Nature and Biodiversity

Why we must urgently address climate issues to secure global peace

Refugees carrying goods in a refugee camp, illustrating how climate refugees are a growing phenomenem

Climate refugees are a growing phenomenem. Image: Ninno JackJr on Unsplash

Martin Frick
Director Global Office Berlin , World Food Programme
Grégoire Roos
Head of Political Dialogue & Policy Innovation, BMW Foundation
Dan Smith
Director, Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI)
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Climate and Nature

This article is part of: Centre for Nature and Climate

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  • Climate change has triggered massive disruptions in the global food system, heightening food insecurity in some of the most fragile and climate-vulnerable communities on Earth.
  • Addressing the links between climate change and food insecurity both in the global climate discussion and in local action is essential for sustainable management of the risks to human security and peace.
  • Accelerated action to reach net zero — and to address other aspects of the environmental crisis — must guard against conflict risk by emphasising inclusiveness, fairness and peace.

It is a hot and sunny day in September. Hawa, a farmer and small trader in Western Chad, stands in a maize field devastated by flooding. ‘This crop will only last us for two months,’ she says. ‘In a normal year, it would give us enough food for eight months.’ But normal years are becoming less frequent. Last year, Hawa’s crop was wrecked by a drought. To make matters worse, the security situation — particularly the armed insurgencies that are spreading across the Sahel — has made it too dangerous for Hawa and her neighbours to compensate for the poor harvest through fishing or herding. As a result, they struggle to feed themselves.

Hawa, a farmer and small trader in Western Chad Image: WFP/Evelyn Fey

The number of people on the brink of starvation across the Sahel is at a ten-year high and the number of displaced people has soared by almost 400%. This both contributes to and is exacerbated by a host of other crises — of poverty and inequality, of armed conflict and of migration. If left unaddressed, the repercussions for both the people of the Sahel and for international security could be dire.

The intertwining of climate change, other environmental challenges, hunger, poverty, migration and security are not limited to the Sahel. They are playing out in different ways in many regions of the world.

Image: IDMC

The solutions to these interlinked crises need themselves to be interlinked. Too often, policy planners and practitioners break complex crises down into their component parts, parcel out the tasks and have different agencies each looking after their own issue. And that leaves out the interlinkages themselves though they form the core of the problem that has to be addressed. Action on climate change must not worsen food insecurity, inequality or conflict risk — and, ideally, it should contribute to meeting several goals simultaneously. By the same token, peacebuilding should be climate sensitive, inclusive and fair; this is not only a matter of principle, but also the only way that peacebuilding can succeed in the long term. And, in our globally connected world, we also need to join the dots geographically. Supply chains and global systems mean local disruptions can have serious consequences even thousands of miles away.

This implies two fundamental conditions: more opportunities for local communities to find solutions and build resilience as they see fit; and, more responsible, responsive, trusted political leadership that creates the conditions for success.

Image: Bloomberg
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Resilience at the frontline of climate change

Resilience means the capacity to withstand and recover quickly from pressures of different kinds – both sudden shocks, such as hurricanes, or slow onset pressures, such as the steady shortening of the rainy season that threatens crops and livelihoods over time. Climate change is testing the resilience of some of the most fragile communities, sometimes past breaking point. Not only do they bear the brunt of floods, storms, droughts and heatwaves, but they also lack safety nets and resources to fall back on when their food and livelihood security is impacted. The threat of armed violence complicates these problems and can create further difficulties through pathways, such as resource competition, migration, dissatisfaction with the state and opportunistic recruitment by armed groups.

Building resilience is essential. Helping the most fragile communities and households to prepare for the unknown — for example, through better awareness and early warning of climate-related risks — could be a very effective, even revolutionary, transformation of the role of public governance. Policy has a role to play, but resilience cannot only be built from the top down. Efforts must centre around people and aim to empower local communities. That could, for instance, mean doubling efforts to develop micro-finance and micro-insurance, to deliver training in sustainable farming and production, to facilitate the sharing of best practices through apps and other technology.

Community-based action centred around food production is among the best ways to improve all-round community resilience. It can both increase food security, by making production and incomes more resilient to weather extremes, and help enhance social cohesion, which could be a new peace dividend.

Building on traditional knowledge and sharing best practices is key in such community-based action. Regenerative agriculture can be a good entry point, especially when deforestation and poor soil and water management have impoverished farmland. In the Sahel, as in many other parts of the world, soil degradation is a serious problem. More than half of the world’s soils are moderately to severely degraded. Because this reduces their carbon content, it is a major driver of the climate crisis. Regenerating soil not only boosts agricultural production, it also pulls carbon out of the atmosphere. The solutions are simple, low-tech and have proved successful, even with the scant rainfall in the Sahel, and build on traditional methods. With relatively little social and technical support, smallholder farmers can thus become agents of climate action and resilience and lift themselves out of poverty.

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Green and inclusive growth is key to a just and peaceful transition

The transition to more sustainable economies is crucial to slowing climate change and the wider environmental crisis. But social sustainability is inseparable from environmental sustainability. Any transition that ignores or jeopardises the imperatives of justice and peace is bound to fail. The transition is not just about the climate, but also about people; it is not just about growth, but also about the universal right to a dignified life and the opportunity to offer the next generation a brighter future.

When it comes to justice in the transition, access to technology is central. If access to new technologies is handled well, it can have truly transformative power to reduce social and economic inequality by more evenly redistributing economic opportunities, healthcare and education across society. By and large, those most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change have the least access to technology. A 2022 study by the Brookings Institution showed how improving access to Fourth Industrial Revolution technologies could bring substantial economic growth and welfare benefits to sub-Saharan Africa.

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Better access to technology also means unleashing local innovation for, with and by local communities. Modern technologies can enable more sustainable agriculture and forestry practices that help to, among other things, reduce carbon emissions, protect biodiversity and support rural livelihoods, social cohesion and food security.

Once again, the local is inextricably linked to the global. Such local impacts can have far-reaching benefits. At the same time, global partnerships and aligning development, trade, health, social and security policy with the sustainability agenda play a key role in creating the right conditions. There is thus an urgent need to lower geopolitical tensions, or at least find ways to work together on shared challenges despite them.

A just and peaceful transition is founded on cooperation, participation and inclusivity as we address the key crises of our age.

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