A Storm on the Horizon: How to Translate Climate-Security Early Warning Into Action

23 February 2021   ·   Jessica Caus, Adam Day

To address climate-security risks in a timely manner, Germany should enhance actionable forecast capacities. The government should strengthen climate- and conflict-sensitive programming by linking global climate data with conflict mapping, and expand its funding for inclusive, regional, and cross-border approaches.

The international community increasingly recognizes the role that climate change plays in exacerbating the risks of violent conflict. A common framing of the climate-security relationship is a “threat multiplier” where climate change is seen as contributing to underlying social, political, and economic conditions that tend to increase the likelihood of violence. However, the indirect and complex links between climate and conflict present challenges to policymakers aiming at climate- and conflict-sensitive programming, especially in fragile settings. How can the international community translate a broad understanding of climate-driven security risks into actionable responses?

This question is of particular relevance for the German government which has placed conflict prevention and the fight against the negative impacts of climate change among its top priorities. At the 2020 Berlin Climate and Security Conference, Germany announced that it would support a Global Risk and Foresight Assessment process, demonstrating its leading role in pushing for anticipatory climate-security responses. Translating anticipation into action is the challenge the international community now faces. Based on our in-depth research into climate-security dynamics in the Sahel and South Asia, we offer some concrete recommendations for the German government and like-minded countries looking to develop more conflict/climate-sensitive approaches to prevention: 

1. Build a Cross-Sectoral Approach to Climate-Security.

Climate change and its manifestations – higher temperatures, more variable rainfall, higher risk of droughts, rising sea levels – are driving resource scarcity in many parts of the world, reducing the amount of arable land, and complicating access to water sources. In the Sahel, these dynamics have caused shifts in pastoralist migratory patterns, pushing herders further south into more fertile areas and fueling resource competition with sedentary farmers, which has contributed to dramatic levels of violence in recent years. There are also indications that losses in agricultural livelihoods are driving recruitment into armed groups who offer economic alternatives to marginalized populations. In sub-Saharan Africa, Southeast Asia and beyond, climate-related livelihood losses or rapid onset events such as storm surges and floods trigger large-scale population movements, which can contribute to pre-existing tensions among migrant communities, ethnoreligious rivalries, or increased urban violence and criminality.

These dynamics cut across typical governmental silos, requiring responses that draw from development, finance, counterterrorism, humanitarian, and diplomatic departments. As has been done within the UN system – which now has a multi-departmental Climate-Security Mechanism – Germany’s climate-security response will need to draw from a range of ministries. Based on our review of several UN responses around the world, we suggest that a development/human security approach may be useful in avoiding concerns by some states that their climate responses may be securitized.

2. Develop Actionable Foresight Capacities.

As the shocks caused by climate change grow in severity, the need for anticipatory – rather than reactive – approaches is increasingly recognized by the international community. At the same time, climate scientists tend to couch their analysis in multi-decade terms, missing opportunities to influence political leaders making real-time decisions. The challenge is to develop actionable foresight capacities that reflect global trends in a manner that can generate policy decisions. There are some good examples that could be adopted more broadly: “Forecast-based Financing,” for example, frees up funds before a catastrophe occurs, enabling timely humanitarian actions like evacuations and infrastructural support before extreme weather strikes.

The German government should expand anticipatory approaches in settings where conflict risks are being driven in part by climate change, marrying geospatial data to conflict early warning. Modern geographic information system (GIS) imaging can provide detailed information regarding soil erosion, water tables, salinization, flood events, forest cover, and population locations. While GIS data can helpfully identify present and likely socio-economic shocks, it should be overlaid with hotspot mapping of conflict risks, with dedicated analytic capacities to understand how the different factors might interact. USAID has conducted a climate-security study drawing on this kind of data, and a UNDP official recently published a proposal for a GIS-driven early warning approach embedded in the African Union’s early warning system. Within the context of the German-supported Global Risk and Foresight Assessment, Germany should look to build a dynamic, GIS-driven capacity bringing together global climate data with conflict mapping and aiming to generate actionable responses from it.

3. Pursue Multi-Scalar, Cross-Border Responses.

Climate-driven changes occur at global, regional, national, and local levels, often with significant variations at highly localized points. In Nigeria, for example, there are enormous differences between the southern coastal area (which is affected by rising sea levels, salinization, and extreme weather events) and the northern Sahelian region (which is suffering from erratic rainfall, higher temperatures, and increasing desertification). Similar dynamics can be seen in South Asia, where riverine erosion affects inland farming communities while tropical storms have a much different effect on coastal dwellers. Given the localized nature of climate change impacts, the linkages to conflict risks are highly context-dependent, and often stretch across national borders, such as the farmer-herder-dynamics in the Sahel.

As a major international donor, Germany’s official development assistance (ODA) tends to be disbursed at the national level, based on priorities agreed upon with the recipient country. This can lead to distortions and maladaptation, concentrating resources in areas that may not necessarily be the most acutely affected by climate-security risks. Moreover, single-country disbursements do not reflect the fundamentally transnational effects of climate change. Here, the UN’s increasing practice of regional approaches and cross-border programming offers a good way forward which could be adopted more directly by Germany, including through the UN’s Peacebuilding Fund, but also via ODA.

4. Focus on Inclusive Adaptation and Natural Resource Governance.

Our research indicates that climate change is not experienced equally across communities. Already marginalized populations in rural areas are often hit hardest, and women are often more affected than men in instances of loss of livelihoods. There is a growing recognition that climate change is impacting the current and future prospects of youth, especially in fragile, conflict-affected areas. Greater levels of horizontal and vertical inequality are key drivers of conflict risks worldwide, and levels of inequality are worsening in many key areas.

Germany could adopt an approach to climate-security with the concept of “inclusive adaptation” at its core. Here, foreign assistance should be conditioned on clear indicators that climate responses will not protract or exacerbate inequalities – including with respect to gender. Funding should focus on local level resilience to socio-economic shocks, and on building livelihoods that can weather significant climate change over time.

5. Continue to Lead.

Germany’s tenure on the UN Security Council was marked by its extraordinary efforts to promote climate change onto the Council’s agenda. Within the UN system, there was some concern that too much focus on climate-security could backfire, potentially distracting from the broader efforts to address climate change itself, or leading to more divisions within the Council. However, Germany’s approach demonstrated that climate-security remains an issue of relative consensus on the Council: for example, despite many differences of view, the Council has continued to request briefings on the ways in which climate change may be affecting recruitment into the terrorist group Boko Haram. The risks of pressing the issue appear to have been overestimated, and this should give Germany confidence in continuing to push for strong leadership. One concrete step it could take would be to work with incoming Security Council members (Norway and Ireland in particular) to build on past efforts, identify a standard-bearer within the Council, and work towards even more consensus on climate-security.

Moving Towards Relevant Early Action

Following these recommendations can help Germany ensure that its climate-security responses are aligned with the complex nature of climate-conflict links, which are highly context-dependent, cut across government departments and national borders, and play into underlying political and socioeconomic dynamics in affected regions. Ramping up foresight capacities and translating early warning into adaptive local and cross-border responses is key to mitigating the effects that climate change has on conflict risks in vast parts of the world. Germany has a leading role in promoting action on climate-security – a role that becomes ever more important as climate change continues to wreak havoc on fragile settings.

Early Action Krisenprävention Climate

Jessica Caus

Jessica Caus is a Research Associate at United Nations University Centre for Policy Research.

Adam Day

Adam Day is Director of Programmes at United Nations University Centre for Policy Research.