Peace in a Climate Crisis

July 23, 2020

In the presence of environmental organizations that specifically work on climate change, why should a peace organization like PAX concern itself with the climate crisis? In the middle of March, right as the coronavirus hit the Netherlands, I joined PAX as an intern to help answer this question and quickly realized that the climate crisis already seriously complicates peace work. Accordingly, PAX is ramping up its efforts to adapt to the crisis by improving the climate resilience and sensitivity of its programs. In safeguarding human security-based peace, PAX is taking the coming climate crisis into account.

By Arjan Laan

PAX’s Experience with the Climate Crisis

I have come to find that already, PAX programs are troubled by climate-related developments. In South Sudan, water and food shortages constitute severe challenges to the everyday life of (especially rural) communities. The country has experienced a temperature increase of 2,5 times the global average, and by 2050 agricultural yields could be down by an additional 5 to 25% compared to the year 2000. Violent disputes over land are not new in the region, but statistically speaking they do often follow droughts or floods, both of which have risen significantly over the past century. It is social factors, however, that enable the violence itself. The colonial heritage of a severely unequal distribution of land is partly to blame, but so are cultural and economic issues. A colleague working on the Human Security Survey in the country explained how within the regional culture it is common to look down on farming as a task ‘for the weak or women’, while considering ownership of livestock a masculine status symbol. Yet, South Sudan still experiences grave food insecurity, with around 87% of the population dependent on a fragile agricultural sector that contributes little to the economy. Poor access to global markets makes economic growth even more difficult. And in its pursuit of oil extraction, the South Sudanese government is distracted from investing in a sustainable agricultural sector. In short, South Sudan is not only ill prepared for a warmer, more extreme climate but is already suffering from increasingly frequent tensions over land due to a colonial past, wrong economic priorities, cultural challenges around agriculture and, indeed, a more stressful climate.

Going further south, the Democratic Republic of the Congo has gradually been experiencing more intense and frequent floods, while its communities are having to manage with deteriorating soil that hinders farming. Additionally, the country is currently experiencing an influx of Mbororo (also known as Peuhl or Fulani) pastoralists from the eastern Sahel region, who are fleeing – among other reasons – droughts. Video footage I was shown of the thousands of cows moving across the border left a strong impression of the massive scale of these migrations. The Mbororo are now settling down in lands already occupied by others, and the question is now whether the situation can be managed to avoid further tensions. A different issue is that of militarized conservation policy. With financial aid from the international community, the DRC maintains many national parks in which the traditional use of natural resources is limited or prohibited. These measures, however, undermine the livelihoods of local communities who can in fact live in harmony with their environment. Disputes between these parties are often ‘resolved’ by military intervention.

On the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, PAX’s work might also seriously suffer from an even warmer planet. Like the DRC, Colombia must cope with severe soil erosion, and with most of its population living up high in the Andes mountains, water shortages and unstable land partly due to melting glaciers are everyday concerns. More problematically, in a discussion with the Colombia team I discovered that the country’s extremely unequal land distribution stimulates illicit crop cultivation. For those whose livelihoods depend on a small area of land, options are often more or less limited to the farming of coca, joining the FARC or suffering from hunger. This dynamic is exceptionally vulnerable to climatic change, which will only amplify water scarcity and deteriorate soil further to decrease the amount of land fit for conventional farming and make illegal crop farming even more attractive.

Another noteworthy example is the extreme water scarcity in Iraq. Of the country’s water supply, 70% originates from rivers shared with Syria, Turkey and Iran. In recent years, the latter two countries have built many new dams, which combined with increasingly erratic rainfall patterns have lowered the water supply of Iraq with about 40% over recent decades. Though climate change was not the main reason, it certainly contributed to the need for dam construction. The Iraqi government has so far largely failed to purify its water supply, which has been contaminated with oil as documented in PAX’s ‘Living Under a Black Sky’ report. One of the consequences is a health crisis in Basra, from which more than 100.000 Iraqi citizens have already suffered, with protests as a result. All they’re asking for is clean water. These conditions fuel grievances, insecurity and social tensions, and allow extremists to recruit easily, especially in rural areas that strongly depend on water for agriculture. This case unfortunately constitutes a perfect example of how geopolitics, poor governance, unsuccessful post-conflict reconstruction and the external threat of climate change enable extremism and prolonged human insecurity.

Risk for International Peace and Stability

Zooming out a bit, the global sea level keeps rising, endangering livelihoods in low-lying coastal regions around the world. Meanwhile, geopolitical tensions are growing in the Arctic over soon-to-be-available resources. On a global scale, previously moderate climates are becoming dryer, water shortages are growing larger and extreme weather events are becoming more frequent and destructive. The human costs will be major. For instance, a new study suggests that a billion people will be living in regions that will be confronted with unbearable heat within the next 50 years. How do these developments cause conflict? They don’t, at least not on their own. However, they can disturb fragile balances between social groups, widen existing social cleavages, increase competition between states or amplify other causes of conflict. If human security is essential to peace, there is no question that the two phenomena are linked. Should we be able to correctly identify conflict risks and solutions, we must incorporate a climate lens into our conflict analyses and development of effective advocacy strategies. Skeptics will point out that it is hard to specifically identify global warming as the cause of any given environmental change – let alone link it to the social implications it would entail. This task is indeed difficult, yet I find that this criticism misses the point. Whether or not the result of climatic developments – and evidence is plausible for many cases – PAX must adapt better to a world in which generally, living environments grow less habitable and pose a threat to peace.

Silver Lining: The Problem is Political

I have found reading about the dangers of a warmer planet to be overwhelming at times. The numbers are big, the scenarios are grim and many lives are at stake. Yet, in its link to conflict, the climate crisis teaches us an important lesson. Namely, as much as some might want to frame it as a deterministic outcome of climate change, conflict is only the result if we let it be. If humans created a phenomenon as large as global warming, I refuse to believe we cannot also minimize its impact on fragile communities. The decisions are political. Good governance, just political decision-making and international solidarity are all essential if we are to limit the risk of climate change endangering human security. Where there is courage and political will, we can ensure that those most responsible also pay most of the costs associated with a fair process of adaptation.

Changing the Way We Think

Like COVID-19, climate change forces us to rethink our view of humanity and its relationship to its environment. The climate crisis is perhaps the symbol for both the power structures that underlie the gravest global inequalities and injustices, as well as for humanity’s exploitative, self-destructive relationship with its environment. Yet, it is only one of many ways in which sustainable peace is linked to our environment. The desire for survival and profit often leads states, corporations and criminal groups to unsustainably exploit natural environments, causing grievances, underdevelopment, displacement or even death for local communities and activists in the process. In addition, instead of stimulating development, an abundance of resources often provides the financial means to sustain conflict. In short, human security is closely tied to inclusive, sustainable peace.

Bottom Line

So, why should PAX spend effort on the climate sensitivity of its programs? Well, simply because the climate crisis constitutes a major threat to human security in soon-to-be or already conflict-prone or -torn countries. There is a difficult balance to be struck. On the one hand, ‘climate resilience’ should not become another checkbox to tick when designing strategies. On the other, the term ‘climate crisis’ triggers somewhat of a doomsday scenario within the imagination, and we should be wary of getting carried away. Yet, it’s hard not to worry about the exacerbated environmental challenges that will increasingly interfere with our current work or create new work to be done altogether. The balance, then, can be found in preparing for the worst but sticking to the facts and the experiences of our partners.

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