Building Climate Resilience in Conflict-Affected States: A Neglected Agenda

Climate change adaptation and mitigation efforts face many obstacles in fragile and conflict-affected societies. Instead of writing off these situations, however, International Alert’s Janani Vivekananda, Janpeter Schilling, and Dan Smith suggest approaching aid and development differently to proactively build resilience and simultaneously advance climate, development, and peacebuilding goals.

The interlinked challenges of climate change, poverty, and conflict legacies are recognized by academic and practitioner communities. But too often the focus has been limited to unpacking causal connections between climate change and the outbreak of violent conflict. While this emphasis garners significant attention (and much academic infighting), it largely fails to engage on the practical questions of how to respond effectively to climate change and poverty in conflict-affected states.

The concept of resilience, Vivekananda et al. write, is critically important in this context, as it connects disparate government and development efforts in service of society as a whole. Understanding the “intermediate” factors that already make a society vulnerable to conflict – poor governance, geopolitics, poverty, inequality – is vital to creating positive development, adaptation, and peacebuilding policies.

Context Is Everything

Understanding the local variation of societies, the “contextual complexities,” should be the first step for any resilience-building operation, the authors write. Local and national-level dynamics need to be considered in tandem to understand how changes in one place might affect elsewhere.

Experience in Nepal provides useful lessons. Nepal is one of the most vulnerable states to climate change and environmental risks in the world. An International Alert case study explores how aid designed to combat food insecurity there ended up undermining adaptive capacity. Rice paddies were created in communities that previously relied on other forms of agriculture, consequently creating a dependency and expectation for more due to the positive social implications that come with having rice in the diet. The shift to rice farming also increased the demand for water.

The study highlights how this change combined with climate-induced changes to rainfall has resulted in water shortages. The reduction of a specific resource in a setting already undergoing environmental change affected community resilience in a negative way. Greater contextual awareness of the implications of such a fundamental change to agriculture might have enabled the government and local communities to avoid such a “backdraft” effect.

Cross-Discipline Analysis

Climate change brings with it a new degree of uncertainty and unpredictability. Informal or formal institutions that embrace the complexities and flux will help societies do the same.

To adjust, Vivekananda and colleagues suggest better collaboration to break down existing institutional barriers and stovepipes between institutions. Multidisciplinary and integrated development efforts increase the likelihood of coherent climate and conflict-sensitive approaches to development, peacebuilding, and humanitarian actions. In turn, collaborative efforts are more likely to build long-term resilience, as communities rarely face a single risk in isolation, as highlighted in the Nepal case.

Academic fields, they suggest, should work towards common risk analyses. This integration entails the identification of possible negative outcomes, such as conflict; the determination of origins of said negative outcomes, such as political instability or environmental change; and shared evaluation amongst disciplines about how to fix the problem.

Vivekananda et al. work through the negative cycle that can emerge when climate change leads to conflict. Existing fragility can increase vulnerability and human insecurity, potentially leading to conflict. Identifying what makes a society fragile in the first place will provide more transparency regarding what will improve resilience.

For example, they cite a report produced by the humanitarian NGO Mercy Corps on conflict and severe drought in Ethiopia. Southern Ethiopia is home to some of the most vulnerable people to climate change: pastoralists. The report found that access to resources was one of these groups’ fundamental challenges. “Improving social cohesion and local institutions for conflict mitigation enhances access to natural resources,” they wrote, and “pastoralist groups with greater access recover more quickly from drought.”

The importance of integrated responses was also highlighted in A New Climate for Peace, a new report produced on behalf of the G7 by adelphi, the European Union Institute for Security Studies, International Alert, and the Wilson Center. The report says that by integrating efforts to address climate change, the international community will be better equipped to mitigate its interconnected risks while realizing important co-benefits. Recommendations include making climate change a foreign policy priority for all G7 members and using their clout to create a global resilience agenda.

Redundancy and Lack of Action

The literature on climate change mitigation, adaptation, and resilience frequently places great importance on the need to bridge the gap between academic disciplines and research communities, but relatively little action has been taken. Vivekananda et al. suggest this shortcoming could be because of the heavy focus on quantitative literature in examining the implications of climate change for conflict. Calling for more collaboration and increased multidisciplinary research is easier than doing it in practice with sufficient funds and willing partners.

So how do we incentivize more cross-sectoral work? Finding answers should be a priority. As more at-risk countries consider resilience programs, the potential for negative unintended consequences increases. Ambiguity surrounding important factors such as incentives can discourage local communities and governments from even attempting multisectoral approaches.

Vivekananda et al. suggest that incentives could be derived from better resourcing, political support, and increased transparency and clarity around what the concept of resilience building actually means. The G7 report and 2014 5th Assessment of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change largely agree. The IPCC’s Working Group II dedicates an entire section to “trade-offs, synergies, and integration” in its assessment. And the G7 report says integration may become more enticing as different parties realize the benefits that it can bring.

These discussions about climate change in fragile and conflict-affected areas are important resources for policymakers. Government, the academy, and non-government organizations should act in earnest on their main message: dissolve ambiguity around key concepts, integrate responses, and build up the capacity of fragile states to make simultaneous progress on climate change, development, and peacebuilding goals. More