“Climate security is particularly conducive to risk forecasting”

The links between climate change and conflicts are complex. The International Crisis Group combines on-the-ground research with big data analysis to identify early warning signs for violence triggered by climate stressors. Dr Comfort Ero, the Crisis Group’s President and CEO, explains how this approach could be a gamechanger in policy making – and save lives.

Henry Alt-Haaker
D. Sala, Crisis Group / J. David de Lossy
January 23, 2023

Where do you see connections and interactions between climate change and conflict in our world today?

Comfort Ero: There's a growing consensus that climate change is best thought of as a risk multiplier, meaning that climate change can exacerbate threats to peace and security. But that idea is of limited utility to policymakers. Telling them that, for instance, people fight more when it's hot doesn't give them any insights into how to stop the fighting, except maybe by reducing emissions. Since Crisis Group’s mandate is to provide practical conflict prevention advice, we are looking to uncover places where there are direct and identifiable pathways linking climate change to conflict, even when there are many other factors motivating the violence.

“The awareness that peacebuilding should be climate-sensitive and climate work should be conflict-sensitive has started to spread, but not yet enough.”

Quote fromDr Comfort Ero, President & CEO of Crisis Group

Can you give a concrete example of a pathway between climate stressors and conflict?

Basically, there are three kinds of situations where the linkages are important: resource competition, the security consequences of displacement, and transboundary disputes, especially over water. Our recent interactive briefing on South Sudan touched on the first two of these. The piece shows how climate displacement from the unprecedented flooding in the country has pushed ethnic Dinka herders south into Equatoria, where they are clashing with farmers over resources. The tensions risk inflaming the country’s smoldering civil war, since generations of Equatorians have chafed at the arrival of migrating herders, backed by the state, who have appropriated local resources.

Has the focus on these interlinkages only emerged recently in the peacebuilding community?

Government officials are more aware of the problem than they used to be, but they don't have a sense of how much is possible in terms of early warning, such as improved climate forecasting and what that improvement means for ways to potentially deal with the problem of climate-related violence. The better climate forecasting gets, the more effectively governments and agencies can intervene.  That doesn't mean that they will, because as we know, a lack of knowledge isn't the only reason why governments don't do the right thing. But if we know – as in the case of South Sudan – that a flood is likely to strike an area during an upcoming rainy season, and that based on historical migration patterns, resulting displacement is likely to bring hostile groups into contact, that opens a significant window to do something about the problem.

Zwei Frauen genießen den Sonnenuntergang am Sirwan-Fluss im Irak.
Two women enjoy the sunset on the Sirwan river in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. There, dams built in Iran threaten to cut of the locals from their water supply. All images in this article are part of the photo project "A water story" by Daniela Sala.

Another area affected by the combined threat of climate fragility and conflict potential is the MENA region, where Robert Bosch Stiftung is active. How does climate change trigger and accelerate conflicts there?

Although climate change is a global issue, climate security risks always materialize in a specific context and through local mechanisms. So when you pose questions about conflict triggers and acceleration, you shouldn't neglect governance. Good governance can do much to rupture the link between climate and conflict, just as bad governance can tighten that knot. Our Iraq team often emphasizes this point. Take Basra in southern Iraq, for example. Poor water quality and lack of water have been at the center of protests there for years, protests that have had national repercussions. Elsewhere in Iraq, harsh conditions in certain areas have contributed to ISIS recruitment, even though one would never say that climate change was responsible for the group's creation.

Given that climate change fuels conflicts worldwide, do we need to find new approaches to peacebuilding?

The awareness that peacebuilding should be climate-sensitive and climate work should be conflict-sensitive has started to spread, but not yet enough. The UN has made some important strides in this regard, appointing climate advisers to its missions in Somalia, the Horn, and soon in Iraq. Even if the pathways linking climate change to conflict in a specific location aren't well understood, climate-related questions will arise in every peacebuilding attempt in a place that suffers from climate change. Omitting relevant expertise will handicap the mission – in the case of climate no less than economics or any other specialty.

You said earlier that it is not enough to simply point to the exacerbating factor of climate change to conflict. Will climate data be able to provide some sort of political crisis prediction in the future?

It’s important to note that conflict forecasting in general has significant limitations. It’s better to think in terms of early warning than prediction, and you have to start with a certain sense of what you’re looking for, or at least where to look, because you’ll always need to complement data analysis with on-the-ground research. That said, climate security is particularly conducive to risk forecasting, because when it comes to empirical data, climate forecasts are significantly more reliable than other predictive models.

Crisis Group blends field insights with climate science and spatial data to identify risks and opportunities for early action. We are building a three-stage system:  First, use quantitative and field analysis to assess climate security risks in a given country, such as where water scarcity overlaps with a history of conflict. Second, monitor relevant data sources and climate forecasts to anticipate when climatic distress in combination with a particular political constellation might trigger a crisis. And third, communicate the risk to and formulate interventions with relevant stakeholders – governments, multilateral bodies, and so on.

According to your mission statement, Crisis Group is working “to bring climate security into the climate change conversation”. How do you do that? 

Of the countries most affected by climate change, something like half are also affected by conflict; and of climate IDPs – internally displaced people – something like 88 percent of them are in conflict-affected countries. As a conflict prevention organization, to us the linkages are very clear and policymakers need to address them as such. Early on in our work, we had an opportunity to present to the Security Council on climate and security risks. More recently, we participated in a hearing before the U.S. House Committee on Foreign Affairs, spoke at a ministerial-level panel on climate security during the UN General Assembly, and conducted high-level advocacy in the lead-up to COP27, including with the host country, Egypt. Influencing policymakers takes time, but we are seeing progress.

A dried river.
Kawa Salar unter Palmen.
As Iran cuts off the region's two main rivers, Kurdish people fear a severe water crises. Farmer Kawa Salar (right) used to grow rice and own several fish farms. But due to water scarcity he is now trying to switch to date palm farming.

What would be an example for this progress?

For example, in line with our advice, Egypt launched the Climate Responses for Sustaining Peace initiative with the support of the Cairo International Center for Conflict Resolution, Peacekeeping and Peacebuilding, and in collaboration with the United Nations Development Program and the African Union. The initiative is the first of its kind to address the relationship between climate change and peace. Another climate leader, Germany, inaugurated a new climate and conflict consortium on the basis of our Nigeria work. With that said, more needs to be done to ensure that policy responses factor in the needs of countries facing the kaleidoscope of conflict and climate risks, including climate financing, which tends to overlook countries in the throes of conflict.

You worked in many different conflict-affected countries, from the Pacific Islands to Bosnia. How did it influence your perspective on the world and on life?

Helping to stop people from dying and suffering due to war – Crisis Group’s mission – is one that is personal to me. I spent my formative years in post-civil war Nigeria, and later on, I worked with conflict-affected communities.  That ingrained a fundamental belief that through sharp analysis, practical recommendations, and targeted advocacy we can help conflict actors bridge their differences, and in doing so, save lives. 

In some ways, this belief is even more important now. We are living in a period of seismic geopolitical upheaval and tensions. Our multilateral system is struggling to respond to the challenges of the day. Millions continue to suffer, and thousands are displaced in places like Syria and Yemen. All of this can make it seem as if our work to end deadly conflict is futile. But it is precisely why Crisis Group stays the course long after others have left and continues to press for greater action. From the incremental policy changes that ease the suffering of ordinary citizens to peace accords that bring an end to decades-long fighting, every day I am given new reasons to reaffirm my conviction that we can save lives in a world torn apart by war and conflict.

Dr Comfort Ero

is President and CEO of International Crisis Group, the world's leading conflict resolution organization. Dr. Comfort Ero spent her entire career working in and with conflict-affected countries – for instance as Political Affairs Officer to the UN Mission in Liberia and as Deputy Africa Program Director for the International Centre for Transitional Justice (2008-2010). She joined the Crisis Group in 2001 as West Africa Project Director, and was appointed CEO in December 2021. She has a PhD from the London School of Economics and sits on the editorial board of various journals, including International Peacekeeping. Robert Bosch Stiftung is supporting International Crisis Group and it's mission. 

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