The Relationship Between Climate Change and Conflict

December 2015, Timbuktu Region, Mali. An ICRC delegate speaks with local people in an area where harvests have failed because of drought and flooding, and two million people face food shortages. ICRC / Valery Mbaoh Nana

December 2015, Timbuktu Region, Mali. An ICRC delegate speaks with local people in an area where harvests have failed because of drought and flooding, and two million people face food shortages. ICRC / Valery Mbaoh Nana

In December 2015, 190 countries were among 50,000 participants that came together in Paris to review the 1992 UN Framework on Climate Change (UNFCCC). This convention set out a framework for action aimed at stabilizing atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases. In today's world, no discussion of climate change is complete without consideration for how the phenomenon affects people caught up in armed conflicts, many of whom are some of the poorest and most vulnerable people in the world. To raise awareness of this topic, 65 Red Cross Red Crescent Movement partners joined the discussions in Paris to talk about the relationship between climate change and conflict.

In armed conflicts, the ICRC and National Societies are increasingly aware of the significance of climate change. The effects of climate change are now an important contributory risk factor in many armed conflicts. These effects can increase people’s vulnerability and create additional dynamics in a conflict.

Greater respect for International humanitarian law (IHL) may help to reduce climate risk to vulnerable communities and the environment itself. IHL makes clear that the natural environment is protected and that civilians rely on natural resources essential for their survival. As part of its mandate, the Red Cross Red Crescent attendees at the conference stressed three areas around the the interaction of climate change and conflict as well as the Movement's own carbon footprint.

1. The Interaction of Armed Conflict and Climate Risk

Many millions of people experience the double vulnerability of conflict and climate change. This combination of climate change and armed conflict means that vulnerable civilian populations are having to survive armed conflict and climate change simultaneously. Pastoralists and the rural poor who are already living at the margins of environmental feasibility can be pushed beyond their limits by the additional impact of armed conflict, such as the deprivation of their lands for cultivation and grazing as well as by forced displacement, pillage and indiscriminate attacks. At the same time, vulnerable communities who are gradually recovering from armed conflict by replanting their fields or restocking their herds are often hit again by the effects of climate variability like drought or erratic and destructive rains. The impact of armed conflict can also set back people’s adaptation strategies by destroying infrastructure, capital, assets and livelihoods that are vital to positive forms of adaptation.

The double hit of conflict and climate change is significantly increasing the vulnerability of civilian populations experiencing the long-term threats of protracted conflict and increasing climate risk. This double hit makes it extremely challenging to build resilience in conflict affected communities. Building effective resilience in armed conflict requires much greater respect for IHL and sustained investment in the natural assets, agricultural inputs and expertise essential to ensure sustainable survival in climate changing regions.

Homs, Syria. A displaced girl stocks up on water from an ICRC water truck. CC NY-NC-ND/ICRC/SY-E-00308

Homs, Syria. A displaced girl stocks up on water from an ICRC water truck. CC NY-NC-ND/ICRC/SY-E-00308

The struggle for survival in several areas affected by climate change contributes to the dynamics of today’s armed conflicts in which water sources, grazing lands, forests, oil, minerals and other natural resources become strategic objectives. The appropriation and predation of natural resources can become a focus of conflict and an important part of what is deemed as winning. Many conflicts involve strategies of predatory resilience and violent adaptation in which climate vulnerable parties to an armed conflict forcefully appropriate natural resources that are sources of resilience for the civilian population. These localized contests over environmental security are frequently a strong feature of essentially political and ideological conflicts in regions vulnerable to climate change.

The environmental damage and pollution caused by the conduct of hostilities can contribute to increased CO2 emissions. High-tech weaponry can cause extensive damage to oil installations and large industrial facilities which forces large volumes of greenhouse gases and other air-born pollution into the atmosphere. In relatively low-tech conflicts, natural resources have been pillaged and large areas of forest have often been wantonly destroyed laying waste to ancient reservoirs of carbon storage and releasing CO2 into the atmosphere.

2. IHL and the Reduction of Climate Risk

Greater respect for IHL can serve to reduce climate risk. In IHL, the natural environment is civilian in nature and there are both general protections and specific rules that protect the natural environment in armed conflicts. The onus is always on belligerents not to attack the natural environment (unless it has been turned into a military objective) or to destroy it (unless required by imperative military necessity). If properly respected, IHL’s principles and rules about the conduct of hostilities may reduce climate risks.

Greater respect for IHL also protects people from the double vulnerability of conflict and climate risk. There are specific protections in IHL against the kind of pillage that often sees civilians’ robbed of key natural resources in armed conflicts involving a climate change dynamic. IHL also ensures that certain natural resources are protected as objects indispensable for the survival of the civilian population and these protections need to be respected. When respected, principles and rules of this kind can actively reduce people’s vulnerability to climate risks and preserve assets and infrastructure that facilitate their adaptation to these risks.

During the conference the Red Cross Red Crescent Movement brought 3 key messages to the table:

3. Humanitarian Response and Climate Risk

The ICRC’s approach to humanitarian action is focusing increasingly on supporting people’s resilience. In our assistance work we aim to provide sustainable improvements in people’s lives. We do not focus exclusively on the civilian population’s immediate survival but also on their means of survival – the livelihoods, natural resources, social networks, basic services and infrastructure that help people to endure the impact of armed conflict and adapt to climate risk.

Humanitarian response to armed conflicts has an emissions footprint of its own. International humanitarian response has significantly scaled up in the last ten years. Meeting the needs of conflict affected populations requires significant logistics by air, sea and land. It also requires a network of offices and the distribution of water, shelter material, medical supplies, food commodities and firewood that each have a distinct environmental footprint. The humanitarian sector is making efforts to reduce emissions and to green its supply chain and its humanitarian strategies and relief items and should continue to do so.

The ICRC is focusing hard on its own emissions and is reducing its carbon footprint on a year by year basis.  The ICRC’s green strategy is focused on four areas: CO2 emissions; energy; water, and waste. Our emissions reduction strategy is at the centre of our concern about our environmental footprint and we have made good progress. Twenty of our Delegations are now fully implementing a sustainability strategy. We are working continuously to reduce our energy reliance on fossil fuels and to move increasingly to renewable sources wherever we can. We have also mapped out emissions patterns carefully and are now well aware of particular operations which account for disproportionately high emissions because of the exceptional logistical challenges involved in reaching vulnerable populations.

In the years to come, the ICRC hopes to become a pioneer among humanitarian organizations working to reduce their own emissions.