Peacebuilding efforts need to adapt to a climate-changed world

A Somali refugee girl carries her sibling as they walk in their new arrivals area of the Hagadera refugee camp in Dadaab, near the Kenya-Somalia border, in Garissa County, Kenya, January 17, 2023. REUTERS/Thomas Mukoya

A Somali refugee girl carries her sibling as they walk in their new arrivals area of the Hagadera refugee camp in Dadaab, near the Kenya-Somalia border, in Garissa County, Kenya, January 17, 2023. REUTERS/Thomas Mukoya

As the planet heats and security risks grow, it’s time for a rethink of strategies

Adam Day heads the Geneva office of the United Nations University Centre for Policy Research, working on peacebuilding, human rights, peacekeeping, climate-security, sanctions, and global governance.

The threats that climate change and extreme weather events pose to human security is well known to peacebuilders – and a source of increasing anxiety as we confront new and emerging climate scenarios requiring different approaches and tools.

This uncertainty has prompted the United Nations to look closely at how well its peacebuilding missions take climate change into account.

As part of a broader trend to identify new climate-sensitive conflict prevention approaches, a report by the United Nations University Centre for Policy Research (UNU-CPR) points to many specific ways the United Nations can adapt to the reality of climate-driven security risks.

A displaced woman wades through flood water with a water pot, following rains and floods during the monsoon season in Sehwan, Pakistan, September 16, 2022
Go DeeperAs world's poor face 'compounding crises', what could curb risks?
Demonstrators hold banners in a trade union (OeGB) organised protest against surging energy prices and increased living costs in Vienna, Austria, September 17, 2022. REUTERS/Lisa Leutner 
Go Deeper'Wave of crises' threaten climate action and social stability
Somali women assemble a makeshift shelter within the Iftin Camp for the internally displaced people outside Baradere town, Gedo Region, Jubaland state, Somalia, March 13, 2022
Go DeeperHow can drought-parched Somalia break out of endless crisis?

Its analysis suggests a systemic set of problems that affect everyone grappling with risks of environmental change: problems of scale (the issue is both bigger and more localized than we think), time (change happens both more quickly and more slowly than we anticipate), and logic (change doesn’t happen in the way we think it will).

If we are going to tackle the growing security threats that climate change poses then we need to get much more serious about these three problems.

A microscope and a telescope

Climate change is, by definition, a global phenomenon. Gradual increases in temperatures and shifting weather patterns are not constrained by national boundaries. Most commonly, scientists describe the impact of climate change regionally.

But, as our research demonstrates, climate change also has highly localized effects.

In contrast, the United Nations relies mainly on national-level information. The organization will respond to floods in Pakistan, or droughts in Somalia, usually in partnership with the host government.

Indeed, the UN’s heavy reliance on national-level data means we tend to have two blind spots: we struggle to understand both the highly localized impacts of climate change, while also failing to grip broader regional trends.

Our research suggests that the UN is actively trying to solve this problem, prioritizing both cross-border projects to address regional spillover effects, while also investing a significant portion of its resources in local-level conflict resolution.

And the development of regional strategies in some of the most climate-affected parts of the world indicates that the UN is also shifting its focus to regions.

However, as long as we rely mainly on national sources of information for this work, we will continue to have a myopic understanding of how climate change is playing out.

National governments will aggregate local information in a way that distorts local effects, and regional trends cannot be captured just by adding up all national-level reports.

What we need is both a microscope and a telescope, the ability to zoom in on local effects, zoom out to regional trends, and compare across those different levels.

More than a slow burn

Another key finding is that the impacts of many of the UN’s interventions will not be felt within the usual two-year timespan of most projects. Similarly, most scientific analysis of climate change is done in terms of decades, not months.

Together, these longer timeframes suggest that climate-security work should not be based on typical donor-driven cycles of annual reporting. Instead, it should be more iterative, tracking change over longer periods of time, adjusting approaches to new findings, and being willing to discard approaches that no longer work.

To complicate matters, our research may also point to something more complex than just a longer timeframe; it suggests a high degree of uncertainty over how change happens within a global ecosystem.

Like the alarming and unexpected levels of oceanic warming recently discovered, we are constantly finding that environmental changes produce unanticipated changes with long and indirect causal chains.

The sense that climate change happens slowly is in fact misleading: the impacts tend to creep up on us and manifest when it is already too late to act. The rise of ISIS in Mozambique, for example, appeared to happen quite suddenly, but it was caused in part by gradual climate-driven livelihood losses.

Adaptive peacebuilding

Acting as an indirect threat multiplier, climate change presents an extraordinarily difficult challenge. Even with the best scientific evidence, it is nearly impossible to predict how a given situation will evolve, as social, economic, political, and environmental systems overlap in complex and dynamic ways.

This requires peacebuilding interventions to constantly respond to new information and analysis. This aligns with a growing demand for adaptive peacebuilding more generally, and a much more rigorous approach to information collection and analysis.

Ultimately, we are facing great uncertainty, where change is difficult to anticipate and where policy tends to lag far behind.

But we cannot allow the complexity of our global ecosystem to prevent action. Our research suggests that developing adaptive, evolving peacebuilding approaches in situations of uncertainty is the only way to meet the growing climate-security threat.

Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Context or the Thomson Reuters Foundation.


  • Extreme weather
  • Adaptation
  • Climate policy
  • War and conflict

Get our climate newsletter. Free. Every week.

By providing your email, you agree to our Privacy Policy.

Latest on Context