A special report from FP Analytics, the independent research division of Foreign Policy Magazine
The global rate of violent conflict has tripled since 2007, with an estimated 2 billion people—or one quarter of the world’s population—currently living in fragile and conflict-affected states. State fragility intersects with environmental vulnerability, as climate change and environmental degradation serve as “threat multipliers” to conflict, which compound domestic and transnational security risks. As such, 14 of the 25 countries that are considered the most vulnerable to environmental degradation and climate change are also currently experiencing conflict and violence, according to a 2020 International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) report. In a 2018 Security Council meeting, UN Secretary General António Guterres asserted that 40 percent of civil wars or conflicts over the past 60 years can be linked to competition over scarce natural resources. And Guterres warned that competition over these resources is rising due to climate change, as well as to human factors such as corruption and inequitable distribution of natural resources–portending an escalation of conflict going forward if environmental and resource risks are not managed.
Senior Researcher and Director of the Climate Change and Risk Programme, Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI)
Q: How do you describe the intersections between environmental conditions, climate change, and security?
“So what we know is that the double burden of climate change and conflict is increasingly compounding the hardship of already highly vulnerable populations.”
And as a starting point, I think this is really important to maintain because climate change and conflict alone are already really complicated…issues, creating really difficult situations. But both are also increasingly interacting. What research shows is that climate change increases the risk of violence and conflict. But climate change is not the only cause of conflict. Moreover, context matters—the impacts and outcomes of climate change on security are different when they are couched in different social, political, and economic structures and dynamics. So, in short, what we know is that leaving nature out of our analysis means that our analysis is incomplete.
While climate change and environmental degradation rarely cause conflict directly, they can play a significant role in fueling tensions—particularly in conditions of resource scarcity—by compounding existing political, socioeconomic, and security risks. Environmental shocks can be exceptionally destabilizing in areas with weak or ineffective institutions, long-standing tensions among social groups, slow economic growth, and inequitable development. Failure to adequately or equitably manage natural resources can fuel tensions, which can be exacerbated by poorly designed policies such as overlapping land tenure laws. Further, policies that deliberately exclude or make resources scarce for specific groups of people contribute to structural inequalities in communities, which can result in excluded groups seeking more equitable access or justice through violence.
And many of these environmentally-linked conflicts transcend borders. Natural resources, particularly water and resource-rich ecosystems such as the Amazon Rainforest, require coordinated management among multiple government actors. For this reason, international disputes over shared natural resources can arise when coordination is poorly executed or inequitable, or when resources are intentionally diverted or mismanaged to harm other actors. Population pressures, loss of livelihoods, and migration patterns can all also worsen environmental vulnerabilities. Violent conflict—regardless of whether it has environmental drivers—can further degrade the environment and worsen socioeconomic conditions.
Global Fellow and Senior Advisor to the Environmental Change & Security Program, Wilson Center
Q: How can governments or other actors better address the nexus of environmental crises and security?
“A short answer to that is a focus on resilience. The dimensions of resilience in systems can obviously look a little bit different depending on the scale and depending on the context, but the ability of people in systems to absorb, adapt, and recover is the thing that’s really going to matter.”
We can’t predict all of the specific impacts that climate change will have—not least because, while in theory, you could have maybe predicted something like a Deep Freeze in Texas, you couldn’t predict that it was going to happen when the power grids were at maximum capacity and that certain lines would freeze and break. The number of unknowables is very high…so what you can predict is [small], and what you should predict are the stresses on systems, without necessarily knowing all the precise breaking points. So I think from a policy perspective, it makes sense to try to figure out where your vulnerabilities in systems are and try to shore those up, so that any range of stresses will be hopefully less damaging, and to also figure out where the strengths are so that you can make those as strong as they can be, so that they help the system withstand the pressures and the shocks.
Breaking the self-perpetuating cycles of environmental degradation and conflict requires improving resilience to socioeconomic, political, and security threats, as well as better natural resource management. The following special report by FP Analytics explores country-level and regional patterns of fragility and how they contribute to environmentally-linked conflict and explores how strengthening resilience can help mitigate tensions and the impacts of environmentally-linked conflict. To that end, it leverages data from the Global Atlas of Environmental Justice, the largest repository of information and data on environmentally-linked conflicts publicly available, and the Fragile States Index (FSI), which annually ranks 178 countries across 12 indicators of economic, political, state cohesion and security, and social risks. The analysis, which is informed by a range of experts working on the forefront of environmentally-linked conflict, reveals how environmentally-linked conflicts manifest in countries experiencing varying levels of fragility and highlights how early identification and intervention to address environmental risks are essential for security strategy.
Fragility Trends Impact How Environmentally-linked Conflicts Manifest
Vulnerability to environmental, political, economic, or social factors varies across regions and serves as a compounding factor that can fuel conflict. Fragile countries tend to lack political legitimacy and institutional capacity to address shocks—including environmental shocks—when they occur, exacerbating individuals’, communities’, and institutions’ vulnerability over time. The 2021 edition of the Ecological Threat Report found that 16 of the top 20 countries most vulnerable to ecological threats are also among those most vulnerable to socioeconomic or political risks, indicating that fragility is often tied to environmental vulnerability. The regions most at risk of ecological degradation or collapse are the Sahel to the Horn of Africa, southern Africa, and the Middle East and Central Asia. These are also among the most fragile regions, according to Fragile States Index data. Other environmentally vulnerable hotspots are clustered in east and central Africa, southern Asia, and Central America, as well as in transboundary, large-scale ecosystems such as the Amazon.
Based on the analysis of Atlas and FSI data, patterns of environmentally-linked conflict vary by region and countries’ or regions’ respective levels of fragility and development. These patterns are closely associated with resource clusters and impacted by industrial development and approach to natural resources extraction and utilization. For example, land-use conflicts—which include disputes over forest resources, agriculture, fisheries, and livestock management—are most commonly reported in low-income countries. Land-use conflicts also account for a high percentage of environmentally-linked conflicts in semi-stable, semi-fragile, and the most fragile countries but a relatively low percentage in more stable countries. Along with conflicts involving mineral ore and resources for heavy industry, these types of environmentally-linked conflicts account for more than half of conflicts recorded in the Atlas in low-income countries. This stands in contrast to environmentally-linked conflicts in high-income countries, where fossil fuels and energy conflicts and infrastructure-related conflicts collectively represent 35.5 percent of conflicts, and land-use conflicts account for only 7.2 percent of conflicts. Overall, environmental degradation is most commonly cited as a driver of conflict in local-level or sub-national conflicts in the Atlas, rather than in country-wide or international conflicts.
Type of Environmentally-Linked Conflict Varies by Fragility Risk and Region
Regional and country-level characteristics can shape environmentally-linked conflict.
Source: Temper, L., del Bene, D., & Martinez-Alier, J. (2015). Environmental Justice Atlas. Retrieved from https://ejatlas.org/.
Resource Development a Common Driver of Conflict
Natural resource availability—and competition over those resources—is clustered by region. Commodity extraction can be contentious due to networks of vested political and economic interests that sustain industry. A lack of transparency, oversight, incidents of corruption, and poor adherence to laws and industry best practices have contributed to conflict across the globe, particularly in developing countries. Tensions can result in environmentally-linked conflict among private-sector industry actors—and, have been most commonly associated with hydroelectric energy generation, mining, logging, agri-business, and other industries concentrated in rural areas—where industry and local communities are at odds. Industry actors and communities have most commonly clashed over rights and access to scarce natural resources, environmental degradation stemming from industrial activities, and how local resources are used once extracted. Land is the most cited resource driving conflict in the Atlas, included in around one-third of conflicts reported. As an interviewee remarked, billions of people around the world, particularly the poorest and most vulnerable, depend on land for base necessities, social status, and livelihoods, and they are often vulnerable to the priorities of industry. Conflict can occur where the competing interests between industry and communities collide.
Primary Industries & Natural Resources Tied to Conflicts Globally
Land, water, and energy projects constitute nearly 3/4 of environmentally-linked conflicts globally.
Source: Temper, L., del Bene, D., & Martinez-Alier, J. (2015). Environmental Justice Atlas. Retrieved from https://ejatlas.org/.
According to the data, environmentally-related conflicts tend to be more prevalent in countries that are resource-dependent and more acute where highly valuable resources are geographically concentrated. As of 2019, over half of economies globally were resource-dependent, relying on commodity exports for more than 60 percent of their gross domestic product. Resource dependence is correlated with development status, with two-thirds of developing countries, half of transition economies, and 10 percent of high-income countries receiving this designation. Countries that are resource-dependent tend to be economically fragile, as a lack of economic diversity exposes economies and populations to price shocks or potential decline in value over time. MENA countries’ dependence on oil and gas exports, for example, has contributed to their ranking among the most fragile countries on the FSI’s indicator on economic decline, although some MENA countries—particularly Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, and Oman—have made efforts to diversify their economies in recent years. Resource dependence can also result in environmental degradation, when resources are extracted or utilized on a large scale in regions with relatively weak legal and governmental frameworks.
Irresponsible Development Can Spur Resistance and Unrest
Resource development and commodity extraction can contribute to a range of adverse health and socioeconomic outcomes, as well as to further environmental degradation. These impacts can be destabilizing for the communities where projects are located, fuel tensions, and inspire social resistance. Most social mobilizations that are connected to industry are non-violent, according to Atlas data. Violent forms of unrest, such as property damage, arson, and threats to use arms, are relatively rare across all regions and fragility levels, but they still pose risks should tensions not be effectively mitigated or managed upstream.
Impacts of Industrial Activity on Communities
Failure to manage adverse impacts can lead to backlash and local unrest.
Source: Temper, L., del Bene, D., & Martinez-Alier, J. (2015). Environmental Justice Atlas. Retrieved from https://ejatlas.org/.
Spontaneously organized community members and local environmental organizations are the two most common groups involved in environmentally-linked conflicts globally, based on Atlas data. However, when the characteristics of groups that often mobilize appear linked to a country’s level of fragility, according to data from the Atlas and the FSI. In more stable countries, groups tend to organize by professional, political, or ideological affiliation. In more fragile countries, groups are more likely to be based around social or cultural identity. These social or cultural identity groups may lack social and legal protections making them exceptionally vulnerable due to overlapping or conflicting land tenure rights—or may be poorly protected from the negative impacts of environmental degradation, which can lead to conflict. Indigenous people, for example, account for only five percent of the world’s population but are involved in over 40 percent of Atlas cases and are disproportionately directly impacted by negative environmental, health, and socioeconomic impacts associated with resource development and extractive industries.
According to Oli Brown, associate fellow with Chatham House’s Environment and Society Programme, multidimensional conflicts that include disputes over natural resources could present an opportunity for conflict mitigation and strengthening of dialogue among industry, government, and community stakeholders. This is because conflicts that have an environmental component suggest that one or more tangible resources could be better or more actively managed in a way that reduces tensions among actors engaged in the conflict, as long as the environmental issues are addressed systematically and sensitively.
These multistakeholder coalitions may be impactful, according to experts interviewed for this report, in that they can illuminate how natural resources could be more effectively or cooperatively managed, as well as foster shared values among the groups. These shared natural resources, when managed well, can lead to more trust among groups involved in environmentally-linked conflicts and a higher likelihood of negotiated, peaceful outcomes, as the “mutual benefits of cooperation outgrow the self-interested rationale of conflicts,” according to a 2019 study on environmental peacebuilding by the Instituto Colombo-Aléman para la Paz (CAPAZ).
Local governments and other actors could also focus on pre-emptively building resilient, collaborative negotiating frameworks among and between civil society groups and industry actors, including in times when there are no immediate crises. For example, informal conflict-resolution mechanisms encouraging sustained dialogue have brought together communities in Nepal with opposing claims to shared forest resources, and they have been shown to de-escalate environmentally linked disputes and avoid conflict before it happens. Interviewees noted that negotiating frameworks may be particularly useful in areas with scarce or highly valuable natural resources.
Stakeholders who work to address environmentally-linked conflicts must also address the risk factors contributing to fragility. Establishing informal institutions at the community level to determine the use and management of natural resources, as well as connecting those institutions to the state’s formal decision-making bodies, have been demonstrated to be impactful tools for mitigating environmental degradation and environmentally-linked conflicts. Informal institutions could be as simple as establishing regular community meetings to discuss how to manage a natural resource, but they can serve as mediums for communication, trust-building, and conflict resolution among groups that share claims over a natural resource.
Grassroots-level Conflict Resolution in Ethiopia
A long-term United States Agency for International Development (USAID) project in Ethiopia’s Borana Zone, an area in which pastoral communities have experienced sporadic conflict around changing climate conditions and natural resource depletion, implemented community collaboration among groups that have had long-standing tensions. Activities included in the project included holding workshops and dialogues, encouraging joint natural resource management and restoration actions, and developing community bylaws to manage resources that are jointly held among communities, which resulted in a lower level of recorded violence and less blame and tensions among communities. These grassroots-level conflict resolution efforts that connect communities with local government officials—which the USAID project in Ethiopia did as well—tend to be successful at mitigating tensions and resolving on-going environmentally-linked conflicts, as they create a process for communities to discuss grievances as they arise and increase local ownership of environmental management. Where informal institutions already exist, governments, development banks, international governmental organizations, or other stakeholders could provide funding to support these grassroots-level institutions and build their technical and institutional capacities.
Environmentally-linked conflicts that involve primary industries—industries that extract and produce raw materials for economic gain—and natural resources can be mitigated to a certain extent through economic diversification, strengthening local economies, and reducing exposure to price shocks. Such diversification and support for a range of local and regional businesses can help boost local economies and expand regional logistics and market networks, as well as foster resilience in fragile states. These efforts can be facilitated by clarifying land tenure laws, promoting sustainable livelihoods in rural areas, and holding industry actors accountable for negative environmental impacts on communities.
Ineffective Management Can Result in Violence
While mobilization among affected groups can increase communication and raise awareness of project-related impacts, such actions have also been met with aggression by power brokers and authorities, exacerbating conflict. Murders of environmental activists have increased steadily over the past 15 years, reaching a record high of 227 people killed globally in 2020, according to a 2021 Global Witness report. The COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns, as well as the growing incidence of state repression during the pandemic, have made it easier for violent actors to locate and target activists. Global Witness found that all but one of the 227 environmental activists killed in 2020 were defending communities or territory from environmental degradation in Global South countries, and almost 75 percent of total killings occurred in Latin America and the Caribbean. Almost all of the killings reportedly occurred in countries with “repressed” or “obstructed” governments, which are categorizations in the CIVICUS Monitor tool, which analyzes the nature of civic freedoms and civil society across 196 countries. Countries that are considered “closed,” such as Saudi Arabia and Nicaragua, are less likely to report environmental activist murders, so the true extent of environmental activist persecution is likely to be under-reported globally.
Top-down efforts to manage unrest appear to be directly linked to a country’s fragility level. Analysis of data from the Atlas and the FSI found that higher levels of state fragility are correlated with more violence from power brokers, while more stable countries experience more peaceful reactions from authorities in response to unrest. Based on the data, governments in fragile countries tend to be more likely to respond to dissent, protests, or other mobilizations with violence to maintain and demonstrate control. These repressive actions, often taken in the name of national security, can contribute to a negative cycle of unrest and violence, as citizens become polarized and organize to resist the state. Data from the Atlas and the FSI also suggests that governments in more stable countries have the greater legitimacy, transparency, and institutional checks on power, with a greater propensity to address conflict through legal and judicial processes.
Efforts to Manage Unrest Vary by Level of State Fragility
Forced migration and displacement, corruption, and repression are common responses to unrest in the most fragile countries.
Source: Temper, L., del Bene, D., & Martinez-Alier, J. (2015). Environmental Justice Atlas. Retrieved from https://ejatlas.org/; The Fund for Peace. (2021). Fragile States Index. Retrieved from https://fragilestatesindex.org.; Foreign Policy Analytics analysis.
Reducing the risks of violence in environmentally-linked conflict may be among the most complicated aspects of building resilience, as it requires buy-in from actors that can wield repression and violence as tools to achieve their goals. According to research by the OECD, no specific investment strategy or methodology has been proven to significantly mitigate the risks of state-led repression or violence. Instead, reducing violence and promoting stability necessitate building resilience holistically through a whole-of-government approach to reducing fragility, which targets action across socioeconomic, political, and security dimensions. To support whole-of-government or similar approaches, the OECD is adding a human security element to its widely utilized fragility framework, which focuses on placing “people at the center of policy while investing in their future potential.”
The OECD framework encourages countries and international partners to invest in inclusive development and sustainable livelihoods, as well as to directly address the root causes of fragility and conflict. Development banks or international governmental actors may also be well placed to foster cooperation among countries and groups engaged in conflict, and to develop collective policy and legal frameworks that help manage and arbitrate conflicts and reduce instances of violence, with the aims of strengthening institutional capacity and improving overall resilience. The World Bank, for example, was instrumental in facilitating the Indus Water Treaty (IWT) for managing shared water resources between India and Pakistan, a highly contentious issue that will be discussed in greater detail below.
Mitigation Options Vary According to a Conflict’s Intensity and Scale
The intensity of environmentally-linked conflicts ranges across a spectrum of tension, from disputes that simmer for years or decades but never erupt into violence, to wars in which thousands of people are killed. Charlie Iceland, acting global director of water for the World Resource Institute’s Food, Forests, Water, and the Ocean Program, situates “not-yet-violent conflicts” toward the “simmering” end of the intensity spectrum, where tensions are currently rising but have not yet spilled over into violence. Environmentally-linked conflicts also range in scale from small-scale intra- or inter-community disputes to cross-border conflicts. As an environmentally-linked conflict evolves, its position on both spectrums will likely shift over time, which can impact the mitigation and intervention options available.
Governments and militaries, the private sector, development banks, and international governmental organizations represent key stakeholders that are positioned to influence and mitigate environmentally-linked conflict. Reducing the tensions and impacts of a conflict when it is in the early stages or when it is at a low intensity and small scale (represented in the upper-left quadrant in ‘The Spectrums of Environmentally-inked Conflict’ graphic) is likely to require fewer resources and pre-empt cascading impacts from escalation. At that stage, dialogue among stakeholders and groups involved in the conflict may result in reduced tensions and identification of several mitigation options. However, when a conflict has become entrenched over time, affects a large population, or involves violence, any intervention is likely to be prolonged and require building long-term resilience to a range of fragility and vulnerability indicators. The following five case studies illustrate the variety of ways in which environmentally-linked conflicts manifest around the world, and how they have been addressed. The case studies illustrate a progression from small-scale local clashes to large-scale, international conflicts, and along the intensity spectrum from non-violent to highly violent conflicts.
The Spectrums of Environmentally-Linked Conflict
Two spectrums—intensity and scale—inform how conflicts can be mitigated.
Intra-or inter-community level
Civil or international wars
Tensions — Simmering and (as-yet) non-violent
Scale — Large
Tensions — Extremely violent
Scale — SmallPollution in New Bedford Harbor, United States Transboundary water governance in India and Pakistan Geopolitical tensions surrounding the Arctic region Conflicts between farmers and herders in Nigeria Environmental degradation and climate change reducing human security in Mali
Pollution in New Bedford Harbor, United States
Region — North America
Scale — Local
Tensions — Simmering
New Bedford Harbor, an urban tidal estuary in Massachusetts, is one of the busiest fishing ports in the United States, with over a million pounds of seafood transiting daily through the port. Electronics manufacturers and other heavy industry dumped a probable carcinogen called “polychlorinated biphenyl” (PCB) directly into the harbor from the 1930s until 1979. As well as posing a health hazard if eaten in seafood and fish, local residents—most of whom are low-income, people of color, or immigrants—are exposed to PCB when it evaporates through the water into the air, and, as a result, experience high levels of respiratory, neurological, and reproductive issues.
Mitigation Actions: In 1979, the harbor was closed to fishing, and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) banned PCB from industrial use. To address these serious issues of health and equity, local civil society groups began advocating for cleanup in the 1990s, and the EPA reached monetary settlements with industry polluters and has invested in numerous cleanup projects, which are ongoing.
Transboundary Water Governance in India and Pakistan
Region — South Asia
Scale — International
Tensions — Simmering
Transboundary water governance is a major issue globally. Following decades of mistrust and tensions stemming from a water dispute in 1948, India and Pakistan signed the Indus Water Treaty (IWT) in 1960, in order to better manage their shared river systems and foster cooperation. The treaty gave India control over three “eastern,” upstream rivers (the Beas, Ravi, and Sutlej), and Pakistan control over three “western” rivers (the Indus, Chenab, and Jhelum). The IWT is considered one of the most successful cases of international water basin management and has remained in place during three wars between the countries over six decades, with disputes settled through legal channels.
Mitigation Actions: The World Bank supported the negotiations by recommending the river's partition and treaty stipulations and acting as a consulting partner to both countries. Pakistan controls roughly 80 percent of the total water resources in the river system; the treaty allows India to have unlimited access to non-consumptive activities, such as power generation and fish farming, but limits the amount that India can consume through irrigation so as to maintain Pakistan's downstream water quantity and quality.
Geopolitical Tensions Surrounding the Arctic Region
Region — Arctic — Europe & Central Asia
Scale — International
Tensions — Moderate
Climate change in the Arctic is already creating new arenas of geopolitical and economic competition. As Foreign Policy Analytics explored in its Arctic Competition Power Map, sea ice melt is enabling access to a variety of critical minerals and other commodities, strategic shipping ports, infrastructure routes, and energy reserves. Private- and public-sector actors are competing for access to resources and influence within the Arctic. The opening of the Arctic has also resulted in increased military and naval presence. Increasing militarization in the Arctic may lead to intensifying great power competition among powers such as Russia, China, Japan, the United States.
Mitigation Actions: Currently, there is a patchwork system of Arctic governance in place that involves overlapping treaties, organizational mandates, and conventions. The current system has increased cooperation among countries that have a stake in the Arctic on matters such as Indigenous rights, scientific progress, and climate change. However, national interests still drive trade, investment, and militarization of the region, which could trigger confrontation.
Conflicts Between Farmers & Herders in Nigeria
Region — Sub-Saharan Africa
Scale — Country-wide
Tensions — High
Clashes between farmers and nomadic herders are an example of environmentally-linked conflict that is particularly prevalent in Sub-Saharan Africa. Across the region, including in Nigeria, nomadic herders are often driven away from their established roaming pathways by environmental degradation, food insecurity, and water scarcity to find better pastureland, which can lead to encroachment onto sedentary farmers' lands and cause tensions. Historical cooperation among herding and farming communities has eroded in recent years, due to the prioritization (often at the government level) of arable land and water resources for farming, which leaves herders without these critical resources.
Mitigation Actions: Nigeria’s national government has attempted to address non-state actor recruitment through military responses, which have only aggravated tensions. However, in Nigeria, as well as across the region, this type of farmer-herder conflict has increased over the last decade and killed over 15,000 people since 2010. To mitigate this risk, the Nigerian government shifted from a military response to adopt a National Livestock Transformation Plan in 2019, which is a ten-year plan that aims to promote sustainable livelihoods among herders by encouraging them to switch to ranching or other sedentary livestock activities.
Environmental Degradation and Climate Change Reducing Human Security in Mali
Region — Sub-Saharan Africa
Scale — Country-wide
Tensions — High
Armed conflict has killed more than 2,000 people and forcibly displaced more than 400,000 people in Mali since 2012. The conflict has roots in a series of rebellions, beginning in 1963, that aimed to create an independent homeland for the Tuareg people. Extreme droughts, erratic rainfall patterns, and environmental degradation have compelled people to migrate to seek improved livelihood and security options. As in Nigeria, farmer-herder conflict in Mali has been weaponized by militant Islamic and other violent non-state actors to exacerbate grievances among communities and populations and thus drive their own recruitment. Weak governance compounds these security and environmental risks, and where the Malian government is unable to manage natural resources, some armed groups have developed restrictive rules and structures that local populations must follow, while others have exploited the state’s weakness for their own gain.
Mitigation Actions: In 2013, a peace process was initiated, but the Tuareg separatists suspended their participation in the process shortly after. A ceasefire agreement was negotiated in 2015 by Algeria and included support from the United Nations and the African Union. The peace process and ceasefire have not completely halted the fighting, but the intensity of the conflict has decreased to intermittent terrorist attacks.
Fostering Resilience to Mitigate Environmentally-Linked Conflicts
Senior Advisor, Environment and Conflict, United States Institute of Peace (USIP)
How do you describe the intersections between environmental conditions, climate change, and security?
“I think that at least in terms of on-the-ground environment and conflict issues, many of those are closely, closely related to human security issues.”
They’re related to food security, and water security, and I would add—even though this is not a mainstream term—health security issues, that are linked to a very close dependence on environmental resources, and how those are changing over time. So I define that kind of as a human security issue.
As climate change exacerbates threats to security and resilience over time, major actors—governments and militaries, the private sector, development banks, and international governmental organizations—will likely need to integrate climate change and environmental degradation assessments into governance, policy, and investment decisions. For all stakeholders, reducing the multi-dimensional risks of environmentally-linked conflict and creating the conditions for stability require action across three mutually reinforcing dimensions of resilience.
These pillars of resilience are:
- Socioeconomic resilience:
Interviewees noted that environmentally-linked conflicts are often initiated when people are suddenly cut off from their livelihoods, as it becomes easier for armed groups to recruit when people do not have other means to support themselves. Supporting livelihoods and economies, particularly in rural or peripheral regions of a country, can bolster human security and diminish the power of recruiters.
- Political and social resilience:
Persistent political and social rifts, grievances, entrenched group identities, and unequal power relations often characterize areas that experience environmental change, natural resource shortages, and conflicts. To successfully reduce conflict risks and vulnerability in an area, interventions must directly address these often long-standing political and social challenges.
- Security resilience:
Inclusive and sustainable management of natural resources, as well as promoting dialogue among stakeholders and supporting human security broadly, can serve to ease tensions and conflict and improve the lives and livelihoods of people living in an area.
Executive Director, International Alert
How do you describe the intersections between environmental conditions, climate change, and security?
“Climate change can be a way of giving people permission to talk about these issues.”
So, even before climate change was there, people have fought over land, people have fought over access to grazing, people have fought over all sorts of things, and it would be overly simplistic to say that this was all great until the climate changed and now the conflict directly results from that. But actually, climate change as a peacebuilder can almost give you permission to go in and also work with your local partners to go in and talk about what feels like a shared challenge…almost to find a new language to talk about it.
Reducing the risk of environmentally-linked conflict is essential to strengthening security and stability for civilians in fragile and conflict-prone regions, as well minimizing the demands of managing the cascading effects of conflict and environmental degradation. Interviewees were optimistic that, where appropriate and when done with care, these actors can be instrumental in mitigating tensions and protecting lives and livelihoods, particularly through supporting dialogue and cooperation among groups engaged in conflict. Environmental issues can be addressed as a shared challenge that communities and actors—and even adversaries—can manage collaboratively, and may be an entry point for constructive dialogue.
Reducing the risks of environmentally-linked conflict by building resilient capacities to mitigate and manage the shocks can strengthen security and stability for civilians in fragile and conflict-prone regions. Countries that have demonstrated a capacity to mitigate and manage environmentally-related shocks tend to be better able to balance industry and commodity extraction with environmental protection. They are also more readily able to rapidly assess and respond to crises, as well as to environmentally-linked conflicts among communities before they become violent or escalate, which can reduce the negative impacts of environmentally-linked conflicts. Four key actors—governments and militaries, development banks, the private sector, and international governmental organizations—were referenced repeatedly during expert interviews as having stakes in environmentally-linked conflicts and their resolution. Mitigating and reducing the risks of environmentally-linked conflict, along with addressing state fragility, will require effort and cooperation from the four key actors, as well as collaboration with the communities and civil society groups directly affected by environmental degradation.
In principle, many stakeholders have committed to strengthening multi-dimensional resilience to environmental degradation, fragility, and conflict, but there are still major gaps in implementation and funding. Short-term projects that do not address the complex security and socioeconomic dimensions of fragility are unlikely to build resilience in the long-term; nor will siloed efforts that focus on one aspect of fragility to the exclusion of other conflict drivers. Roughly $41 billion will be required for resilience and humanitarian assistance in complex crises for the 2022–2023 budget year alone, according to the 2022 Global Humanitarian Overview report from the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). That is double the amount that OCHA sought four years ago, as the number of people in need globally has soared by 250 percent since 2015. However, resources are likely to fall significantly short of ambitions, given that donors gave less than half of what the UN had requested, necessitating co-investment and collaboration by other stakeholders in this shared challenge.
These gaps in implementation and funding are set to grow, given the threat multiplier posed by climate change. Retired General Tom Middendorp, Chair of the International Military Council on Climate and Security and the former Chief of Defense of the Netherlands, stated in an interview that “Climate change only makes things worse—we get more droughts, floods, and more natural disasters, which means that there will be more human insecurity, there will be more conflicts, there will be more migration flows and more breeding grounds for extremism. So as a result, climate change will dramatically change our security environment, which makes it also a matter of national security.” World Bank estimates indicate that climate change could push between 32 million and 132 million people into extreme poverty by 2030, and up to two-thirds of the world’s extreme poor could find themselves living in fragile, conflict-affected, or violent settings.
A resilience framework and multistakeholder collaboration is needed more than ever to reduce the risks of environmentally-linked conflict, as the links among conflict, fragility, and environmental degradation intensify. Reducing the risk of environmentally-linked conflict is essential to strengthening security and stability for civilians in fragile and conflict-prone regions, as is minimizing pressures and costs of managing the cascading effects. These stakeholders have the capacity to assess and forecast future conflicts and proactively address environmental issues that could fuel local or regional tensions. Explicitly integrating environmental risks assessment into these entities’ respective operational and strategic risk analysis will be essential to managing complex, multidimensional security risks. Where environmentally tensions are simmering, these actors also play distinct roles in fostering greater solidarity and cooperation among affected groups to reduce attendant security risks, according to experts consulted for this report. A collaborative approach that engages these four actors, as well as the groups that mobilize to protest environmental degradation, can more effectively anticipate risks, proactively engage and invest to mitigate shocks, and help vulnerable populations manage growing pressures from climate change and other environmental-related risks.
Written by Becca Andrasko. Edited by Allison Carlson. Copyedited by David Johnstone. Art direction and design by Sara Stewart. Creative direction by Lori Kelley. Development by Wes Piper and Andy Baughman.
Special thanks to the experts who generously agreed to be interviewed for this report. Their insights were invaluable to understanding the drivers and mitigation options around environmentally-linked conflict. We would like to acknowledge and thank:
- Tegan Blaine—senior advisor, environment and conflict, United States Institute of Peace (USIP)
- Cynthia Brady—global fellow and senior advisor to the Wilson Center’s Environmental Change & Security Program
- Oli Brown—associate fellow of the Environment and Society Programme, Chatham House
- Halvard Buhaug—research professor, Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO)
- John Conger—director emeritus of the Center for Climate and Security, Senior Advisor to the Council on Strategic Risks
- Kris de Meyer—neuroscientist and director of the Climate Action Unit at University College London
- Ulrich Eberle—fellow, Future of Conflict, International Crisis Group
- Sherri Goodman—secretary general, International Military Council on Climate & Security and Senior Strategist and Advisory Board Member, Center for Climate & Security; senior fellow, Wilson Center Polar Institute and Environmental Change & Security Program
- Nic Hailey—executive director, International Alert
- Lauren Herzer Risi—program director, Environmental Change and Security Program, Wilson Center
- Alice Hill—David M. Rubenstein senior fellow for energy and the environment at the Council on Foreign Relations, Council on Foreign Relations
- Charlie Iceland—Global Director, Water (Acting), World Resources Institute; Lecturer, Master of Environmental Studies, University of Pennsylvania
- Florian Krampe—senior researcher and director of SIPRI's Climate Change and Risk Programme, Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI)
- Francine Madden—co-founder and executive director, Center for Conservation Peacebuilding
- Tom Middendorp—chair, International Military Council on Climate and Security; chief of defense of the Netherlands (Ret.)
- Jonas Vestby—senior researcher, Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO)
More from FP
FP Analytics used a mixed-methodology research approach for this project, consisting of a comprehensive literature review, a semi-quantitative analysis of a qualitative source, and one-on-one interviews.
The Atlas of Environmental Justice: The Environmental Justice (EJ) Atlas was a primary data source for this research. It is the most comprehensive source of data that specifically highlights the environmental impacts and drivers of conflict around the world. As of October 2021, there were 3,508 conflicts recorded in the Atlas, each of which is mapped and tagged with over two dozen data indicators, including the primary stakeholders involved and information on local impacts and conflict outcomes.
The Atlas is cited as: Leah Temper, Daniela del Bene and Joan Martinez-Alier. 2015. Mapping the frontiers and front lines of global environmental justice: the EJAtlas. Journal of Political Ecology 22: 255–78. http://jpe.library.arizona.edu/volume_22/Temper.pdf.
The Fragile States Index: The Fragile States Index is published annually by the Fund for Peace and ranks 178 countries across 12 indicators of economic, political, state cohesion and security, and social risks, as well as a cross-cutting indicator that measures external intervention in a country.
Methodology: Data from the Atlas and the Fragile States Index were analyzed concurrently in Excel. Each Atlas case study included a wealth of qualitative and quantitative data, much of which included granular levels of detail. The case studies were matched with country-level data from the Fragile States Index and analyzed using pivot tables and other Excel statistical analysis tools, to draw connections between the Fragile States Index’s indicators and how they impacted environmentally driven conflict. The fragility categories (i.e., most stable, semi-stable, semi-fragile, and least fragile countries) were determined by joining the Fragile States Index to the Atlas dataset and then selecting 25 percent of the countries for each categorization. For instance, the countries that are categorized as “most stable” are the top 25 percent of the countries included in the merged dataset, as not all of the states included in the FSI also have conflicts that are listed in the Atlas.
One-on-One Interviews: FPA conducted semi-structured interviews with 16 global leaders in the field (or in related fields but with people who studied these issues), ranging from academics to policy experts to retired military and defense personnel. Interviews were then coded to identify themes among the respondents, which served to bolster and deepen the analysis.
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