The climate crisis is driving global conflict – Cop26 is a chance for leaders to rethink security threats

The complex links between climate, food and peace are too poorly understood, writes Peter Laederach. But 2021 is an important year for diplomacy and an opportunity to change course

Wednesday 07 July 2021 09:56
<p>Boris Johnson launches the Cop26 climate summit</p>

Boris Johnson launches the Cop26 climate summit

It’s now established that one of the triggers of the Syrian conflict is related to the scarcity of natural resources, primarily pastoral land. New research demonstrates similar factors playing out across the Levant – covering Jordan, Israel and Palestine – which has grabbed recent headlines as a conflict flashpoint.

In the West African Sahel (Burkina Faso, Mali, Mauritania, Niger and Chad), nearly 29 million people need assistance and protection. That’s seven million more than when the pandemic began. This prompted organisations like Action Against Hunger to sound the alarm regarding unprecedented levels of food and nutritional insecurity.

In both the Levant and Sahel, political instability plays a major factor. Still, a complex web of natural resource challenges, especially food systems, are made worse by climate change. Making matters more complex, natural resources and agricultural value chains are the engines of many emerging economies.

In the face of a more turbulent climate, a pandemic and more complex and protracted conflicts, decades of progress on hunger and nutrition are unravelling. The World Food Programme estimates 41 million people (up from 27 million two years ago) in 43 countries “are teetering on the very edge of famine”. And this perfect storm is creating an altogether new security challenge.

While the global community rightly invests in peace and security operations, the complex links between climate, food and peace are too poorly understood. As such, they are not a priority for the world’s most influential countries and institutions. But 2021 is a “mega year” for diplomacy, giving us a chance to change course.

With renewed energy from the G7 and G20, the UN is hosting an international summit on food systems (September) and a climate summit (November) – the latter to be hosted by the UK. These diplomatic opportunities present a unique chance to radically uproot thinking on security threats, enable more agile strategies and enact policies informed by the latest climate science.

In February, the UK hosted the first ever UN Security Council meeting on climate security – which is emerging as the new paradigm. Since then, the UK has made climate action an integral part of its foreign policy agenda, including the G7 summit. As host of the UN Cop26 climate summit in Glasgow, the UK’s diplomatic machinery is working overtime getting nations to commit to ambitious, multilateral climate actions.

It is clear that the UK and its allies in Nato, G7, G20 and the UN Security Council must embrace the opportunity to place climate science at the very heart of how we adapt to a changing world. They must mainstream climate science – from economic recovery to managing conflicts and responding to humanitarian crises.

Having worked as a scientist for the past 20 years in 15 countries, I’ve seen too many international organisations, spanning security, hunger and malnutrition or humanitarian relief, pay lip service to climate science. Rather than viewing these issues as interconnected problems that require coherent, coordinated responses based on hard science, their own topics are prioritised and kept in silos.

That’s why it has been fascinating to develop a whole new climate security agenda over the last year with CGIAR, the world’s largest global agricultural innovation network. Using a variety of lenses – gender, justice, migration and the unintended consequences of policies – our new strategy builds an evidence base for drivers of climate security threats.

We’re also building a more granular picture of what’s driving climate conflicts across Africa and Latin America, with a particular focus on the so-called “dry corridor”, spanning Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua.

Four broad pathways for better managing climate security threats have emerged from our work.

First, we need more evidence to understand the complexity of climate and security to more adequately inform policy. Second, we need better national and international polices on food and agricultural systems that can adapt to the role they play in peace and stability. Third, we need to change the way we programme humanitarian operations, so they benefit millions more people.

Finally, we need to leverage untapped sources of finance that can be earmarked for innovative projects that create both more peaceful and sustainable societies. Investment targets should be re-aligned to simultaneously address climate and security challenges so that humanitarian and peace objectives are not competing for resources.

Mainstreaming climate security on all policy levels, national, regional and global, requires significant collaboration and solidarity. Leadership from the world’s most influential security players can drive this momentum. And an ambitious climate agreement on the banks of the River Clyde would be an exciting starting point.

Peter Läderach leads CGIAR’s Climate Security programme and the Climate-Smart Technologies and Practices Flagship of the CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS).

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