Could the next wars be triggered by climate change? Until recently, the question might have seemed like science fiction, but now it is very real. Ethiopia and Egypt are locked in a spiral of escalating tensions over the Nile, as a combination of river damming and shifting weather patterns poses existential risks to both countries. In the Sahel region of North and Central Africa, climate-driven changes in pastoralist patterns have contributed to a massive spike in conflicts, while oscillations in the size of Lake Chad are influencing recruitment of the terrorist group Boko Haram. From coral bleaching driving Caribbean fishing communities into organized crime to the drought that preceded the Syrian civil war, a large and growing body of evidence points to the fact that climate change is a real factor in today’s violent conflicts—and will only get worse in years to come.
How can the UN – an organization established to prevent the kind of wars witnessed in the first half of the twentieth century – reshape itself to address the growing security risks posed by climate change? The UN needs to undergo three shifts to tackle climate security: (1) from sectors to systems, (2) from exclusivity to inclusivity, and (3) from sovereign rights to global public goods. Taken together, these shifts will require the UN to metamorphosize from an exclusive club of powerful states making decisions behind closed doors into a hub that connects different actors at the local, national, regional and global levels.
Systems not sectors
The UN system is structured as a series of loosely affiliated sectors, with bespoke agencies focused on single issues like refugees, food, health, migration and the environment. While there have been meaningful efforts to bring those actors together around common objectives—like the Sustainable Development Goals and universal human rights—in practice the UN continues to operate largely on the basis of sectoral approaches to risks. As a result, programming tends to be linked to a single agency’s mandate and inhibited by siloed sources of information.
But climate change cuts across these issues, exacerbating underlying socio-economic tensions and making indirect contributions to the risk of conflict. Erratic rainfall causes crop failure, leading to increased tensions over natural resources.
Extreme weather destroys arable land and displaces entire communities, driving conflicts over territory and contributing to unplanned urbanization.
The interdependent ways in which climate change is driving security risks should galvanize a shift towards a systemic mindset across the UN. This means producing cross-cutting analysis that brings together disparate sources of information, as well as establishing effective ways to do multi-scalar risk analysis in which local, national, regional and global trends are examined together. In short, it means thinking in terms of complex systems, rather than separate sectors.
Inclusivity not exclusivity
When responding to climate change, national governments are highly susceptible to various forms of maladaptation that may increase rather than decrease risks of conflict. Facing massive land loss due to extreme weather, a government may reclaim land from the sea (e.g. Bangladesh), or invest in new agricultural sectors (e.g. Nigeria), without considering how these actions might create new competition over land, disrupt existing livelihoods or contribute to large-scale demographic shifts. And there is clear evidence that the UN’s support to state-led development and peacebuilding programs are highly susceptible to elite capture, potentially contributing to inequalities that are a root cause of violent conflict.
If the UN is to tackle the growing climate-security challenge, it must place inclusivity (i.e. providing equal access to opportunities and resources for people who might otherwise be excluded or marginalized), at the heart of its work. UN peacebuilding already conditions support on gender inclusivity. It must do the same for marginalized communities by demanding that governments ensure their inclusion in national programming and clearly track whether funds are being captured by a small elite.
Global public goods not sovereign-owned commodities
Even though carbon-driven consumption is unsustainable, we still treat the environment as a commodity to be exploited for the benefit of human societies. The commodification of the environment not only poses existential risks for humanity, but also drives conflict, as states and societies compete to own increasingly scarce natural resources or use them in a way that negatively affects others.
The UN has to advocate for a shift towards treating the environment as both a global public good and an essential component of our peace and security architecture. As the COVID-19 pandemic response acutely demonstrated, collective responses are often the difference between life and large-scale death. Last year, the UN General Assembly passed a resolution on our Common Agenda that committed to “transformative measures” to address climate change.
To deliver on the commitment, the transformation needs to include a repositioning of the environment within the multilateral system.
This can take many shapes. Ecuador has given the environment legal personality, allowing for claims to be brought on its behalf for environmental destruction. In May, a court ruled that Royal Dutch Petroleum (the world’s ninth biggest emitter) was bound by the provisions of the Paris Agreement to reduce global emissions by 45%. The Biden Administration has placed climate change within its national security strategy, giving real weight and clear priority to the links between climate and security. And there are interesting and dynamic proposals for transforming the UN’s Trusteeship Council into a guardian for the environment, and creating a Commissioner for Future Generations tasked with protecting the environment for the next 100 years.
Regardless of which path is chosen, the UN should advocate forcefully for the environment to be exempt from the Westphalian mindset of sovereign ownership, pushing instead for a collective approach to climate. Just as the founders of the UN came together 75 years ago to build a multilateral system based on collective security responses, so must the UN now reconstitute its institutions toward collective climate-security action. Such a shift could transform the UN from a highly-partitioned and hierarchical club of powerful states into a hub that promotes peace by negotiating between actors at local, national, regional and global levels.
Climate change is already bringing nightmarish scenarios into reality; only radical changes in our conceptions of collective action will help us wake up.
This is an updated version of the oped originally appeared on IPS, 13 July 2021.
Dr. Beatrice Mosello is a Senior Advisor at adelphi, with more than 10 years of experience in climate diplomacy, conflict and resources, and gender and social inclusion. With her background in field research and operations, Beatrice’s work aims at promoting peace and economic and social development by encouraging the sustainable management and use of natural resources through locally owned and participatory processes that connect ground realities with policy processes.
Dr. Adam Day is Director of Programmes at United Nations University Centre for Policy Research, where he oversees current research projects and the development of new programmes. Prior to UNU, Dr Day served for a decade in the UN, focusing on peace operations, political engagement in conflict settings, mediation and protection of civilians including in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Lebanon and Sudan. He has written numerous publications in the areas of climate-security, international criminal law, conflict prevention and sustaining peace, and rule of law in post-conflict settings.