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Climate and conflict: Why do we need to better understand how combined climate risk and conflict situations exacerbate people’s vulnerability? - A research agenda

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Climate disruption affects – and will increasingly affect – populations across the globe. Increasing climate risks (trends and shocks) threaten lives, exacerbate existing vulnerabilities and inequalities, and accentuate societal fragility. Environmental degradation further worsens these impacts. Climate risks are even more acute in situations of armed conflict and violence as several conflict-affected countries are located in regions that are severely impacted, but also because people, systems and institutions tend to be less resilient to shocks in such settings. This is especially true in situations of protracted conflicts – which have become the norm. Long-lasting conflicts progressively weaken the resilience of all societal components, calling for urgent action to further understand and reduce the impacts of climate risks in conflict areas.

A large majority of countries considered most vulnerable to the impact of climate change by the ND-Gain Index are in Africa and include several conflict-affected countries, such as Somalia, Ethiopia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Niger, Chad or Mali. Within those countries, vulnerable people are and will continue to be disproportionately affected by food insecurity, higher food prices, income losses, loss of livelihood opportunities, health impacts and displacement. People will keep trying to cope and adapt to a degraded environment, growing risks of floods, droughts, extreme heat and poverty through searching for new livelihood strategies, changing their lifestyle or moving away from their homes.

Climate, security and vulnerability

In recent years, there has been growing concern about climate change as a security risk with warnings that a changing climate could provoke a succession of wars. For now, scientists generally agree that climate change does not directly cause armed conflict, but can indirectly increase the risk of conflict by exacerbating factors that can, in a complex interplay, ultimately lead to conflict. Such factors include tensions over the management of resources, social exclusion, a history of conflict and grievances, economic and environmental risks and degradation.

Climate change is also described as a vector or multiplier of vulnerability. People, communities and States affected by armed conflict are particularly vulnerable to climate disruption because conflict limits their capacity to cope with shocks and changes. This is in part because conflicts harm assets required to manage shocks and facilitate adaptation to climate change, such as infrastructure, markets, institutions, social capital, and livelihoods. In certain cases, it also undermines the capacity for collective action, which can be critical to adaptation (e.g. to manage resources in agreed ways).

This calls for a refined understanding of the humanitarian impacts of climate change -- the combination of climate shocks and stresses within the extreme of conflict affected communities, as well as the challenges conflict poses to the approaches to help these communities adapt to a changing climate -- in contexts where States often struggle to build the resilience of communities and institutions. The following table highlights several research questions that we all consider of high priority, as furthering our understanding of climate impacts and how to factor in immediate and longer-term climate risk into humanitarian responses to ensure that they have a sustainable impact is urgent.