Climate change is being increasingly framed as a security issue—a “threat multiplier” that can amplify the risks of breakdowns in peacefulness. Yet, even extreme climate hazards do not always lead to higher levels of violence.
For the first time since the Institute for Economics and Peace began producing the Global Peace Index in 2007, the 2019 Global Peace Index (2019 GPI) is factoring climate change into its analysis, contributing to the ongoing debate over the link between climatic changes and conflict risks.
Unsurprisingly, the 2019 index concludes that changes in climate and resource availability tend to create or exacerbate tensions among affected populations. On the other hand, the report also finds that climate-related disputes, especially those associated with water, are often resolved cooperatively. This finding begs the question, under which conditions are climate-related tensions more likely to result in conflict than cooperation? And perhaps more importantly, what can be done to promote climate cooperation over violent conflict? While the 2019 index does not offer conclusive answers, it makes a strong case for using Positive Peace scores as a diagnostic tool. Positive Peace consists of factors that create and sustain peaceful societies.
The 2019 GPI estimates that more than 970 million people live in areas with high or very high exposure to climate hazards. More than 40 percent of them are in countries where peacefulness is compromised– as indicated by low GPI scores. The report draws on data from the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration that reflect a warming trend over the past 30 years. Global temperatures over the past five years are the hottest on record. As temperatures rise, more people are likely to be exposed to climate hazards.
During my NOAA-funded doctoral research, I studied disaster-induced displacement along Honduras’ so-called “dry corridor.” A legacy of disasters, corruption and crime had long plagued this Central American country. Drought is not uncommon in the corridor, but adaptive practices enabled local farmers to rely on subsistence agriculture for generations. But now, rising temperatures and erratic and declining rainfall are killing crops and jeopardizing the farmers’ very survival. Climate change is fueling Honduras’ escalating violence and mass migration, as its GPI scores continue to decline.
Mobility Can Precipitate or Reduce Conflict
The link between climate change and human mobility is a major theme of the 2019 GPI. Data from 2017 indicate that 61.5 percent of total displacements were caused by climate-related disasters, while 38.5 percent were due to armed conflict. “Climate migration” has often been presented as a serious concern for global security, but the evidence is inconclusive. Mobility can precipitate conflict. But it can also reduce conflict when people choose to leave depleted areas rather than fight over dwindling resources.
Findings for Sub-Saharan Africa where I have also been working for the last decade are similarly ambiguous. The UN Environmental Programme projects that almost all Sub-Saharan African countries will suffer from water scarcity by 2025. Drought, or the loss of arable land, can lead to severe food insecurity and loss of livelihoods. Periods of drought in Kenya and South Sudan have sparked clashes between pastoralists and farmers.
Traditional conflict-resolution mechanisms are not always sufficiently adaptable in the face of increasing climate instability. Potential for larger interstate conflicts over resources that cross international borders, such as river basins, is also of concern. Whether these potential risks escalate into violence depends on multiple factors that, the 2019 GPI proposes, are related to their measure of Positive Peace.
The Case for Positive Peace
The 2019 GPI defines Positive Peace as the attitudes, institutions and structures that create and sustain peaceful societies, closely following Johan Galtung’s concept. This framework is based on eight factors: well-functioning government, sound business environment, acceptance of the rights of others, high levels of human capital, low levels of corruption, equitable distribution of resources, free flow of information, and good relations with neighbors. There is a strong correlation between the GPI and Positive Peace. A deficit of Positive Peace is often a predictor of future increases in violent conflict.
Positive Peace can be used as a basis for measuring a country’s resilience to extreme weather events, as well as its ability to adapt in the long term. Drawing on USAID’s Climate Exposure Measure, the 2019 GPI concludes that countries with high levels of Positive Peace are better able to manage climate-induced shocks than those with lower levels. Positive Peace is also correlated with economic development which, in turn, facilitates adaptation to climate variability.
Regionally, Sub-Saharan Africa scored lowest on coping capacity for climate hazards. The continent also recorded an overall decrease in its GPI scores. This could put 122 million people at risk of climate-related violent conflict. The Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region showed the highest water-related risk levels. Over 90 percent of river basins in this region face water stress risks that rank from medium to extremely high. However, MENA recorded improvements across all GPI domains. Most water-related disputes there were resolved cooperatively, according to the Water-Related Intrastate Conflict and Cooperation dataset. By improving the eight factors comprising Positive Peace, the 2019 GPI proposes that we can increase the adaptive capacity of the populations most directly affected by climate stress.
The Way Forward
The 2019 GPI concludes that the world is considerably less peaceful now than it was a decade ago. Climate change risks are also much higher. Addressing the causes of climate change and working toward solutions is key to preserving national and international security. We need a better understanding of the conditions that lead environmental disputes to be resolved cooperatively rather than violently.
Positive Peace measurements can be a helpful tool, as they can be used to gauge of a society’s ability to resolve tensions without resorting to violence. We must also find more effective ways of bridging research and policy on climate change and conflict. As the 2019 GPI emphasizes, if we want a more peaceful world, tackling climate change has to be part of the equation.