Our award-winning reporting has moved

Context provides news and analysis on three of the world’s most critical issues:

climate change, the impact of technology on society, and inclusive economies.

OPINION: Climate action offers a hidden peace dividend

Monday, 22 February 2021 11:47 GMT

FILE PHOTO: A member of a civilian vigilante group holds a hunting rifle while a woman pumps water into jerrycans in Kerawa, Cameroon, a place subject to frequent Boko Haram attacks, March 16, 2016. REUTERS/Joe Penney

Image Caption and Rights Information

* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Climate change aggravates conflict and unrest all over the world. Could investing in climate adaptation reduce the risk of war and civil strife?

On Feb. 23, the United Nations Security Council will meet to discuss the threat that climate change poses to global peace. The question is no longer whether global warming sparks the flames of conflict; it is about where climate shocks are likely to tip already fragile situations into war or civil strife.

This could occur in the Arctic Circle, where melting ice caps are triggering a scramble for resources, or in the world’s populous and fertile river deltas, turned barren by rising seas, or in the Sahel and the Middle East, regions already blighted by conflict and acute water stress. In every region of the world, climate impacts are “threat multipliers” - they aggravate the risk of conflict, even if they are not directly responsible for instability or strife.

Policy-makers are only now beginning to look at the hidden peace dividend that flows from investing in climate adaptation. The idea makes intuitive sense. It is one our leaders should explore more fully.

We know there is no simple connection between climate change and conflict. But in a world already weakened by COVID-19 and existing climate stresses, we have a moral duty to do everything we can to eliminate or avert future threats to peace. And climate adaptation is something we know how to do. We just don’t do enough of it.

The adaptation gap

A new report by the Global Center on Adaptation (GCA) estimates the world spends just $30 billion a year on climate adaptation - that is five to 10 times less than the $140 billion-$300 billion a year the UN Environment Programme and others estimate is needed to address climate impacts in the developing world. 

It is also seven times less than the total global cost of climate disasters, which amounted to $210 billion in 2020, according to Munich Re, the global reinsurance house, and only a tiny fraction of the $14.5 trillion in lost annual economic output due to war and civil strife, according to the 2020 Global Peace Index. In the face of the devastating human and economic consequences of war and civil strife, we need a new approach to building peace.

The GCA’s State and Trends in Climate Adaptation 2020 report highlights some of the initiatives that are contributing to regional peace and stability.

In the Arab world, for example, a regional platform for assessing the impact of climate change on water resources is playing a crucial role in defusing potential tensions over water scarcity. The RICCAR platform’s knowledge hub is being used to raise awareness and promote regional co-operation and coordination in water management. In the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, two-thirds of freshwater resources cross one or more international boundaries, making regional co-operation on water management essential to guarantee peace and security. In this context, the importance of a regional knowledge hub that promotes shared policies for water management and for avoiding conflicts over water cannot be overstated.

Another encouraging story comes from Rwanda, where Christie Nicoson of the University of Uppsala has been studying the impact of climate adaptation programs on the cohesion of communities still traumatized by the 1994 genocide. One particular program worked to reduce vulnerability to heavy rains and mudslides by establishing early-warning and disaster preparedness systems, and by planting trees to prevent soil erosion. Nicoson found that communities were better informed and better able to cope with climate impacts thanks to the program. And by reducing resource stress, climate adaptation is having a positive effect on social cohesion and peace. 

The link to peace

We know it is difficult to establish a direct link between climate adaptation and peace. And we are not touting climate adaptation as a cure all against poverty, social inequalities, weak institutions, the arms trade, religious extremism, or national, regional and ethnic power struggles and rivalries.

But climate adaptation does have a positive contribution to make, both in terms of promoting peace and in removing potential flashpoints for conflict. That is because social justice lies at the heart of successful climate adaptation. And peace, broadly speaking, is a measure of justice, fairness, and wellbeing of society.

Done well, adaptation reduces social exclusion and inequalities by promoting sustainable livelihoods and stronger coping mechanisms against severe climate shocks. Farmers who have access to drought-resistant crops will be less likely to abandon their landholdings when drought strikes. Nature-based solutions, such as tree planting, and good water management reduce the potential for conflict over scarce resources.

The Global Commission on Adaptation has estimated that investing $1.8 trillion in climate adaptation by 2030 could generate $7.1 trillion in social, economic and environmental benefits. The peace dividend from climate adaptation investment might be harder to quantify, but it definitely exists. Climate adaptation can help avert conflict by increasing communities’ coping capacities, and by facilitating development and progress toward greater wellbeing. For that reason, it is worth considering as a powerful tool for promoting global peace.

 Tawakkol Karman is a Nobel Peace Prize Laureate. Patrick Verkooijen is CEO of the Global Center on Adaptation.