COP21: Building peace by linking responses to climate change and security

This comment first appeared in Devex on 22 December 2015.

Last weekend, the world cheered as negotiators secured the best possible deal on climate change. It’s an historic agreement tackling what The Observer called “the greatest existential threat to life on Earth.”

For many, it could not come soon enough: as they say in Bangladesh, “You can taste climate change” as rising sea-levels enter the water table. But millions of others will be left wondering why the world has mobilised like never before about far-off, long into the future challenges of climate change, when they seem powerless in the face of such stark priorities today, when people are dying in Syria or Nigeria. When in eastern DRC alone, people face threats from 69 armed groups, in a conflict that over the years has claimed the lives of millions. To those caught up in bloody conflict, climate change talks might seem like a luxury.

But in fact, the two are deeply connected. It is strangely fitting that talks on climate change should be held in Paris, newly emblematic of other security risks. Climate change is part of the cause of many conflicts already and, despite the agreement for future action, will only get more important.

Inner and outer conflict

Research conducted by International Alert for the Group of Seven found that climate change is the ultimate “multiplier of threats.” Take any risk to security such as volatile food prices or competition over local resources, add in climate change and the situation gets degrees worse.

Take Syria: what started as a peaceful protest in March 2011 against President Bashar al-Assad’s regime has degenerated into a bloody conflict that is gradually sucking in more and more countries. Of course, the Syrian uprising was triggered by a dangerous mix including growing poverty, rising unemployment, lack of political freedom, corruption, a widening rural/urban divide. But critical in the mix, was the drought, resource mismanagement, and the impact of climate change on water and crop production.

Between 2006 and 2011, the north east of Syria— the country’s breadbasket — the hardest hit by a severe drought, exacerbating a long legacy of resource mismanagement. The statistics are shocking: Herders in the northeast lost nearly 85 percent of their livestock, affecting 1.3 million people; nearly three-quarters of families that depend on agriculture suffered total crop failure. Then as the drought dragged on into its second and third years, the Syrian government cancelled a number of state subsidies, which overnight multiplied the price of diesel fuel and fertilizers.

Underlying push toward a tipping point

The massive loss of livelihoods pushed farmers, herders, and rural families to migrate to overcrowded cities, putting pressure on basic services, and increasing urban unemployment. More than 1 million people were short of food, adding to other grievances over government mismanagement. Finally, this food insecurity was one of the factors that pushed the country over the threshold into violent conflict.

The first protests began in the rural town of Dara’a, where secret police arrested and tortured a group of teenagers. People in other cities gathered in support of the ‘children of Dara’a. The initial protests followed the path of the drought. These peaceful protests to express people’s grievances at the government’s failure to act in response to the humanitarian crisis fuelled simmering discontent in the rural areas and then later escalated into the civil war that continues today.

Security through climate resilience

This is just the latest, most bloody example. But climate change is contributing to conflict across the world. Which is why the deal struck last week in Paris is of such fundamental importance. Governments must indeed take the lead in cutting greenhouse emissions. But we know that for too many in the world, this ambitious deal is still too late. So we must also strengthen the resilience of communities to adapt to climate changes already well under way, the effects of which could play out for decades. If for no other reason, then because it is in our security interests.

Indeed, this was explicitly recognised in the U.K. government’s recent Strategic Defense Review as an issue of “global importance,” particularly in poor and fragile countries.

Certainly, a global issue requires global, integrated responses. Experts across sectors, from climate change to development, humanitarian aid and peacebuilding must join forces to ensure how we tackle climate change does not fuel conflict. In turn, our efforts to tackle conflict and global terrorism need to take account of climate change, and focus on building lasting peace.

If we want to reduce the risk of people falling into extremism, then we need to create jobs which are not dependent on fossil fuels, for example. Obviously, there would be little value in providing support for farming to unemployed Syrian young men when long-term drought is the reason they cannot farm. Or again, we should not rush to plant biofuels if that leads to conflict over people’s lands.

Government actions — while vital — simply will not be enough to keep temperatures below the 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels that everyone has now agreed is necessary. It will also take concerted actions by companies and civil society. Indeed, the lobbying around Paris saw an almost unique level of unity among strange bedfellows. I was pleased to be at a UNESCO event debating how companies and NGOs can work together in new alliances that would have been unthinkable just a few decades ago. For example, Nespresso and the U.S. NGO Technoserve are working together in warring South Sudan, supporting farmers to grow coffee to earn the improved incomes that are so vital to keeping peace. While the coffee harvest is still tiny, it is already South Sudan’s second largest export after oil.

Climate change and conflict are linked, and their implications can be lasting and transcend borders. But addressing these issues together can open up crucial opportunities to save lives, reduce the risk of instability and create a climate for lasting peace.