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The Adaptation Imperative: Understanding Climate and Conflict
Dr. James E. McGinley, 4/22/2011

A review of Dan Smith’s and Janani Vivekananda’s Climate Change, Conflict and Fragility: Understanding the linkages, shaping effective responses.

Dan Smith and Janani Vivekananda examine climate change, risk, and adaptation with an advocate’s passion for change. Their report reveals the consequences of continued inaction but holds out hope for opportunities to enable affected countries to adapt to the consequences of climate driven change. These opportunities can provide for positive spillover between climate adaptation, development initiatives, and conflict management. But, they require an unvarnished assessment of policy options in a complex and dynamic environment.

Climate Change, Conflict and Fragility: Understanding the linkages, shaping effective responses by Dan Smith and Janani Vivekananda. International Alert: London. November, 2009. Available at http://www.international-alert.org

In Nigeria shrinking pasture lands routinely spawn violent conflict between herders fleeing desertification and settled farmers. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo a tribal dispute over fishing rights ignites a conflict that forces thousands of refugees across the border to the Central African Republic, straining local resources and jeopardizing food security. In southern Sudan persistent conflict, low rainfall, and shifting weather patterns diminish crop production and contribute to food shortages. What do these tragic events have in common? They share a common lineage that is traceable to global climate change.

Perhaps more than ever the global collective, nation states, and local communities recognize the repercussions of climate change. Of concern are both the disruptive potential of adverse impacts and the ability of unpreparedness to contribute to severity. Yet, responses to these concerns are hindered by any number of geographic, political, economic, social, and technical factors. How best to address such a complex problem is examined in the recent report Climate Change, Conflict and Fragility: Understanding the linkages, shaping effective responses. To be sure, there are no easy solutions. But the imperative to act remains, at stake is the potential to alleviate adverse effects, as well as capitalize on new opportunities to increase resilience to climate change by building adaptive capacity.

Published by International Alert, an independent peacebuilding organization, Climate Change, Conflict and Fragility was compiled by Dan Smith and Janani Vivekananda under a research grant funded by the European Union. Their November 2009 report follows a similar release issued in 2007. While descriptive, each report also maintains a focus on action that is based on a broad understanding of climate-conflict linkages. In the end, Smith and Vivekananda provide eight policy recommendations centered on the need for adaptation to climate change to be conflict sensitive, strengthened social capacity and organizational re-structuring, and the integration of both development and climate adaptation initiatives. Surrounding their policy recommendations is a complex environment in which issues of climate, conflict, social resources, and development interactively shape, and are shaped by, one another.

The corrosive power of conflict can weaken nation states and increase levels of vulnerability. For a variety of reasons weak and failing states lack the capacity and resiliency necessary to achieve stable and durable systems. These states have two essential criteria. First, they fail to deliver essential social, political, and economic goods to their citizens. Secondly, many have lost their monopoly on violence. Overall, worldwide instability demonstrates a general geographic pattern. The global arc of instability includes key areas of risk across Sub-Saharan Africa, the region with the world’s highest concentration of weak and failed states, as well as the Middle East and Asia where approximately one-third and one-half of countries are involved in ongoing conflict respectively.

Not surprisingly, the geographic dispersion of world instability can align with predictive patterns for disruptive climate change. As an example, the top five countries at risk for drought mortality are presented in the accompanying table along with several dimensions of vulnerability. Drought mortality risk is compared with selected indicators from the popular Failed States Index (overall status and Human rights) and the World Bank’s World Governance Indicators (WGI) (Political stability & Absence of violence and Government effectiveness). 

 Table 1: Drought mortality risk and state capacity (see Note).

This snapshot provides external validation to Smith and Vivekananda’s hypothesis that climate risk can co-exist with factors that may limit response capacities. In this case 3 of the top 10 failed states (Somalia, Chad, and the Central African Republic) are also at the highest level of risk for drought mortality. It can be a destructive combination and a difficult trajectory from which to escape. By their nature weak and failed states lack the capacity to respond effectively to internal and external challenges. Their ability to cope, respond, and adapt is simply overwhelmed and exhausted by the mismatch between available resources and the problems they face. The resulting vulnerability makes these states increasingly susceptible to the economic, social, and political impacts of climate change. This dynamic interplay is at the heart of Smith and Vivekananda’s report.

Regrettably, these indexes reveal that the states at most risk for drought mortality also lack essential resources in terms of peace and political stability, good governance, and patterns of fair treatment. Smith and Vivekananda propose that these dimensions may inhibit effective adaptation to climate change by limiting options and by eroding the social contract between the state and those they govern. This social contract is emphasized in their report because they see an essential need for adaptive strategies to be based on elements of mutual participation, fair voice, and shared interests. It is argued that biases in favor of political or economic elites undermine adaptation since the impact of climate change is most felt within the disadvantaged and resource limited elements of society. Unfortunately, these impacts are felt in the least empowered elements of society. Solutions must recognize that climate change impacts, the power to direct change, and adaptive capacity are spread unevenly across societies. Only open participation can provide the essential bridge between the citizen and the state. A state that ignores its ordinary citizen cannot develop to its full potential, a potential that is required to address climate change and implement both organizational and grassroot solutions.

Issues such as the distribution of power in favor of elites can thwart adaptive and developmental initiatives. This leads Smith and Vivekananda to make a clarion call for change. It is based on a view that, unfortunately, the state can be a part of the problem. Corruption, lack of adequate structures, politicized decision making processes, and a lack of public dialogue can create conditions of bad governance that are unable to respond to the primary and secondary impacts of climate change. These conditions may lesson a state’s capacity to address climate change in an integrated fashion. Yet, an integrated response to climate change may be a prerequisite to success.

The opportunity to craft an integrated response is underscored by the goals that exist in common between development and adaptation. Development programs have historically focused on lesser developed nations in an attempt to strengthen societies and increase quality of life. Since climate adaptation strategies are generally aimed at ameliorating the effects of climate change by establishing supporting infrastructures and new patterns of behavior and resource usage they can also enhance economies and personal lives. Further, indices such as the Climate Risk Index reveal that less developed countries suffer more from climate change, so a shared concern for developing nations is not surprising.

However, the need for integrated response planning must extend into the future. It is here that Smith and Vivekananda’s report perhaps makes a small misstep. Early in the report they state “It is impossible and unhelpful to offer generic scenarios of how climate change will interact with other variables to increase conflict risk, since impacts will always depend on context” (p. 8). However, while unique local conditions may undermine the predictive power of generic climate models, there may be a role for modeling in the formulation of adaptive strategies. In a sense, it may be more important for a model be useful than for it to be strictly accurate. The usefulness of models may lie in their ability to generate planning strategies based on anticipatory adaptation. Planning can anticipate and prepare for adaptation before the effects of climate change establish new, limiting conditions.

Future planning may also be of importance in addressing root causes of climate change itself. While nations may respond to new local conditions by shifting pastoral or agricultural practices or establishing greater response capacities to handle episodic impacts such as floods, addressing issues such as global warming in a fundamental way requires international cooperation, consensus, and an ability to understand the need for investment now in order to yield results in the future. In addition, a focus on the future can also shape education and awareness programs and help re-write national narratives of cross-cultural cooperation and resource allocation in order to bring voice and equity to resource disputes before they erupt into climate driven conflict.

Yet, adaptation planning, both current and future, faces a level of analysis problem that can make it difficult to scope policy options and to enable the appropriate decisionmakers. Adaptation can be described in broad terms such as global warming, resource scarcity, shifting migration patterns, economic weakening, and intercommunal conflict. At a slightly lower level it could be described in terms of immediate and local consequences such as crop decline, competition for land and resource rights, unemployment, and victimization. Alternatively, it could be described yet again in terms of actors such as resource providers, host governments, self-interested parties, or the needy.

It may be a truism that adaptation measures are not likely to be undertaken in response to climate change alone. But rather, they must consider a broader constellation of interconnected issues, impacts, and actors. In this sense, Smith and Vivekananda’s emphasis on public dialogue, participation, and cooperative engagement may create a beneficial spillover effect. Shared decisionmaking, at local, national, and international levels, may strengthen adaptive capacity in a general fashion, creating fortified conditions of governance which allow a wider range of adaptation, development, and conflict issues to be effectively addressed. The hoped for result is the development of interconnected solutions for these complex and interconnected challenges.

Overall, Smith and Vivekananda’s Climate Change, Conflict and Fragility: Understanding the linkages, shaping effective responses achieves its purpose. It is thoughtful, concise, and its ideas are well backstopped by the current literature on climate adaptation. Its interactionist approach and action oriented recommendations will resonate with researchers and advocates alike.

Note: Ratings for Drought – mortality risk are from Disaster Risk in the Context of Climate Change: A National-Level Assessment (Draft) and are available at http://www.undp.org/climatechange/adapt. The Failed States Index is developed and published by the Fund for Peace and Foreign Policy magazine. It is available at http://www.fundforpeace.org. The World Bank indicators are from Governance Matters VIII: Aggregate and Individual Governance Indicators 1996-2008 and are available at http://info.worldbank.org/governance/wgi/.

About the Author

James E. McGinley is an adjunct faculty member at Northcentral University and a research analyst at the Marine Corps Intelligence Activity. He completed his Ph.D. in Industrial/Organizational Psychology at Northcentral University in 2007. His research interests include global security and cross-cultural conflicts and convergences.

 

 


 
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