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When Adapting to Climate Change and Preventing Mass Atrocities Go Together

Chairman of the Coffee Plantation Society in Walapane, a mountainous region in the Dry Zone of Nuwara Eliya, Sri Lanka. October 2, 2019. UNDP Sri Lanka / Flickr

Last October, the Simon-Skjodt Center’s Sudikoff Interdisciplinary Seminar on Genocide Prevention focused on the intersection between global climate change, climate response, and mass atrocities. During the seminar, multiple participants suggested that climate adaptation programs may also have benefits for the prevention of mass atrocities, but that more evidence is needed about these potential “co-benefits.” We invited Tobias Ide, Senior Lecturer in Politics and International Relations at Murdoch University and Specially Appointed Professor for Peace and Sustainability at Hiroshima University, to discuss what is known about co-benefits and potential implications for policy makers. 

1. What are some potential ways that efforts to help communities adapt to climate change are thought to also contribute to the prevention of conflict and mass atrocities?

If implemented well, climate change adaptation can address common drivers of conflict. For instance, economic collapse increases the risk of protests, riots, and armed conflicts. This is because people blame the government or other social groups for the economic crisis. Furthermore, warlords, gang leaders, and rebel groups have an easier job recruiting aggrieved and economically deprived people

Climate adaptation can include measures to reduce the economic fallout of climate change—for instance, extending agricultural insurance systems or making infrastructure more disaster resilient. If people are protected against severe economic effects of climate change, they should be less likely to join extremist groups during an economic crisis, more satisfied with their government, and less prone to blame other (social, ethnic or political) groups for their plight.

Competition over resources is another common driver of conflict. In Bolivia, Kenya, and Cambodia, among other countries, climate change is contributing to competition over increasingly scarce resources like water, land, and fish. Introducing measures to protect such resources in a changing climate will mitigate those conflicts. Sustainable water management in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Yemen, for instance, helped reduce communal conflicts around natural resources. 

In the best cases, adaptation efforts bring together different stakeholders and conflict parties, building cooperation and eventually trust. Such processes, often termed “environmental peacebuilding,” establish positive intergroup relations that also prevent conflicts unrelated to the environment.

2. Are there particular contexts in which we’re more likely to see climate adaptation efforts help prevent violence and mass atrocities? Or in which we’re less likely to see these “co-benefits,” as the UN Development Programme has called them?

In practice, there is always a risk of “maladaption” or “dark side effects” of environmental peacebuilding. One way to reduce these risks and increase the likelihood of peace-related co-benefits of climate change adaptation is to include local people in the design and implementation of these efforts. 

Adaptation efforts often include a wide range of stakeholders, including international organizations and NGOs, the state (which is neither homogenous nor always respecting human rights), powerful businesses, local elites, civil society movements, and indigenous groups. These actors often have competing interests and worldviews. Large sea-walls, for instance, can effectively protect business and state infrastructure against rising sea levels, but also preclude local fishers from assessing the beach with their boats. Conservation schemes like national parks can support valuable ecosystems in coping with climate change, but also result in tensions if local residents are evicted from or excluded from the area (which they often use for generations to collect firewood, hunt, or water cattle).

Including local people early in adaptation design can help ensure that their interests are protected. This should go beyond dialogues with urban (often international) NGOs and local elites. We also need to include the voices of those all too often overlooked, like indigenous groups, women, and the poor. Relatedly, conflict-sensitivity should be an integral part of adaptation efforts. Needless to say, such approaches work best in areas with good governance and vibrant civil societies.

3. The Simon-Skjodt Center works to help prevent mass atrocities, or large-scale, systematic violence against civilians. This type of violence usually occurs during armed conflict, but not always. How might we expect the role of climate adaptation to differ in contexts of mass atrocities, rather than conflict?

First, climate-related disasters have been used in the past to legitimize or facilitate mass atrocities. When the oil-rich Biafra region tried to secede from Nigeria in the late 1960s, for instance, the government cut off food supplies to the region during a drought, resulting in mass starvation. There are also several examples where governments have ignored the need of certain ethnic groups or opposition strongholds after droughts, floods, and storms, resulting in widespread (yet avoidable) suffering. With such disasters increasing due to climate change, discriminatory or non-existent adaptation efforts can be a pretext to or even a form of mass atrocity.

Second, climate adaptation can be a tool to evict and relocate populations against their will—for instance away from vulnerable coastlines, flood-prone urban slums, or national parks. These displacements rarely result in mass killings, but they can involve substantial amounts of physical violence, and they often have long-lasting impacts on the culture and livelihoods of entire communities.

Third, it is at least theoretically possible that if climate adaptation were to fail, the risk of mass atrocities would increase. Some scholars have identified land scarcity and the absence of proper resource management institutions as a contributing factor to the genocide in Rwanda, though others have contested this claim. Unmitigated, climate-related resource shortages could have similar effects in the future, even though this argument is still rather speculative.

4. Are there particular challenges to improving knowledge about the co-benefits of climate adaptation? How are researchers addressing these challenges?

From my experience, two challenges are particularly profound. First, available data are limited and potentially biased. Conducting research in violence-ridden areas in the Democratic Republic of Congo or Yemen, for instance, is very challenging and at times simply not allowed under research ethics and travel safety policies. Local researchers in the respective areas often lack financial and institutional resources. Likewise, governments, NGOs, and local communities face incentives to over-report the success of their projects, which complicates the drawing of conclusions based on secondary data.

The second challenge is siloed thinking. Climate change adaptation, disaster risk reduction, environmental peacebuilding, and armed conflict management, for instance, are distinct research fields and policy areas. They have their own logics, outlets, conferences, institutions, and career paths. Cooperation across relevant scholars and policy makers in the fields of peace and climate adaptation remains difficult, even though the situation has improved in recent years.

5. As you look towards the policy implications of these research efforts, what about the potential co-benefits of climate action would you like to see policy makers emphasize in the coming year?

First, increase investment in high-risk areas. Countries with a history of or an ongoing armed conflict are exceptionally vulnerable to climate change yet receive significantly less adaptation funding. This is understandable because of the risk of project disruptions in such countries. But given that environmental sustainability is key for sustainable peace, we simply cannot ignore climate vulnerabilities in these regions.

Second, increase the visibility of local and often marginalized groups in climate change adaptation. This applies to research, where most work is still produced by experts from countries in the Global North. But it might even be more important to consider the perspectives of local groups (and particularly, poor, women, and indigenous communities) in policy planning and implementation.

Third, conflict sensitivity should be a key aspect of all climate adaptation projects. Governments and NGOs should seek to avoid fueling conflict in any work they conduct, and experts and media need to look out for and criticize “dark side” effects.

In the best case, adaptation efforts will be accompanied by ambitious climate mitigation to reduce the amount of adaptation required. Climate action could yield considerable positive dividends for peacebuilding (and vice versa), but only if conducted in a fair, inclusive, and sustainable manner.