Which First: The Climate Or The Conflict?

Over the last two weeks, world leaders have gathered once again to hash out goals, deals and action plans to mitigate the global threat to our climate. As delegates travelled to Sharm-el-Sheikh for COP27, commentators wondered whether 2022 is the year that climate change fell off the agenda. After the beginning of the war in Ukraine, the fallout for the energy industry and a looming global recession, the question must be posed: is anyone going to truly prioritize climate? 

The War in Ukraine isn’t the only conflict on the agenda at the UN Climate Conference. In October and November, various groups called on COP27 to take conflict into account when planning climate action. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) called attention to the vulnerability of communities living in conflict zones, where instability and lack of resources make it near impossible to adapt to the effects of climate change. Alert International warned that climate change will exacerbate existing conflicts, reporting that 70% of the world’s most climate-vulnerable countries are at high risk of climate-related conflict. The International Crisis Group showed that climate change is already fuelling instability, taking examples from the Horn of Africa, where drought is intensifying inter-community tensions over land use, and drought-related hardship is fuelling the propaganda of anti-government insurgencies. 

However, some are sceptical of whether climate change mitigation can be successful before peace. Writing for Al Jazeera, Victoire Ingabire Umuhoza takes the example of the Congo Rainforest, which has the capacity to absorb 4% of global carbon emissions. Protecting this carbon sink is impossible as long as armed groups profit from illegal logging to fuel their war, and displaced populations are forced to cut deeper into the forest to find safety. 

Mélodie Yeho, a biologist and humanitarian aid worker in the protracted war zone of the Central African Republic, shares this concern, saying that it is better to wait for peace before concentrating on climate. In a similar vein, Arezo Ibrahimi, an Afghan geologist raises a concern for the fairness of imposing climate change mitigation on communities which are already struggling with conflict, lack of government and poverty. “People in these countries put all their attention to find a way to bring peace and freedom,” she notes, alongside the claim that “international initiatives to combat global climate change, support renewable energy, and advance sustainable development cannot advance unless peace is prioritized as the first step.” 

Linked to this is the question of the designation of responsibility for climate change mitigation. Conflict affected countries are also some of the lowest emitters. Is it really fair to impose extra constraints on the populations of the DRC, South Sudan, Afghanistan and countless other countries who are already struggling to survive, when their emissions are a fraction of those in the stable, wealthy West? 

Cedrick Fogwan Nguedia, who works for a marine conservation N.G.O. in the unstable West of Cameroon, sees things differently. He draws parallels between the conflict in DRC and in Cameroon, agreeing with Umuhoza that both conflicts, at their basis, are issues of scarce resources. But he concludes that climate action is therefore a necessary condition for lasting peace. “We cannot solve the problem without thinking of the root cause,” he says. Nguedia is more optimistic about the feasibility of climate action in conflict, too: giving examples of forest conservation work which is continuing in some of the most insecure areas of Cameroon.

Regardless of which should be tackled first, it is clear that conflict and climate change are tightly tangled together. Happily, this issue has been acknowledged during COP27 discussions. The “10 New Insights in Climate Science” report, presented to COP27 on 10th November by Future Earth, the Earth League and the World Climate Research Programme, synthesizes the most important findings from climate research each year. One of the ten insights in 2022 is that “Human security requires climate security.” A few days later, The Cairo International Center for Conflict Resolution, Peacekeeping and Peace-building (CCCPA) launched its initiative for Climate Response for Sustaining Peace as part of the conference. But even if countries sign up to the need to have “conflict-sensitive” programming, what does that mean in practice? 

The priority for delegates and pressure groups raising the conflict issue has been finance. The Crisis Group finds that conflict and climate affected countries receive ⅓ of the funding that their peaceful counterparts do for climate action. This trend is more severe for Africa and for the most severe conflicts. The President of the Central African Republic expressed disappointment at the share of the funds dedicated to conserving the Congo rainforest which his country has received. The ICRC and CCCPA also call for accelerated funding for climate action in conflict-affected areas. 

However, Alert International discourages acting rashly. Taking the examples of the DRC, Kenya and Western Sahara, its report documents how a rush to finance renewable energy projects is exacerbating conflicts in these regions. On the other hand, the organization has published its advice for conflict-sensitive climate action, based on 15 years of experience in the field. It recommends focusing on cross-party collaboration, recognizing community-level power dynamics, and using climate action as a tool for peace-building. Yeho also suggests that when conflicts begin to stabilize “we can twin the two projects, namely by beginning peace-building processes and also initiating projects to avoid the harmful effects of climate change.” 

In brief, while there is no consensus on whether climate change causes conflict or vice versa, international researchers and on-the-ground practitioners all agree that the two can, and must, be tackled together. The chicken-and-egg relationship of climate and conflict is complex and undoubtedly differs between Western Sahara, Afghanistan, Cameroon and the Central African Republic. Aid donors and implementing organizations working in conflict and climate change must tread carefully when approaching the dual goal of peace-building and climate change mitigation. If they succeed, they can spark a virtuous cycle where political and environmental stability reinforce one another. This is not an optional benefit, but an imperative. As Ibrahimi poignantly observes, in the current political atmosphere, ignoring the link between climate and conflict will lead to a devastating cycle. “Global governance grows increasingly precarious, and as climate change gets worse, it will endanger global stability, cause humanitarian catastrophes, and fuel more war in a lethal loop.” 

Sarah McArthur


Leave a Reply