Dropping the Ball on the Climate-Conflict Nexus

Last week the United States Institute of Peace hosted an event featuring the Administrator of the UN Development Program, Helen Clark, and a panel of experts to discuss building resilience and preventative capabilities in the face of growing social, economic and political pressures brought about by climate change. Underlying the event was the release of a report late last year by the National Research Council on climate change and social stress. Recent research shows that climate change serves as a conflict multiplier, encouraging new conflicts while reinforcing existing ones. As a result, recognizing the threat climate change poses and building resilience in fragile societies to these pressures is a critical issue, not just to limit the devastating effects of natural disasters but also for conflict prevention.

Unfortunately, the primary takeaway from the event was that we generally lack the sense of urgency these issues call for. While national security policymakers no longer question the connection between human security and the environment, the human consequences of climate change largely remains in the distant background in national and international policy. Yet these consequences are already apparent. Rising sea levels threaten numerous small island states while changing weather patterns increase the devastation of natural disasters, from heat waves in Russia and drought in East Africa to floods in Pakistan and stronger hurricanes in the Atlantic. These events constrain current resources, both for the people affected and the ability of the international community to respond. These economic pressures, along with a growing youth demographic in the developing world, set up a perfect recipe for conflict.

One example raised by an audience member is that of Boko Haram, a militant Islamic group from Northern Nigeria. Although the group was founded in Borno State near Lake Chad – a vital resource in the arid Chad Basin of the Sahel which has shrunk by 90% in the last 50 years resulting in severe economic decline for the region – international attention on the region did not exist until Boko Haram began attacking government buildings and civilians in Nigeria. Now, there is plenty of attention on Boko Haram but it is largely seen through the lens of global terrorism and not as the price of resource scarcity due to climate change and government corruption. This disconnect is due both to our narrow view of terrorism but also our human tendency towards reaction rather than prevention. Until we can properly conceptualize the danger that climate change presents and acknowledge its consequences, we are setting ourselves up for disaster.

Scientists agree that a rise of two degrees Celsius in global temperatures from pre-Industrial averages would bring about disastrous changes to the environment. Keeping the world below this two degree benchmark has been the primary goal of international agreements on climate change. While so far the average global temperature has only risen an estimated 0.7 degrees, the rate of increase is drastically speeding up; new predictions estimate the world is on track for a potentially catastrophic six-degree rise by 2100. As fragile societies are already facing increased conflict due to mounting resource scarcity and climate pressures with a mere 0.7 degree rise, now is the time to ask whether we are prepared for the consequences of an unchecked six degree rise which will impact everyone in ways that are difficult to fully fathom today. As the answer to that question is almost undoubtedly “no”, we need to start putting real resources towards the problem and help the most fragile and threatened states among us move towards stronger resiliency.