Stretched Thin: When Fragile States Face Climate Hazards

With its population of more than 190 million, Nigeria’s fate is central to the success of West Africa. Armed opposition groups like Boko Haram have plagued the north of the country for years — spilling over and destabilizing neighboring countries — and violence involving Fulani militias in the Middle Belt reached an all-time high this year. Nigeria’s government has struggled to contain these conflicts and address the needs of its population.

At the same time, the country faces extensive climate-related pressures, from chronic aridity and flooding in the north to rainfall anomalies in the middle of the country to heavy flooding and wildfires in the densely populated south.

Photo: Oxfam East Africa

Nigeria is just one of many states facing the double burden of state fragility and climate exposure, which is the subject of our new report for the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). State fragility reflects poor state capacity and poor state-society relationships, both of which can contribute to instability. Climate exposure reflects the risks to a state’s people and land stemming from climate hazards like cyclones, floods, droughts, coastal inundation, and wildfires.Read More

Drought displacement and implications for conflict

Human migration driven by weather variability and environmental change (see, e.g., here, here, and here) has been identified as a possible link between global warming and violent conflict (see, e.g., here, here, and here). Despite academic and public policy discussions about these and similar topics, the relationship between climate change and regional migration within developing countries remains understudied in relation to the risk of violent conflict (although there are notable exceptions).

In addition to tensions among communities related to cultural or religious traditions – in their own right a potential source of hostilities – plausible sources of animosity between host and arrival communities include housing and job market pressures, changing electoral demographics, and access to public goods (e.g. primary schools and other services).

Share of drought-displaced respondents in Kenya who reported host-migrant hostilities. SOURCE: Linke et al. (2018)

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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.

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From climate to conflict? Old question, new insights from experts

The scholarly debate on the security implications of climate change has been highly animated over the past ten years. Although most agree that a powerful and general direct relationship is not likely, an overarching consensus on more subtle connections has not yet been reached. However, recent research directions suggest that scholars are now moving towards a more comprehensive understanding of potential indirect pathways linking climate variability and conflict risk.

During the last week of September, I attended a two-day workshop on climate change and security at Uppsala University to discuss current and emerging trends in climate conflict research. The workshop, co-hosted by the Department of Peace and Conflict Research at Uppsala University and PRIO, involved a group of seventeen international academics and experts from various academic disciplines, such as political science, economics, human geography, and hydrology, who presented their ongoing projects and discussed the state of knowledge and promising ways forward. The workshop program also included a public lecture by Professor W. Neil Adger on sustainable urbanisation and migration processes.

The workshop benefited significantly from the diversity of backgrounds and experiences, creating incentives for brain-storming and foundations for cooperation among new constellations of researchers

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Climate change and violence: The case for mechanisms

Bookshelves are getting heavy from dire portrayals of a hotter future with more conflict. Two of today’s most high-profile conflict cases – Darfur and the war theatre in Syria – have been strongly connected to environmental change, at least judging from media sources and pundits. While over a dozen studies have conducted statistical analyses on the relationship between environmental change and the onset of new civil wars, reviews have found little signs of convergence for civil conflict onset.

The outbreak of civil wars – rebels fighting the government forces of a state – is not only of academic interest. Constituting today’s most lethal form of conflict, policymakers and the humanitarian community are eager to learn about the potential for climate change to trigger new conflicts, not least since civil wars are argued to be ‘development in reverse’ and therefore very likely to further increase vulnerability to environmental change. What, then, are plausible reasons for this lack of convergence, and what should be the prioritizations for future research?

PHOTO: Ian Turnell from Pexels

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Food Insecurity and Unrest

A protestor watching a burning vehicle in Caracas, Venezuela. PHOTO: Andrés Gerlotti on Unsplash (CC)

Food price fluctuations over the last decade and the corresponding unrest in several countries in Asia, Africa and the Middle East have led to a renewed interest in the link between food and unrest. A recent policy brief highlights some of the main findings in the field and suggests avenues for future research related to conceptual clarity of both food insecurity and unrest, the link between suggested theoretical mechanisms and empirical tests, and reversed causation.

During the latest food price spikes in 2007-2008 and 2010-2011 unrest occurred in several countries, where the reactions to the increasing prices ranged from peaceful demonstrations to widespread violence. These events have put the question of whether food insecurity is a driver of unrest at the forefront of the academic debate, and there is an emerging consensus in the literature that food prices increase the likelihood of unrest, especially in urban areas. Building on a substantial case-based literature, the literature has produced several strong and nuanced findings within the field. However, there are still unresolved issues and room for further conceptual and empirical clarity within the field.

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Does hunger cause conflict?

One of the consequences of war is disrupted food provision. The connection between conflict and hunger is indisputable when we look at today’s locations of the major global hunger emergencies: Rakhine in Myanmar, the Kasai Region in DR Congo, north-eastern Nigeria, South Sudan, Syria and Yemen. It is estimated that 80 percent of the World Food Programme’s (WFP) resources are deployed in conflict-affected areas. But what about the opposite relationship: does hunger cause violent conflicts?

PHOTO: Share the World’s Resources

The many protests after global food prices rose sharply in 2008, and the outbreak of the Arab Spring uprisings in the aftermath of a second peak in food prices at the beginning of 2011, are often cited as evidence that many of today’s conflicts are fundamentally about scarcities of resources and food shortages. A common assumption is that reduced food security leads to hunger and desperation, which in turn trigger protests, violence, and increased risks of radicalization. The growing concerns about the social consequences of climate change are helping boost this view of the world.

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Climate and Security: Bridging the Policy-Academic Gap

In March, I argued that the connections between climate change and security are complex, contingent, and not fully understood.  Most of the academic literature has firmly focused on conflict onset with the broader security consequences largely understudied. For policy audiences, the nuance can be frustrating. It is difficult to know what to do with such complexity, other than talk broadly of climate change as a “threat multiplier.”

However, the policy community does not have the luxury of waiting for academics to reach some consensus on climate-conflict links that might never materialize. What’s more, they have other preoccupations other than conflict to worry about such as humanitarian emergencies, interstate jockeying over hydrocarbons freed up by melting Arctic ice, and people on the move for many reasons, climate among them. How can climate security academics who aspire for policy relevance seek to orient their work without compromising academic rigor?

Although most states and societies have managed to adapt to recent environmental changes, there is no guarantee that this will continue. This is the question I sought to address in remarks at a recent conference organized by the Peace Research Institute of Oslo (PRIO), which accompanied the public event at the Wilson Center I blogged about several weeks ago. Here are my thoughts on bridging the policy-academic divide on climate and security, which represents a distillation of the wider theme I explored in the latest issue of the Texas National Security Review.

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A Path to Peace and Stability Through Food Aid

Constant war drove Fazle, his wife and four children away from their home and farm in the Khyber region of Pakistan eight years ago. They loved their home, but with all the shooting and the armed extremist groups, he had to leave or endure the death, destruction and instability that comes with war.

David Beasley chatting with Fazle, a farmer and father of five who fled his home for 7 years because of conflict in Pakistan. Photo: WFP Asia-Pacific

But seven years later, Fazle came back home, where I talked to him while visiting the area shortly after Easter, and he’s doing well. After getting six months of food aid, he got into a program that helped him set up a nursery. Now he’s earning about (US)$130 a month, four times his previous income.

What’s happening to Fazle and the area where he lives is an important sign of progress for how humanitarian efforts can build peace and long-term stability in countries where conflict and hunger intertwine.

In the year since I became the executive director of the United Nations World Food Programme, I’ve travelled to many of the areas with the highest food insecurity – Yemen, South Sudan, northeast Nigeria, Somalia. I have met many people who worry about food, but they often ask me first for help in creating peace.

It’s easy to see why. Ten out of the 13 largest hunger crises in the world are conflict-driven, and 60 percent of the people in the world who are food insecure live in conflict zones.

The price is highest on children. Hunger, malnutrition and poor health often lead to stunting – a phrase used to describe severely impaired growth in these young bodies. Three out of every four stunted children in the world lives in a conflict area.Read More

Three PRIO Scholars Part of the Next IPCC Author Team

Three scholars involved with climate and security projects at PRIO have been included in the author panel for IPCC’s 6th Assessment Report. From left: Halvard Buhaug, Elisabeth Gilmore and Tor A. Benjaminsen.

I reported in this Blog on 25 January on the prospects for coverage of the link between climate and conflict in the Sixth Assessment Report (AR6) of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), scheduled for release in 2021–22. The number of chapters in the report for Working Group II has been cut to 18, compared to 30 in AR5. The new report will not have a separate chapter on human security. Nevertheless, we must expect that the relationship between climate change and conflict will be addressed in the report, as was the case in all the three preding assessment reports.

A long process for naming Coordinating Lead Authors, Lead Authors, and Review Editors of the three Working Groups is now complete. A total of 2912 experts were nominated before the deadline on 27 October 2017. Nominations were made from national government focal points, observer organizations, and IPCC Working Group bureau members. There were no less than 2858 nominations from 105 countries for the three reports, WG I on the physical science basis, WG II on impacts, adaptation, and vulnerability, and WG III on mitigation, with some overlap. Altogether, 721 authors and editors from 90 countries have been invited. Their names can be downloaded from here.

The lists of authors and editors reflect several concerns, including international academic stature, regional expertise, representation for developing countries and economies in transition, as well as the need to balance experience with previous IPCC reports with fresh perspectives from new authors.

Despite the disappearance of a designated human security chapter in AR6, the author teams include several conflict experts, among them Tor Arve Benjaminsen of the Norwegian University of Life Sciences and Thomas Bernauer of ETH Zürich (both for Chapter 1, Point of departure and key concepts), Elisabeth Gilmore of Clark University (for Chapter 14, North America), and Halvard Buhaug of PRIO (for Chapter 16, Key risks across sectors and regions). In addition to Buhaug, Benjaminsen and Gilmore are currently attached to PRIO in adjunct positions and all three are part of a Research Council of Norway-sponsored research project on Climate Anomalies and Violent Environments. The Norwegian Environment Agency has posted a list of all AR6 authors affiliated with Norwegian institution, available from here.

In the previous Assessment Report (AR5), statements about the effects of climate change on conflict were not limited to the Human Security chapter but also appeared in other chapters, such as the Africa chapter. Chapter 16 in AR6 will presumably play a decisive role in making sure that there are not too many inconsistencies between the different chapters.