Climate Change and Peacebuilding

There is little question that climate change is the defining issue of our time. There is little question either that the United States has been behind the curve the years and is about to fall even farther behind now that the administration is about to create a commission that will include a lot of climate change deniers.

I am not a climate change expert. However, it makes sense for those of us in the peacebuilding and conflict resolution communities who care about the future of the planet to weigh in on at least four things we can bring to the discussion of climate change and what to do about it.

That starts with the fact that the climate change and peacebuilding communities should talk with each other more than they have. Here, I’m drawn to the work of the Planetary Security Initiative in general and its pioneering efforts to link these two issues. In their image which I’ve borrowed for this post, they link resilience, adaptation to climate change, development, and peacebuilding/conflict prevention as part of a single integrated set of goals. We also use many of the same analytical tools based in systems and complexity theory. As I’ll suggest in the second and third points below, we tend to stress different features of those frameworks, and our strengths can add to those already being used by the climate change community.

First, we should acknowledge that it is the defining question of our time. That means that peacebuilding goals may actually be less important than those involving climate change. When they conflict and/or are incompatible, we may have to put ours on hold until climate change has been adequately dealt with. Adoption of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals has encouraged us all to think of more integrated, holistic solutions that combine climate, peace, and more. However, when you get right down to it, it makes more sense to emphasize climate change first given the severity of the threat.

Second, because climate change will increasingly be a cause of conflict and because climate change scientists and activists are rarely conflict resolution or peacebuilding experts themselves, more and more of my colleagues are talking about conflict sensitive approaches to climate change. There is nothing particularly new here. We have known that environmental issues will play a growing role in producing geopolitical conflict since Thomas Homer Dixon started writing on these issues twenty years ago. Now, there are some obvious things we should be thinking about, including

  • How we can help our climate-focused colleagues avoid making existing conflicts worse or creating new conflicts altogether
  • How we can include addressing climate-related issues as part of overall peacebuilding strategies.

Third, what can we add to the policy related discussions that focus on climate issues.  Some American-based NGOs have a long-standing practices working with the EPA and other governmental agencies on environmental disputes. Our use of systems models leads us in some directions that could be promising for climate change advocates as well. For example, we tend to look at outliers or “bright spots” in which unusual individuals or communities or organizations have a disproportional impact because they do unusual things. Similarly, we tend to try to identify the leverage points at which a system is most vulnerable to change, especially transformative changes that can reshape all or part of the under lying system. More generally, we have spent a lot of time thinking through two of the key terms the Planetary Security Initiative talks about–adaptation and transformation of conflict.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Alliance for Peacebuilding or its members. 

Also published on Medium.