict communities, people may face aggravated challenges due to floods, droughts, diseases, livelihood stressors, development issues, and other impacts derived from climate change. These compounded impacts of climate and conflict set the stage for further discussion of the relationship between climate action and peace.

Adapting to climate change
If we agree that climate change will aggravate insecurity, is it safe to say that addressing climate impacts might lead to peace? Should we expect that climate action would have benefits for both environmental systems and for peace?

Part of the answer to these questions lies in understanding how humans will experience climate change by adapting to the impacts. Climate adaptation includes processes that aim to transform human and natural systems to avoid harms of climate change through structural, physical, institutional, or social changes. Climate adaptation is a means to address the impacts of climate change and related natural disasters. It involves responding to or anticipating projected or actual climatic changes, and taking steps to implement appropriate protections, reduce adverse impacts, or take advantage of potential opportunities. These strategies can include infrastructural and institutional developments, agricultural and pastoral adjustments, or migration. Many of these strategies are intended to reduce vulnerability to natural hazards.

The link to peace
What remains is the question of whether climate adaptation might contribute to peace and, if it does, how this might occur and the type of peace that we could expect as a result.

Environmental peacebuilding researchers have highlighted environmental issues as an opportunity for introducing or strengthening existing cooperation and peacebuilding. For example, water management can present opportunities for peacebuilding and cooperation over water security issues. Likewise, natural resource management might support post-conflict recovery and help prevent renewed violence of natural resource conflicts.

Research also suggests that by limiting the negative effects of climate change and natural disasters on human security, climate adaptation could have a positive impact on peace. Specifically, climate adaptation may facilitate more equitable distribution of resources and present opportunities to avoid harms, boost communities’ coping capacity, and enhance well-being in light of climatic changes. Such processes hold potential for impacting local measurements of positive peace. Positive peace is, broadly speaking, a measure of justice, fairness, and wellbeing of society. Climate adaptation may impact peace by increasing a community’s coping capacity, thereby facilitating development and progress toward greater wellbeing.

Climate adaptation in context
Through a case study on a district in Rwanda, I considered how climate adaptive processes might impact peace in more detail. Understanding that climate change will impact availability and access to natural resources, I looked at the potential of adaptation to strengthen natural resource management, thereby enhancing a community’s ability to cope with this climactic impact. Natural resource management can be used as a tool to promote equity and legitimacy in the governance of resources and can mitigate risk factors associated with conflict recurrence by addressing environmental stressors such as natural resource scarcity or dependence as well as environmental change. Building on these concepts, I theorized that adaptation would help communities account for and address potential vulnerabilities to climate change in order to build more sustainable systems, contributing to factors that foster well-being and contribute to positive peace.

Climate adaptation in western Rwanda. PHOTO: UNDP

In Rwanda, one particular climate adaptation program worked to reduce vulnerability to climate change by establishing early warning and disaster preparedness systems and supporting integrated watershed management. On a district level, the program involved strengthening the community’s climate information systems, institutional capacity for prevention and preparedness, demonstration activities, and public knowledge and awareness. For example, one component of the program aimed to respond to heavy rains, soil erosion, and poor soil management by planting trees amongst other selected crops to prevent soil loss and boost food security and the economy. Overall, the program was found to increase local capacity through training of personnel, provision of essential data including information on weather and disaster predictions, increasing applicable skills in local leadership, and raising awareness of climate adaptation among the public.

Although the link to positive peace requires further theoretical development, results from this case study suggested that climate adaption helped rehabilitate the land, establish strategies for sustaining livelihoods, and improved human wellbeing. I found that climate adaptation could help reduce resource stress by enhancing the community’s capacity to cope with climate adaptation through natural resource management, a possible mechanism by which climate adaptation might impact positive peace. The Rwanda case study proved that this is a complex, dynamic issue requiring further research, and findings suggest that climate adaptation may promote the development of systems that are more self- reliant, resilient, and sustainable.

Moving ahead
Climate adaptation programs will continue to be used. We will increasingly need these strategies to adapt as we experience the impacts of climate change in our communities. Understanding the impacts of these programs at the local level and focusing on who benefits and the type of peace that could be fostered, holds great potential for the peacebuilding community. Researchers need to focus on understanding the complex dynamics between these phenomena in order to support policymakers and practitioners in moving ahead to realize benefits, especially for conflict-affected communities.

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