Accelerating climate change stokes fears of increased tensions, and of a potentially higher incidence of violent conflict. Experts point to the risks climate change poses to human security, including its role in undermining livelihoods, reinforcing resource competition and increasing involuntary migration. Given the interplay between climate change and social, economic and political factors, the consequences are felt most strongly in regions that are already vulnerable. While a direct link between climate change and conflict is difficult to establish, the existence of climate-related security risks is undeniable.
“The risks associated with climate-related disasters do not represent a scenario of some distant future. They are already a reality for millions of people around the globe – and they are not going away.” With these sobering words, Under-Secretary-General Rosemary A. DiCarlo opened a Security Council debate on an issue increasingly figuring in that body’s agenda. Ms. DiCarlo recalled that the Council had in recent months recognized the adverse effects of climate change, among other factors, on the stability of Mali, Somalia, West Africa and the Sahel, Central Africa, and the Sudan.
But the Under-Secretary-General, who leads the UN’s work on conflict prevention, also acknowledged that the relationship between climate-related risks and conflict is far from linear. Gaining a better understanding of this complex interaction is essential for prevention. This is why the Department of Political and Peacebuilding Affairs Ms. DiCarlo heads, the United Nations Development Programme and the United Nations Environment Programme, along with experts from around the world, are developing an integrated risk assessment framework to build the UN’s capacity to analyze climate-related security risks.
As part of this effort, Professor Jon Barnett of the University of Melbourne and one of the lead authors of the chapter on human security in the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) spoke at UN Headquarters on 6 March on Assessing the Impact of Climate Change on Human Security. Professor Barnett stressed that climate change is highly unlikely to cause armed conflict between countries. Non-climate related factors will always be a more important source of conflict. “There’s nothing ‘natural’ about conflict.”
This is not to say that climate change cannot be an underlying dimension for conflict, he continued. Some of the factors that increase the risk of violent conflict within states are sensitive to climate change, including low per capita income, economic contraction, and inconsistent state institutions. There is good evidence that climate change will slow growth in some low-income countries, particularly in Africa.
“A world of peace is a world of people less vulnerable to climate change,” Professor Barnett said. States that have effective and consistent state institutions and a high per capita income are better equipped to counter the negative effects and possible economic shocks of climate change and variability. Focusing on human development – creating opportunities for youth and robust justice and dispute resolution systems – is key to mitigating and adapting to climate change.
Title picture: An aerial view of the houses in a Haitian village following floods caused by a tropical storm. UN Photo/Marco Dormino