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Climate change risks can be turned into an asset for communities left to cope on their own

A man navigates a dry riverbed in Bamako, Mali. Climate change is contributing to community upheavals. REUTERS/Joe Penney

Climate change has been blamed for many things, and it’s changing the world around us every day. Now a new, perhaps surprising, consequence of the planet’s changing climate is emerging: it’s opening the door to jihadist recruitment, particularly in fragile states.

Dr Colin Walch, a peace researcher from Uppsala University, recently argued that “fertile ground” for jihadist recruitment was created when some communities in Mali were forced to deal with local challenges (including changing weather patterns) without government support.

Walch explains that local systems for addressing grievances over land, water and other resources have disappeared. This, he argues, has opened the door for Islamist armed groups to exploit local grievances for their own cause. In recent years climate change has amplified these grievances.

Similar studies about Lake Chad find comparable links. Katharina Nett and Lukas Rüttinger from the German think tank adelphi have asserted that

large-scale environmental and climatic change contributes to creating an environment in which [non-state armed groups] can thrive and opens spaces that facilitate the pursuit of their strategies.

These findings point to the complex security risks that result from climate change. They also confirm that climate change doesn’t act as a cause of violence, but as a meaningful threat multiplier. Generally conflicts are not caused by climate change. But climate change exacerbates the human cost of conflicts.

But, as I recently argued, we also need to move beyond a singular focus on risk. Researchers and practitioners have to put opportunity and peace back at the centre of research and practice. We have to stop just focusing on threats. We must strengthen our efforts to identify the potential of initiatives on climate change to overcome political fragility and improve people’s lives.

This requires both a better understanding of what works on the ground and clear global leadership.

What works?

So what builds peace? This was a core question at the recent Stockholm Forum on Peace and Development during discussions on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and how they relate to peace and conflict. The answer from panellists was unanimous: include local communities in development processes.

There is substantial evidence in support of having significant local involvement in climate, development, and peacebuilding projects.

The corollary is that the breakdown of local institutions contributes to a lack of development – and worse.

As Walch persuasively shows for Mali, the breaking down of local institutional structures has provided opportunities for jihadist recruitment. Walch finds that both actions of the state and more recently the inflow of Islamist insurgence have led to the breakdown. With the breakdown of these traditional conflict resolution systems came an increase in communal violence. This is often connected to an increasing variability of natural resources because of climate change.

In Mali, and many other cases, there is a need to address the effects of climate change and increasing political fragility.

And both seem possible, as shown in my research in Nepal as well as in India, Tanzania, and Mexico by Dr Prakash Kashwan, Assistant Professor at the University of Connecticut (USA).

Our research shows that good climate change mitigation policies can also help build such institutions, or at least help in the emergence of new local governance structures.

Positive examples

In Nepal I tested if the provision of environmental services helps in facilitating the peace process after civil war. This research looked specifically at small hydropower projects designed to bring electricity to rural villages and mitigate climate change.

The findings showed substantial successes in, for example, the empowerment of women, better access to education, and increased economic opportunities. But it also showed that community cohesion increased while local governance structures were strengthened.

The results indicate that climate policies can play an important role in facilitating the growth of local institutions and addressing peoples’ vulnerability and fragility – even if, as in this case, it was somewhat unintentional. They also led to other political issues being raised.

Kashwan also shows in his recent book, Democracy in the Woods, that programmes aimed at reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation (REDD+) in India, Tanzania, and Mexico depend on local communities’ inclusion to be successful.

He argues that

when local people do not benefit, forest conservation efforts tend to be unsustainable.

He points to the important role of what he terms “mechanisms of intermediation”. These help citizen groups, civil society organisations, and social movements engage in political and policy processes.

Kashwan’s work points to the importance of competitive politics in driving policies that conserve forests without violating the rights of people who depend on them for a livelihood.

This may seem somewhat intuitive, but it has important implications for local governance structures. Kashwan argues that state and non-state agencies, including international agencies, can foster and reinforce the responsiveness of government to the people. This can be done by strengthening the skills of community groups and civil society organisations at the local level.

As their capacity for organisation and advocacy improve, these entities are able to represent their concerns better. This includes during negotiations over natural resource rights, as in the case of inter-ethnic grievances in Mali.

We need clear leadership at the highest level

Kashwan’s research, and my own, shows that reducing emissions through small hydropower development or reforestation can do more than just mitigate the effects of climate change. It can have wider effects that deliver positive returns in all sorts of ways. This includes reducing the opportunity for terrorist groups to recruit vulnerable and marginalised people.

As Malin Mobjörk and Dan Smith from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute argue this requires clear leadership and explicit institutional change strategies at the highest levels.

This could, for example, entail providing an institutional home for climate security issues at the United Nations.

At all levels, it’s imperative that we emphasise the positive potential of sustainable policies and move beyond risk assessments. This is particularly true in fragile states where there will always be risks, but great opportunity too.

The recently published Environment Strategy of the United Nations Department of Field Support points in the right direction. It encourages UN peacekeeping operations

to seek a positive long-term legacy through the development of specific environment-related projects that may benefit societies and ecosystems over the long term.

This is an edited version of a blog first published by the Wilson Center.

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