Climate change is tough enough … war makes it worse

Climate change is one of the most pressing issues of our time, its effects felt by communities worldwide. But for those living in conflict zones, the impact can be particularly devastating. The combination of rising temperatures, changing rainfall patterns, and increasing frequency and severity of extreme weather events can exacerbate existing vulnerabilities and create new yet unseen ones.

Climate change will complicate conflict mediation and resolution efforts. It will have a long-term effect on the challenges of rebuilding and recovering from conflict. This is reflected in the Notre Dame Global Adaptation Initiative Index, which ranks Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Mali, Somalia, and Yemen — all victims of protracted conflict — among the most vulnerable to climate change.

While links between climate change, peace and security have been widely recognized, global action across the climate finance spectrum still needs to catch up to reach those in fragile areas. At the COP27 conference in Egypt there was a breakthrough agreement on creating a fund to respond to loss and damage, particularly in nations most vulnerable to climate impacts. It also marked the launch of the first peace-related initiative at a COP, “Climate Responses for Sustaining Peace.”

In preparation for COP28, the UAE convened an informal meeting last March of the UN Security Council on climate finance to build and sustain peace. As part of Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week and as president of COP28, the UAE last week hosted a discussion on climate change, peace and security. These are essential steps in the right direction but much work remains to be done to integrate the peace-building and climate agenda in conflict zones.

One of the most significant effects of climate change in communities affected by war is the risk of displacement. As natural disasters such as floods, droughts and storms increase, they will force people to flee their homes with little or no warning. According to UNHCR, environmental degradation has already caused more than 20 million people to leave their homes. From the Pacific Ocean, where countries such asTuvalu and Kiribati face rising sea levels, to Africa, where drought and desertification are dislodging communities as they are forced to seek food and water, climate-affected displacement will only increase.

Another significant impact is the loss of livelihoods. Increased competition for resources such as water and land can exacerbate tensions or lead to outbreaks of violence and insecurity. According to the UN, by 2050 more than half of the world’s population is expected to live in water-stressed regions. The Middle East is particularly vulnerable. Water scarcity is already contributing to a humanitarian crisis and driving displacement in Iraq. As of January 2019, the International Organization for Migration recorded almost 15,000 new displacements due to water shortages from the country’s southern governorates and a further 12,000 due to drought in November 2021. The International Committee of the Red Cross has been ringing the alarm bell on the effect of climate change on countries mired in conflict, most notably in the Central African Republic, Mali and Iraq.

In addition to these direct effects, climate change in conflict zones can significantly impact people’s health, increasing the spread of diseases such as malaria and dengue fever. A decline in crop yields in hotspots such as Afghanistan, Yemen and South Sudan has contributed to hunger or malnutrition. In Somalia, frequent droughts and floods, or landslides in the Democratic Republic of Congo, have directly led to a rise in cases of cholera and diarrhea.

Climate change in conflict zones can significantly impact people’s health, increasing the spread of diseases such as malaria and dengue fever

Nickolay E. Mladenov

The political and security effects of climate change cannot be overstated, particularly for conflict zones, and are likely to be a growing source of communal and inter-state violence in the future. Yet the UN development program reports that less than $2 per capita flows from climate finance to countries categorized as “extremely fragile,” 80 times less than other developing countries.

That is why more attention and resources must be directed toward addressing the impacts of climate change on conflict-affected communities.

First, it is necessary to increase funding for climate change adaptation and disaster risk reduction in war zones. This could include infrastructure projects, early warning systems and emergency response plans. Humanitarian, security, and development actors, in particular, can start identifying how to get finance into fragile settings. Inevitably, this will need to be matched by progress on the technical issues of how much funding can be disbursed in challenging environments.

Second, stakeholders need to gear up their programs by investing in sustainable livelihoods including agricultural training and microfinance along with healthcare and disease prevention. For this to happen, UN agencies dealing with conflict zones need more support from member states.

Third, renewable energy sources, including off-grid solar generation, must be supported and encouraged in conflict-affected areas. The private sector already has some important innovations that can be integrated and used more widely.

Fourth, nationally determined contributions under the Paris Agreement remain critical to global efforts to tackle climate change, but peace and security do not feature prominently in them. That needs to change.

Finally, we must increase efforts to address the underlying causes of conflict — poverty, inequality, and political instability.

Efforts to mitigate the adverse effects of climate change in war zones will require collaboration and cooperation between governments, international organizations, and local communities. Conversations between stakeholders must quickly move from ideas to actionable plans. Failure to take action will only exacerbate the suffering of communities, so it is urgent that COP28 makes ambitious efforts to mitigate the effects of climate change on these communities.

• Nickolay Mladenov 

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