Do efforts to mitigate the climate crisis harm national and international security? What the experts say

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    Alice Taylor
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Commitments coming out of COP26 last week from global leaders mark a step change towards reducing emissions and mitigating the impacts of climate change. But what are the potential implications to security of these mitigation projects? How will they affect communities on the ground, and how do we make sure projects don’t end up doing more harm than good to the people and environment they wish to protect? There’s thankfully increasingly awareness on the links between climate change and security. However, much of the climate security debate has so far focused on the ways climate change worsens security between and within states, with less attention given to the potential security risks from the projects attempting to address and mitigate climate change themselves. Much of the global mitigation efforts are focussed on forests. However, these areas are often highly complex politically and culturally, existing in fragile states with poor governance, histories of colonization and ongoing resource extraction that can lead to disputes over who has authority to make decisions, how different actors are compensated, and whose priorities and claims dictate actions in forest areas. Being mindful of the potential risks of conflict stemming from mitigation interventions is therefore crucial – but how best can we do this?

We sat down with leading experts in climate science and peacebuilding during our climate security panel discussion to the discuss methods of mitigating the climate crisis, and if these can in some circumstances do more harm than good. Our panel spanned research, programming, and policy:

  • Sharon Burke, Director, Ecospherics
  • Davyth Stewart, Environmental crime and law enforcement expert
  • Janpeter Schilling, Scientific Director of Peace Academy Rhineland-Palatinate/University of Koblenz-Landau
  • Augusto Castro-Nunez, Theme leader low emission food systems and peacebuilding, Alliance of Bioversity International and CIAT

In a hurry? Check out our quick two-minute summary video of the webinar discussion here:

Although there is a great risk of mitigation projects harming the security of communities (especially if they are planned and put into place poorly), there is also great opportunity to use these initiatives to actually help build peace and security. Projects that actively improve land tenure security – especially for marginalized and indigenous peoples, can improve prospects of peace from the ground up. Enhancing livelihood opportunities, distributing benefits equitably, and supporting fair governance and conflict resolution processes within mitigation projects can play a constructive force in stabilising security and building peace.

For a more in-depth analysis, check out our policy brief on the topic here.

Our discussion brought forward three clear priorities. Together, they lay out a framework for policymakers, which we’ve summarised here.

1. Put local communities at the heart of climate change mitigation projects – and make sure projects are inclusive and transparent

Projects aiming to mitigate the climate crisis and its effects may do more harm than good, if they are not designed around the local communities they impact most. This was something highlighted by all speakers. Janpeter Schilling, Scientific Director of the Peace Academy Rhineland-Palaninate and professor at University of Koblenz-Landau, said communities should be front and centre of mitigation projects. Agencies designing projects should in the first instance analyse the potential for conflict breaking out, by talking to communities to determine what they need and their values.

Speakers noted how projects that fail to prioritize local communities can harm security and lead to conflict. Those that put protecting nature above the needs or rights of local communities, excluding people from accessing land they rely on, can lead to conflicts. Projects should consider long-term commitments to the well-being and livelihoods of local communities and acknowledge how climate change mitigation policies can significantly affect economic growth and unequal distribution of benefits as well as burdens, and work to actively reduce the potential negative impacts from mitigation efforts.

Sharon Burke, Director of Ecospherics highlighted that some will lose out because of the transition to low carbon energy sources and warned that climate change mitigation should not itself become a threat to peace and security. Indeed, designing mitigation projects that actually build peace and security, rather than eroding it, may require a complete re-think on how practitioners understand climate change mitigation and conservation. Many initiatives think in terms of commodifying nature, which can often clash with local understandings and customary governance practices, driving conflict, which of course harms local communities and paradoxically the environments they live in.

Projects must also be inclusive and transparent. Mitigation efforts can work to worsen social and gender inequalities by excluding women and indigenous groups, increasing the risk of conflict. In some cases, community elites can capture benefits from forests leading to tensions among community members. The rights and key roles of indigenous peoples should be protected in climate change initiatives and women should be recognised as change makers and empowered within projects. Doing so not only improves the lives of marginalised groups, but also helps foster peace and security within communities as a whole.

2. Adopt a holistic approach, and integrate climate change mitigation into land tenure security

Designing effective mitigation projects that positively build peace requires breaking out of academic and institutional silos and thinking holistically about climate change and security. Two things are needed to do this; research and partnerships. More research into the ways climate, security and conflict are linked together, with land tenure, resource scarcity and food security will inform future projects. Partnerships based on this research base can then form between policymakers, development agencies, academics across disciplines, local actors and communities. Augusto Castro-Nunez, Theme leader low emission food systems and peacebuilding, Alliance of Bioversity International and CIAT, said understanding the drivers of climate change and conflict will help maximise the co-benefits of mitigation projects for peace and security, and help prevent unintended consequences. Climate scientists need to better understand the implications of their work and the climate more broadly on peace and security, and conversely, those working within the peacebuilding space must also understand the role climate plays in peace, security and conflict.

A concrete example of this holistic approach would be to integrate climate change mitigation into land tenure security. Recognising local land claims within mitigation effors can address peacebuilding. Within forest contexts, groups in Indonesia have used climate change mitigation (especially REDD+) to bring international attention to land rights. However, addressing land tenure in (post-)conflict contexts is particularly challenging as government institutions and civil society often lack capacity. Indeed, there are examples of conflict associated with the clarification of land tenure. That’s why more research which takes holistic approach is needed. Understanding the potential impacts of mitigation is crucial if projects hope to build peace and security.

3. Strengthen existing legitimate, and accountable institutions to better address security

Forests are notoriously challenging to govern, especially in the tropics where forestlands can be vast and law enforcement remains weak and, in many cases, corrupt. Lying at the edge of agricultural frontier expansion, they have long histories of colonial intervention aiming to control forest resources. State apparatus tends to be weak in forest areas, leading to disputes over land rights and high-value natural resources that can finance or exacerbate conflict, leaving forests vulnerable to illicit resource extraction. And while the public is becoming aware of deforestation, mitigation projects in forests can become sources of conflict, especially in states that lack the capacity to tackle corruption.

Davyth Stewart, former Interpol co-ordinator and environmental law and enforcement expert noted the need to strengthen law enforcement within climate change mitigation projects. Investing into law enforcement measures in order to protect those living in and around forests, he highlighted, is paramount and should be adopted as part of climate change mitigation projects. Forests can contribute to peace, supporting economic and social development. However, on the ground law enforcement with adequate resource and training is needed to support local communities and tackle environmental crime in these vulnerable areas.

CGIAR FOCUS group on Climate Security explores how climate change impacts food systems and how this is related to conflict. We believe strong land, food, and water systems help build sustainable and climate resilient peace. We deploy inter-disciplinary research methods and build strong partnerships with leading thought leaders who want to leverage climate adaptation activities for the purposes of peace and security.  

By conducting systemic analysis on the complex links between climate, migration and displacement, and peace and security, we hope to untangle and map out how each is related and linked. Doing so, we believe, is key to generate a localised evidence base and better inform context-appropriate interventions to prevent conflict. 

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