Climate Change, Peacebuilding, and International Relations

By Stephen E. Moncrief

Climate change is already reshaping our world. The study of international politics has yet to catch up, but new research areas—such as environmental peacebuilding—suggest ways the field can address the consequences of climate change.

According to NASA’s recent analysis, 2020 was tied with 2016 as the warmest year on record, and last year’s extraordinary wildfire and storm seasons were closely connected to anthropogenic warming. In January, the United Nations Development Program and the University of Oxford released the largest-ever global survey on climate change, finding that 64 percent of respondents in 50 countries believe that climate change constitutes a global emergency. The concern is justified. Climate change is spurring population movements, jeopardizing global food security, and threatening to render currently populated areas inhospitable for human life.

As the climate crisis becomes more visible and widely recognized, it is essential to think expansively about the relationship between human behavior, political institutions, and a changing natural world. As an academic field, international relations maintains a strong focus on traditional security issues, such as great power competition, nuclear proliferation, and interstate war. However, a growing area of research focuses on the security implications of climate change, particularly the relationship between environmental change and conflict. Recently, researchers have made progress outlining the possible pathways connecting climate change with violence and political disorder, including human displacement and agricultural shocks. Arguments proposing an association between drought and the outbreak of the Syrian civil war have received considerable attention, while changes in water availability and vegetative cover have been linked to patterns of violence in Darfur.

Environmental peacebuilding is a related, but distinct, area of research and practice. While formal definitions differ, most examples of environmental peacebuilding seek to prevent or ameliorate conflicts through natural resource management. For instance, the UN’s Joint Program on Women, Natural Resources and Peace recently concluded a pilot project to support community-level resource management committees in Sudan, and to promote dialogue forums addressing resource conflicts among pastoralists, farmers, and internally displaced people.

Environmental peacebuilding is a theoretically promising path to conflict resolution. A recent review identified several ways in which natural resource management might contribute to peace, including through economic development, institution building, and intergroup cooperation within a conflict-affected country. However, the review also found mixed empirical support for natural resource management’s positive influence on peace, which is consistent with other scholarship highlighting the context-dependent nature of environmental peacebuilding’s effectiveness.

As peacebuilding expands to account for the environmental sources of conflict, and as environmental peacebuilding matures as a field, researchers and practitioners should avoid some of the conceptual mistakes of the past. For example, since the end of the Cold War, peacebuilding has been conflated with statebuilding by much of the international community, with deleterious effects. As attention to the climate-conflict nexus grows, it will be crucial to resist importing the same statist logic into environmental peacebuilding.

Past research highlighted the role of natural resource exploitation in facilitating violent conflict, particularly when rebels derive income from such exploitation. One implication of this research is that, in some cases, the state’s failure to control and effectively govern natural resources can contribute to conflict. While this is true in certain instances, it does not necessarily follow that external intervention to improve the state’s control over natural resources will produce peace or justice. As recent research in Ghana and Sierra Leone suggests, building “green” state institutions can breed feelings of marginalization and insecurity among those left out of the process. Further, local or customary environmental peacebuilding practices, such as those addressing land-use disputes in Timor-Leste, can be successful mechanisms of conflict resolution. None of this is to say that efforts to improve state-based environmental governance are inherently flawed. Rather, stronger states are not always synonymous with peace and good governance. This insight applies to both environmental and security issues.

Going forward, the relationship between environmental change and conflict may play a more prominent role in the study of international politics. While mainstream interpretations see climate change as a “threat multiplier” within a conventional security context, other perspectives see climate change as part of a fundamentally new era, requiring a reconceptualization of security and a more dramatic rethinking of international relations as a field. Hopefully, growing attention to the problem of environmental change will motivate an interdisciplinary dialogue, and a productive synthesis of insights from different research traditions. Given the scope of the problem and the potentially catastrophic consequences of inaction, such a focus is urgent and merited.

Stephen E. Moncrief is a postdoctoral fellow at the Center for Strategic Studies.

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