Climate Change, Conflict, and the Sustainable Development Goals

Peace and stability, it has long been recognized, are prerequisites for sustainable development.

By Alec Crawford on September 23, 2015

Peace and stability, it has long been recognized, are prerequisites for sustainable development.

A quick look at the most recent Human Development Report by the United Nations Development Programme shows that those countries furthest from achieving sustainable human development are typically those most affected by violence and fragility: countries like the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Central African Republic, South Sudan, and Somalia. Without peace and stability, progress on education, health and other determinants of wellbeing in these countries will be difficult, if not impossible.

This week, world leaders are once again gathering in New York at the United Nations General Assembly. The primary objective of this year’s meeting is no less than to agree on a course for global development for the next fifteen years. After three years of consultation and development, the assembled Member States will be presented with and vote to adopt the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs): 17 commitments to sustainable development that seek to build on the Millennium Development Goals and achieve global sustainable development by the year 2030. The SDGs are admirable and necessary, and cover a range of development challenges, from poverty and inequality to climate change and environmental degradation.

In those fragile states most in need of development progress, it is SDG 16—the promotion of peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development—that is most central to achieving immediate and future wellbeing. In these countries, achieving peace and stability is a necessary first step toward the achievement of the other SDGs.

Climate change will complicate the achievement of SDG 16 in fragile states. It is increasingly well accepted that climate change can be a contributor—at times subtle, at times significant—to the causal network that generates conflict and threatens human security. This is particularly true for fragile states, many of which are found in regions where the worst climate impacts are anticipated, such as the Horn of Africa, the Sahel, and the Middle East (see Table 1, noting that climate vulnerability data is not available for Somalia or South Sudan).

Table 1: State fragility and climate vulnerability, 2015

Top 10 most fragile states

Top 10 most climate-vulnerable states

  1. South Sudan
  1. Eritrea
  1. Somalia
  1. Sudan
  1. Central African Republic
  1. Chad
  1. Sudan
  1. Congo (D.R.)
  1. Congo (D.R.)
  1. Central African Republic
  1. Chad
  1. Burundi
  1. Yemen
  1. Haiti
  1. Syria
  1. Yemen
  1. Afghanistan
  1. Guinea-Bissau
  1. Guinea
  1. Solomon Islands

Source: The Fund For Peace Fragile States Index 2015; Notre Dame Global Adaptation Index (ND-GAIN)

The vulnerability of fragile states to climate impacts is rooted in a number of factors, including the limited capacities of their governments and institutions; in the reliance of their populations and economies on climate-sensitive sectors such as agriculture and pastoralism; in their histories of conflict; and in their high rates of poverty and inequality. In such contexts, the additional stress of climate change may strain the capacity of households, communities and governments to cope with and respond to impacts.

Climate change is not expected to directly result in violence. Rather, there is growing consensus that climate change will instead act as a “threat multiplier,” exacerbating existing challenges and sources of tension such as weak governance, poverty, historical grievances and ethnic differences. With climate change making many fragile parts of the world hotter, drier and less predictable, it could contribute to the root causes of conflict by: undermining livelihoods; increasing competition for scarce natural resources; displacing large numbers of people; and overwhelming state institutions by placing addition stress on social, economic and natural systems.

Ensuring that progress can be made in fragile states on SDG 16 therefore links to action on SDG 13: Taking urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts. Concerted international action is needed to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions. But significant effort will be required to strengthen the adaptive capacity and resilience of fragile countries, and their populations, to manage the impacts of climate change.

Thankfully, international stability, adaptive capacity and climate resilience are achieved through many similar investments. All will require the support of the international community. These include strengthening statutory and customary governance and institutions; clarifying resource rights, particularly around water and land; and integrating climate risks into sectoral policies and responses, including water, health, agriculture, infrastructure and disaster management. More support is required for research into new seed varieties, crop types, livestock breeds, and growing techniques; for improved water management; and for building early warning systems that ensure support arrives when and where it is needed. Regional cooperation around resources like water should be supported and enhanced.

Specific investments should be made to improve the data on climate change and its impacts in fragile states, so that policies are based on sound numbers. At a basic level, it is often difficult to access and interpret such data in fragile contexts: in Haiti and South Sudan—combined—there are fewer functioning weather stations (8) than in the Canadian province of Prince Edward Island (9). At the same time, capacities must be strengthened to deal with the complexities of climate change vulnerability and risk is low, particularly in fragile states. This includes government staff and peacebuilding practitioners; they often do not have the skills or knowledge required to use or understand climate data and translate it into appropriate responses.

When working in fragile states, peacebuilding interventions should be climate-resilient, so that they take into account the implications of near- and long-term climate risk as a contributing factor in driving conflict. This could mean integrating drought and flood risks into decisions on refugee camp placement, or including climate risks in reintegration programs for ex-combatants. Climate change responses must also be designed and implemented in a conflict-sensitive way, to ensure that, at a minimum, the interventions do not increase the risk of conflict and—preferably—they instead enhance peacebuilding opportunities. This would mean, for example, ensuring that the benefits of adaptation programs are equitably distributed across all the relevant stakeholders.

Investments in building resilience are investments in peacebuilding and conflict prevention.  Designing policies, programmes and projects that support the resilience and adaptive capacity of individuals, communities and governments in fragile states, and in so doing reduce the risk of climate-related conflicts, is an important part of ensuring sustainable development for those most in need.