Making Peace with the Paris Agreement

Historic moment: the Paris Agreement is adopted on 12 December 2015. Image: UNclimatechange / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 2.0

Peace and conflict need to be considered in the climate change agenda.

The Paris Agreement was nothing less than a landmark agreement. Legally binding, adopted by 196 parties to the convention, it has inspired hope and ambition to get to net-zero emissions and limit global warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels. The Paris Agreement does not, however, mention conflict or fragility, neither peace nor security, even once – neither did the Kyoto Protocol before it, nor does the Sendai Framework directly address any of these issues either.

What is apparent is that within the climate change community’s lexicon, conflict and fragility simply do not exist, when the reality is that many of those on the forefront of the climate emergency also struggle with fragility and conflict. The international negotiations make provisions for least developed countries (LDCs), but this does not account for the fact that around 50% of fragile states are LDCs and 70% of LDCs feature on the World Bank’s harmonised list of fragile states. Moreover, an estimated two-thirds of the global extreme poor will reside in fragile and conflict-affected situations by 2030. Hence, peace cannot be a basic assumption that we take for granted. Humanitarian finance may help those most desperately in need to make it through the day. But without fundamental changes to our modes of production and consumption and the foresight of long-term investments in adaptation, many communities in need may remain stuck in that cycle every day.

If our multilateral environmental agreements do not recognise the plight of conflict-affected and fragile contexts, those who are highly exposed and vulnerable to climate change may continue to suffer the lowest access to climate finance. Thus, this is not just a matter of semantics. This lacuna in research stymies innovation. We can conclude that, unless the aperture of global climate governance recalibrates quickly to focus on the specific needs and gaps of conflict-affected and fragile states, climate change vulnerability – all things being equal – will likely continue to increase, due to lack of investment.

Not a Climate–Conflict Agenda, but a Climate Action Agenda for Peace

Research on climate security has been dominated by a fierce debate on causality, namely whether climate change actually causes conflict. Similar arguments have persisted through the years. In the biblically inspired Leviathan (1668), Thomas Hobbes described conflict over scarce resources as a ‘natural’ state, asserting that a strong social contract and state were needed to avoid civil war. Later, Thomas Malthus’s seminal piece, An Essay on the Principle of Population (1798), started an intellectual and dystopian debate linking unchecked population, growing at a geometric rate, with food production, growing at an arithmetic rate. The disparity between the two rates would inevitably lead to resource scarcity, famine, war and state failure.

Conflict and climate vulnerability coincide in many geographies; 70% of conflict-affected countries are also highly vulnerable to climate change

The truth is that climate alone is seldom a direct cause of violent conflict. But more importantly, the argument is beside the point and does not negate the imperative for action. Conflict and climate vulnerability coincide in many geographies; 70% of conflict-affected countries are also highly vulnerable to climate change. The latest IPCC report pinpoints that maladaptation can arise when addressing one set of risks in isolation, which means that others may inadvertently be exacerbated.

The IPCC is an important reference point in this debate, given the legitimacy the Assessment Reports confer. In terms of its tackling of the issue, the IPCC notes that data gaps have been an obstacle to allowing a more thorough examination of the potential peace and security risks posed by climate change. While confirming that climate is almost always not the direct cause of conflict, the sixth and latest Assessment Report does show that solutions targeting climate-sensitive livelihoods and women’s empowerment can reduce risks posed for peace.

‘Climate-proofing’ is therefore essential, including of prevention, peacebuilding and stabilisation investments, many of which tend to be climate-blind. The need to make sure that climate adaptation and mitigation go beyond doing no harm and contribute positively to peace is technically sound and not at odds with the pursuit of a sound ‘climate rationale’. Too often, this is framed in environmental terms and loses sight of the economic, health and peace co-benefits or dividends.

Climate Security and Action

Peace and security actors around the world have accepted that in a climate-changed world, anachronistic notions of hard security will not be enough to ensure peace and human security. In resolutions, mandates and strategies, the UN Security Council, the Peace and Security Council of the African Union Commission and NATO have begun to tackle something that the climate change community has yet to embrace: that climate action, or lack of it, will impact peace and security and that we lack the readiness to tackle these issues head on.

Global climate governance has both the institutional wherewithal and the imperative to help foster peace-positive climate action and adaptation for conflict-affected and fragile contexts

Our know-how on climate still does not fully inform discussions on prevention, peace and security. Most of the climate security agenda focuses on climate change adaptation and peace. Adaptation-thinking is further ahead, as has been the case for climate and gender. There is a pressing need to think about mitigation and energy security as they relate to peace and security. Not only would failure of climate action itself, as highlighted in the 2022 Global Risks Report of the World Economic Forum, be catastrophic and, as the UN Secretary-General notes, ‘the biggest threat to security that modern humans have ever faced’, but so would the systemic impacts of a less-than-just transition of socioeconomic systems around the globe. The experience of the war in Ukraine has most recently brought to bear the energy, peace and security nexus even more clearly than before.

Some argue that the functional disconnect between the fields of climate and environment on the one hand, and peace and security on the other, should be reinforced, for fear of politicisation, as well as to preserve the sanctity of each related forum. Yet, no one would argue this in the case of gender or human rights, which likewise cut across the nexus. The argument is certainly not to blur lines or mandates, but for greater coherence, without which climate security efforts which are lop-sided and focus only on peace and security, without simultaneously pursuing adaptation and mitigation, may fail. The same would be true if they do not help galvanise more conflict-sensitive climate finance for fragile and conflict-affected situations.

There are NDCs which already address the climate–security nexus and can serve as a blueprint for how the climate–security nexus can be better addressed in policy and strategy. Overall, the Conference of Parities has evolved and advanced through the years to establish a Local Communities and Indigenous Peoples Platform and address issues such as loss and damage. Global climate governance has both the institutional wherewithal and the imperative to help foster an enabling environment for peace-positive climate action and adaptation for conflict-affected and fragile contexts.

Learn more about the Climate Security work stream of UNDP’s Climate Promise.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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Catherine Wong

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