Climate change and what it means for peacebuilders

The Interlinkages between climate change and conflict

Climate change is having a real impact on people, communities and states. As climate change awareness and action is increasing across the world, peacebuilders are also exploring what this means for their work.[1] The debate on how climate change and conflict interact has been going on for more than a decade, initially focusing on whether climate change was directly causing conflict or not. How peacebuilders should respond is a more recent discussion. It is evident that peacebuilding needs to be more climate-sensitive and climate change adaptation needs to be more conflict-sensitive.

This piece serves to summarize key insights and thoughts emerging from a desk review. First, it explores the inter-relationship of climate change with conflict – why peacebuilders need to shift their attention to taking climate change more seriously. Secondly, it considers how peacebuilding organisations might change their practices.

Africa is vulnerable to climate-related risks. The continent is highly exposed and has a relatively low adaptive capacity. Firstly, African land surface temperatures are expected to rise faster than the global average.[2] Secondly, it has a relatively low adaptive capacity since structures of governance across the continent are already heavily challenged. The Horn of Africa region in particular is likely to be seriously affected. The region relies largely on its agricultural sector, with more than 80% of its population involved either in crop production or livestock, attesting to the lack of economic diversification of the region.[3] Indeed, the region compounds multiple factors of vulnerability:  a high dependence on natural resources and rain-fed agriculture, weak institutional capacity to cope with climate-related risks and highly volatile political situations with risks of conflict emergence or escalation.

The Horn of Africa has already been severely affected by climate-related changes and needs attention. Since the 1980s, there has been a significant increase in temperature in equatorial and southern parts of East Africa. The number of extreme weather events has doubled in the region since 1990.[4] The region has also experienced droughts in various areas for the 12 past years. In 2018, droughts in the Horn pushed more than 11.7 million people into severe food insecurity. Children were particularly affected with more than 785,000 malnourished in Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda and Somalia.[5] In 2016, food insecurity doubled in Kenya and Somalia, and quadrupled in Uganda and in Ethiopia and is linked with the effect of drought on crops.[6] The unpredictability of rainfall patterns is also worrying for the region with large temporal and spatial variability, and some areas experiencing declines in seasonal rainfall. The unpredictability of seasonal precipitation may also increase in the near future across the region.[7] This has serious consequences for livestock and crop yields and therefore, on food security. Other extreme weather events such as floods or locust invasions also affect people’s resilience and vulnerability.

Alongside these changes in weather, evidence is growing to support a clear relationship between violence and climate change, though it is a multifaceted one. Therefore, enhancing our knowledge on this nexus and how it plays out in local conflict contexts is vital to build appropriate mitigation measures as we respond to conflict. Here are a few dimensions to consider:

Climate change does not have the same impact everywhere. It interacts within a socio-political context. Indeed, its effects are particularly felt in fragile contexts where individuals and communities experience multiple human security challenges. In these contexts, climate change is experienced as an additional source of stress and pressure.

Climate change leads to more intense, more frequent and unpredictable extreme weather events.  These climatic events rank above the threshold value of expected or historical measurement. Extreme weather events can manifest as drought, flood, typhoon, erratic rainfall, etc. Climate change is also leading to environmental degradation such as soil degradation, erosion, etc. Such climate-related environmental changes are exacerbating disparities, resource-scarcity challenges and tensions around food security and land use. Since the 1990’s, studies show the correlation of environmental stress, climate change and its impact on violence (i.e. Ethiopia, Sudan or South Sudan, etc.).[8] With its impact on already-scarce resources under fragile contexts, the studies demonstrate that climate change amplifies tensions and sometimes turns into violence (cattle raiding, land-conflict, inter-communal violence, etc.).

However, the nature of the interlinkage between climate-related change and conflict is still under study and needs to consider a number of variables. In 2018, Sebastian Van Baalen and Malin Mobjörk analysed studies on climate-related changes in East Africa over the period of 1989-2016. Resulting from this analysis, they mapped out five ‘causal pathways’ to demonstrate the correlation between climate-related changes and violent conflict. These pathways involved: i) deteriorating livelihoods, ii) increased migration, iii) changes in pastoralist mobility patterns, iv) tactical considerations among armed groups, and v) elite capture of local disaffection. These pathways further affect the human security of an already-fragile population.[9]

Pathway 1: Changes in pastoralists mobility patterns: Pastoralists of the region, are particularly affected by climate-related changes as they depend on seasonal mobility between dry and wet season pastures for their livelihoods. Climate-related changes force them to find alternative routes and sources of fodder for their animals.[10] New routes accessing land and water sources without agreement, away from their usual traditional routes, may increase tensions with other ethnic groups or clans, or it may undermine existing agreements between groups. Pathway 2: Natural hazards and extreme weather events are becoming more frequent in the region, and push people to migrate: In recent years, unprecedented flooding in East Africa and particularly in Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia significantly increased displacement and migration.[11] In South Sudan, floods were described as the worst in the country’s history and triggered 98% of the 294,000 new disaster displacements recorded in 2019.[12] Climate conditions can also vary within a sub-regional area, conditioning internal displacement and potentially increasing resource-related conflict risks and communal violence.

Pathway 3: Climate-related changes impact on livelihood deterioration and loss: The overuse of land, coupled with extreme weather events leads to land degradation and loss of fertility, reducing food production. The economic hardship related to loss of livelihood is understood as one of the main pathways leading to increased competition because of declining yields, water shortage, and livestock losses.[13] Some studies suggest that higher temperature and droughts ink to loss of livelihood incomes (deteriorated livelihoods) and outbreaks of violence (e.g. livestock raiding or recruitment into armed groups).[14] People may re-evaluate the benefits of agriculture activities and turn to more profitable activities, which may sometimes be illegal (e.g. charcoal production and its trade) or to illegal mineral extraction with armed factions which is highly linked to violence. Some research has also looked into linkages with vulnerability for recruitment into armed factions.[15]

Pathway 4: The strategies of armed groups are adaptive to weather conditions: Studies from Kenya, Ethiopia and Uganda demonstrate the increase of livestock raiding during unusually wet periods as vegetation allows camouflage.[16] In Somalia, armed groups and political factions exploit grievances of the population that stem from weather related losses and experiences of conflict.[17] Extreme weather events in conjunction with other conflict drivers lead to increases in the number IDPs in the region, and thus increased sizes of IDPs camps and informal settlements. Once in camps, the displaced population represents an opportunity for armed groups to attract young people forced to flee their homes and with no job prospects.[18]

Pathway 5: Elites may exploit local grievances for their political agendas: Resource scarcity due to extreme weather events and the loss of homes or family members, deepen grievances and make individuals more susceptible to certain political agendas. Local political elites take advantage of these grievances and strengthen their own agendas. In Kenya, local grievances around land and income were used by elites to gain support alongside ethnic division (e.g. livestock raiding before the national elections).[19]

What does it mean for peacebuilding practice?

As the above pathways show, there are multiple ways in which climate change and conflict link with each other. Peacebuilding as a sector is starting to pick up ways for being climate sensitive.[20] Emerging from this, five key areas deserve further investment. All of these actions call for an adjustment in the way peacebuilding programs are undertaken, integrating climate-related issues in the process.

Deeper investment in quantitative and qualitative research on the climate-conflict nexus: Studies, including long-term ones, can serve to deepen understanding. One gap peacebuilding practitioners may be particularly well suited to fill, is the collection of evidence from people experiencing the nexus, including on how they are already adapting. However, this data needs to be more reliable and robust if it is to usefully inform policy as recent reports note this is not always the case.[21] There is also a need to invest in cross-sector evidence generation to deepen understanding; for instance, data collection on meteorological forecasting should be further linked with displacement data.

Invest in integrated approaches to climate-related risks: Tackling the climate-conflict nexus calls for the interlocking of three key policy sectors that are yet to work coherently together: climate change adaptation, development and, the peacebuilding sectors. Currently, climate risks appear to be addressed only from a climate change adaptation perspective. This perspective should be broadened to include conflict assessment and analysis to mitigate potential negative effects. Indeed, if designed and implemented without considering broader impacts, these policies risk increasing insecurity of land tenure, the marginalization of minority groups, undermining economic development as well as increasing food price volatility, contributing to potential political instability, and exacerbating human insecurity.[22] Equally, peacebuilding programmes should be climate sensitive. They are in many cases already contributing to mitigating environmental pressures and could do so more intentionally. The UN’s integrated strategy in the Sahel embodies a good example of a comprehensive plan linking both conflict and climate change. In its 2011 report Livelihood Security, Climate Change, Migration, and Conflict in the Sahel, the report offered recommendations integrating climate change in the process of conflict prevention and resolution. Today, considerations for climate-related changes in the Sahel region are increasing as it becomes a major risk for security.

In Somalia as well, the consideration for climate change has increased in the last years. The UN mission in Somalia (UNSOM) took initiatives to tackle climate-related risks, such as the creation of the drought coordination, the establishment of the Recovery and Resilience Framework for Somalia and the appointment of an environmental security adviser.

Both of these two examples demonstrate a growing sensitiveness for climate-related change in conflict-affected regions. Yet, one can still criticise the short-term vision on these responses and the room for improvement.

Invest in cross-border approaches: Because climate-related risks are inherently transnational, focusing only on national approaches may not achieve the needed changes. Cross-border collaboration can help to address the spatial dimensions of climate-related security risks. Climate risks overcome national frontiers and the consequences on displacement are felt regionally. Peacebuilders and international actors should contribute to ensure enhanced inter-state and peer-to-peer collaborations at the regional and international level. Doing so will contribute to a more comprehensive response to climate issues. Thus, peacebuilders may want to promote the use of existing regional mechanisms and support local organizations to deal with climate-related risks.

Building from existing peacebuilding practices, prioritise innovative and locally-owned methods and approaches: As climate-related changes affect livelihoods, the impact on conflict is firstly local. Building peacebuilding programs on existing best practices will enhance the coherence with the local context and specific issues faced by communities. When it comes to climate risks, we still have a lot to learn from communities’ methods of resilience and perspective. Such efforts toward local levels are already observed in peacebuilding programs. It is essential to push further in that direction and pursue the shift in capacity investment (decision-making, budget and responsibilities) from the national to the local level. Further cooperation, involving different governance levels, both formal and informal institutions may contribute greatly to increase the efficiency of conflict prevention and climate-related risks programs. These methods of engagement will contribute to build trust and relationships between the government, international actors and communities, thus strengthening the social contract and the legitimacy of the government as well as secure the support of local communities.

Pushing toward funding strategies that are more flexible, integrated and long-term oriented, the example of the PBF and the IcSP: Addressing climate-related change requires consistent and long-term resourcing. There is a need for more coordination and longer-term view to avoid the duplication, inefficiency and misuse of resources resulting from separate policy processes. Taking the example of two funding tools, we note that climate may take a bigger place in the future strategy, strengthening long term support of conflict prevention and peacebuilding.

The UN’s Peacebuilding Fund (PBF) may have a role to play in creating more integrated and climate-sensitive funding opportunities to address the phenomenon. The PBF’s funding is mainly oriented toward climate-vulnerable countries. In its strategic plan of 2017-2019, the PBF largely incorporated climate-sensitivity (31 projects with climate components in 2020).[23] Its new collaboration with the UN Climate Security Mechanism is encouraging. Echoing the first recommendation, the PBF orients its action toward cross-sectoral collaboration among UN agencies, as well as develop regional and cross-border projects (transboundary natural resources, human migration, etc.). The PBF should further engage with other actors and agencies beyond the UN. The availability of flexible and integrated financing is a key success factor to respond to changing circumstances, to achieve intended outcomes, especially when it comes to climate-related changes and unpredictable extreme weather events.

Another structure, the Instrument contributing to Stability and Peace (IcPS) can also contribute, on the long-term, to prevent conflicts and crises. With a funding of nearly €2.3 billion for the period 2014 – 2017, only €11 million were planned to address climate change and security risks.[24] An increased focus on climate-related risks will inevitably contribute to reduce potential crisis in the future.

In the near-future, peacebuilders will inevitably have to deal with climate-related changes. The extent to which climate-related changes will impact the global peace equilibrium is still unknown, however, the extent to which peacebuilders effectively address the climate-conflict nexus will be one ingredient shaping our capacity to tilt the balance towards more sustainable peace and planet.

[1] See for instance

[2] IPCC, 2014. [3] IGAD, 2018.

[4] FAO, IFAD, UNICEF, WFP, WHO, The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World, 2019.

[5] OCHA, Horn of Africa Region: Drought Snapshot, 2019.

[6] Horn of Africa cross-border drought action plan 2017, FAO, (2017).

[7]  Niang and al, ‘Africa. In Climate Change 2014: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability. Part B: Regional Aspects. Contribution of Working Group II to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’, Cambridge University Press, 2014.

[8] Sven Rubenson, ‘Conflict and Environmental Stress in Ethiopian History: Looking for Correlations’, Journal of Ethiopian Studies, 1991. Mohamed Suliman, ‘Civil War in Sudan: The Impact of Ecological Degradation’, Contributions in Black Studies, 1997.

[9] Sebastian Van Baalen, Malin Mobjörk, ‘A Coming Anarchy: Pathways from climate change to violent conflict in East Africa’, Stockholm University, (2016).

[10] Alexander De Juan, ‘Long-Term Environmental Change and Geographical Patterns’, (2015)

[11] IDMC, Migration overview, (2020)

[12] IDMC, Migration overview, (2020).

[13] Paul Collier, Anke Hoeffler, ‘Greed and grievance in civil war’, Oxford University Press, (2004).

[14] Jean-François Maystadt, Olivier Ecker, ‘Extreme Weather and Civil War: Does Drought Fuel Conflict in Somalia through Livestock Price Shocks?’, American Journal of Agricultural Economics, (2014).

[15] Jean-François Maystadt, Margherita Calderone, Liangzhi You, ‘Local Warming and Violent Conflict in North and South Sudan, Journal of Economic Geography, 2015.

[16] Witsenburg, Karen & Roba, Adano, Of Rain and Raids: Violent Livestock Raiding in Northern Kenya, Civil Wars, (2009).

[17] Carolina Eklöw. Florian Krampe, ‘Climate-related security risks and peacebuilding in Somalia’, SIPRI, (2019).

[18] Carolina Eklöw. Florian Krampe, ‘Climate-related security risks and peacebuilding in Somalia’, SIPRI, (2019). [19] Colin H Kahl, ‘Population Growth, Environmental Degradation, and State-Sponsored Violence: The Case of Kenya, 1991-93’, International Security, (1998). Patrick Meier; Doug Bond, Joe Bond, ‘Environmental Influences on Pastoral Conflict in the Horn of Africa. Political Geography, (2007).

[20] Lukas Rüttinger, Dan Smith, Gerald Stang, Dennis Tänzler, Janani Vivekananda, ‘A New Climate for Peace: Taking Action on Climate and Fragility Risks’, Adelphi, 2015.

[21] Saferworld. (2015). Towards a more effective early warning system in the Horn of Africa: Learning lessons and seizing opportunities.

[22] Lukas Rüttinger, ‘A New Climate for Peace: Taking Action on Climate and Fragility Risks’, Adelphi, 2015.

[23] Lukas Rüttinger, ‘Climate Change in the United Nations Peacebuilding Commission and Fund’, Climate-Fragility Policy Paper, Adelphi, 2020.

[24] Lukas Rüttinger, ‘A New Climate for Peace: Taking Action on Climate and Fragility Risks’, Adelphi, 2015.


Clément Iraola
Former Research Assistant, Knowledge and Learning Unit, Life & Peace Institute, Life & Peace Institute

Clément Iraola developed his interest in peacebuilding and conflict prevention with a focus on the African continent, and more specifically on East Africa. Clément conducted two years-long desk reviews on the interlinkages between climate-related environmental change and conflict.