Copenhagen: Creating a Climate for Conflict?

The billions in funding for developing countries could provoke armed conflict.

December 08, 2009, 7:02 AM

Dec. 8, 2009 — -- International Alert is an independent peace-building organization that has worked for more than 20 years in 25 countries affected by conflict. Dan Smith, secretary general of International Alert, and Janani Vivekananda, senior policy Adviser on Climate change, are authors of Alert's latest report "Climate Change, Conflict and Fragility," and of "A Climate of Conflict," published by International Alert in 2007.

Thousands of negotiators, activists and lobbyists have descended on Copenhagen for two weeks to discuss a global deal on climate change.

The high-profile issues are about reducing carbon emissions and how much money the developed countries, which have the main responsibility for global warming, will put on the negotiating table to help people in poorer countries cope with the consequences. But these are not the only important issues.

One issue that will only be discussed in the margins at Copenhagen is the heightened risk of violent conflict. Factors linking climate change to an increased potential for conflict include water scarcity, accelerated land degradation and decreased food production.

The risk will be greatest in poor, badly governed countries, many of which have a history of armed conflict. International Alert's report "A Climate of Conflict" estimates that just under 3 billion people live in 46 conflict-affected countries, where climate change could increase the risk of violent conflict, with a further 2 billion people living in an additional 56 countries that face a high risk of political instability.

The Obama administration has already indicated its awareness of the important interlinked effects of climate change on increased instability and conflict. During his campaign, Obama stated that "investments to assist fragile states in coping with the challenges of climate change are in the interests of U.S. national security."

Climate Change Is Not Just a Climate Issue

Last week, the U.K.'s shadow foreign secretary William Hague stated that the "growing risk of armed conflict in some of the most fragile regions of the world due to climate change" was to be a foreign policy priority should a Conservative government take office next year.

The climate negotiators, however, remain largely silent on the matter.

International Alert's latest report warns that new funds, set to be agreed as part of an international deal that will probably be finalized next year, could make the situation worse if they don't take account of these linkages.

Policies for adaptation have to respond to political and social realities in the countries where they are implemented or they will not work.

Climate change is not only a climate issue. Climate change will affect conflict, development, government, human rights, trade and the world economy.

All these issues affect the ability of people, and their governments to respond constructively to the challenges climate change generates. The problems are interlinked, so the responses must be too.

International Alert's latest report, 'Climate Change, Conflict and Fragility', recommends that adaptation strategies should be made conflict sensitive.

Where there are water shortages, for example, there is a proven risk of conflict. The management of water in that situation can make matters worse by exploiting shortages for increased profit for private companies; or it can recognize the conflict risk and attempt to reduce it with a system of distribution that gives everybody equal access.

More broadly, if large-scale funding is available for adaptation, governments that are characterized by low efficiency or high corruption will be largely unable to use it well. It is most likely to be diverted into the hands and pockets of one faction or another in the political elite. The injection of large funds may even be a contributory factor exacerbating conflict risk.

Peace-Building Under Pressure Because of Climate Change

Adaptation strategies should be defined not only by the nature of the natural hazard that is faced but also on the basis of understanding the systems of power. This must involve the poorest and most marginalized, and avoid pitting groups against one another.

Likewise, peace-building needs to be climate-proofed by paying attention to the availability of agricultural resources to returning ex-combatants or people displaced by conflict. These could be under pressure because of climate change.

For example, in Liberia, which is in the process of recovery from war, many ex-combatants are returning to villages hoping to make a living from agriculture.

But climate scientists predict that crop yields in parts of West Africa could halve by 2020. The prospect arises of returned fighters becoming resentful unemployed farmers, and so potential recruits, with their combat experience, in a new conflict.

Alongside all this, the efforts of rich countries to shift to a low-carbon economy must be peace-friendly and supportive of development.

We don't want a repeat of the hasty actions in 2007-2008 that saw the diversion of food crops and land use to biofuel production. This played a role in pushing up food prices, causing conflict in over 30 countries.

If we can get the negotiators in Copenhagen and in the follow-up next year to understand these linkages, there's a good chance that responses to climate change could yield a double dividend: increasing resilience to both climate change and violent conflict.

Failure to take account of these issues, though, could result in the billions of dollars of funding for adaptation actually becoming part of the problem.

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