The Role Of Climate Change In The Continuous Cycle Of Resource-Based Conflict In Africa

The debate surrounding climate change is ‘hotly’ contested by a range of academics, students, scientists, and politicians. One notable figure within this debate: Donald Trump. However, one cannot refute that the climate is warming; the UK last week recorded its hottest winter day ever. Yet, within the UK only a handful of Members of Parliament intended to discuss the topic. This instance illustrates the formation of a narrative that neglects the true impacts of climate change around the world. Under this rhetoric climate change is reduced as solely a matter of a warming climate, “Brutal and Extended Cold Blast could shatter ALL RECORDS – Whatever happened to Global Warming?” President Trump tweeted late last year.

The lack of a universal consensus and strategy concerning climate change – evident in the continuous debate on the topic by scientists – inevitably halts early action mechanisms needed to mitigate the catastrophic impact on climate alterations on the most vulnerable communities. According to António Guterres, the Secretary-General of the United Nations, the most vulnerable communities in this regard are those situated in Africa. Speaking at the 32nd Ordinary Session of the Assembly of the African Union, Guterres reaffirmed this, “Climate change is an existential threat – particularly here in Africa, which has the least responsibility for the crisis but will shoulder some of the heaviest burden.” The UN Secretary-General illustrated the urgency of climate change by quoting statistics from the World Meteorological Organization showing that the last four years have been the hottest ever recorded.

Moving beyond the devastating impacts, the Deputy Secretary-General, Amina Mohammed, has stressed the need to address climate change for its link to conflict. Briefing the United Nations Security Council, she argued that climate change “acts as a threat multiplier applying additional stress on prevailing political, social and economic pressure points.” Here, despite not being the direct cause, climate change is considered within the broader and continuous cycle of resource-based violence. However, an area that is often neglected when analyzing climate change as a contributor in this cycle is the impact of conflict itself on the environment. In this sense, conflict can have direct impacts on the environment – such as intentional water contamination – and indirect impacts through neglect by state institutions. Consequently, degraded by both climate stress and conflict, the condition of the environment can be the initial and consistent trigger for conflict in an indefinite cycle of violence.

The seemingly endless cycle of conflict persists in part due to the neglect for cases of climate change in Africa. Sven Harmeling, a representative from CARE International, argues that local communities suffer the most from this “Not only are the people who live in the world’s poorest countries most vulnerable to climate change, but they are also the least equipped to address its increasing impacts.” Since little priority is granted to address the link between climate change and conflict, other issues – such as the impact of conflict on the environment – are similarly overlooked. The lack of attention for such issues is represented in a statement made by previous UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon that “the environment is often a silent causality of war”; this is a probable indicator that explains the frequency of resource-based conflict in Africa. As a continent that contributes the least in terms of CO2 emissions, African communities suffer the most from this lack of attention.

Policy responses, or the lack thereof, to the threat of climate change and the impact of conflict on the environment, are also not prioritized. A report released by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) last month indicates that the African Union (AU) fails to comprehend how climate-related security risks may contribute to conflict throughout the continent. According to the report, the AU – the central organization for peace and security in Africa – “lacks a tangible policy framework that lays out specific actions on how to respond to climate security.” Various cases throughout the continent, namely Darfur and South Sudan, demonstrate not only the failure of the AU and other international organizations to respond timely to prevent climate-related violence, but also the vulnerability of the local populations who depend heavily on agriculture and other natural resources. For example, in conflict-prone South Sudan, over 80% of the population heavily relies on agriculture, livestock and forestry. Unfortunately, these resources are all vulnerable to climate change, according to a report by the Government of the Netherlands. The destruction of these resources, either by climate change or conflict, desperately undermines the ability to effectively sustain livelihoods and can thus motivate additional conflict via resource-based grievances; commencing thus the continuous cycle of violence.

In recent years, research by actors and organisations, including the UN, has sought to critically analyze the long-term impacts of conflict on the environment. Secretary-General António Guterres reiterated this in 2017 on the International Day for Preventing the Exploitation of the Environment in War and Armed Conflict. He stated at the event that “Whether caused by fighting or a breakdown in Government control, the damage to the environment has devastating consequences for people’s health and well-being.” Guterres’ statement highlights the need for greater awareness surrounding both the direct and indirect impacts of conflict on the environment.

An important link in this regard should seek to combine not only the role that climate change has on the environment alone but also begin to consider it as a force which can intensify the impact of conflict on the environment. Likewise, indirect impacts on the environment are another area that requires significantly more focus. Whilst the direct impact of violence can be easily observable, institutional neglect can have a great impact on environmental preservation. Conflict in this regard can indirectly impact the environment via the disturbance of institutions that would otherwise empathize positive environmental practices. Acknowledging both direct and indirect environmental implications is crucial if one is to empower the environment as a force for post-conflict peacebuilding.

One of the problems inherent in the current response to conflict, nevertheless, is in the narrative of envisaging the environment and its natural resources as solely the trigger of conflict; rather than a trigger of peace. In the former narrative, connecting the environment with conflict creates a negative connotation that incentivizes conflict over lucrative natural resources. However, the environment can also work to create peace. The valuable role of the environment in this regard is reiterated within the African Charter of Human and Peoples’ Rights, which accentuates the rights to a general satisfactory environment (Article 24) and the free disposal of wealth and natural resources (Article 21). Referred to as collective-development rights, the Charter encourages the notion of the environment for its sustainability assistance and cultural value. This ideological view of the environment, moreover, should be combined with the practicality of ‘environmental peacebuilding.’

As UN statistics show that over 40% of conflicts involve the use of natural resources, environmental peacebuilding provides an ample “paradigm shift from a nexus of environmental scarcity to one of environment peace,” according to a recent article by Dresse et al. By advocating better natural resource management and by empowering resilience in communities that are dependent on the environment, environmental peacebuilding can build a better understanding of the impact of climate stress and conflict on the environment. Moreover, the broadness of the approach could empower institutional capacity to protect the environment. Therefore, the multiple stages of environmental peacebuilding – namely mitigation, recovery and resolution – serve as crucial elements in sustaining environmental security, livelihoods and preventing the cycle of conflict.

The awareness of this cycle of conflict is instrumental in directing effective policy responses to the role of the environment in both incentivizing conflict and encouraging peace. Encouraging the latter requires a shift in the current narrative. The environment must not solely be perceived as an economic commodity that motivates violence. By moving beyond this perception, one envisages a different type of value in the environment; one that is vital for the peace and livelihoods of many. Of course, the impact of climate change, nonetheless, can impact the ‘value’ of the environment and its natural resources. As such, a continuous effort should be stressed towards the potential that climate change has on intensifying and triggering conflict in Africa – a region that suffers the most but contributes the least to climate change. However, surpassing this negativity requires equal importance be given towards the optimistic approach of environmental peacebuilding.