FEATURE | 1 Nov 2021

Ways to mitigate the impact of climate change on conflict

Speech by Andrew Gilmour at the Human Rights and Science Symposium

A family in their house in Bangladesh next to a wind farm. A family in their house in Bangladesh next to a wind farm. Photo: © Salvacampillo / Shutterstock.com

At the 9th Human Rights and Science Symposium, our Executive Director Andrew Gilmour spoke on minimising the risk of climate change on conflict and human rights.


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There are two crucial topics in the title I’ve been given to talk about today: how to mitigate the harmful impact of climate change on conflict, and on human rights. With climate change being the all-encompassing threat it is, affecting almost every single aspect of life, one basically needs to rethink what one thought one knew on all topics, including human rights and conflict.

This year, I have completed a fellowship at the University of Oxford, where I worked on the connections between these three phenomena. But in a previous incarnation at the same university, over 3 decades earlier, I studied history. Not once did I hear the term “environmental history” – because it hadn’t yet been thought of as the thriving discipline it now is. And yet we now know climate change had an impact, particularly in the century Leopoldina was founded, in the desperately turbulent 17th, while being a factor in both the 30 Years War in Germany and the English Civil War. What my undergraduate books didn’t tell me was, as part of that non-man-made climate change, from 1637-1649, Scotland suffered the longest drought in its recorded history, combined with searingly cold winters. And the misery this caused was a factor in the invasion of England by an army of Scots in 1640. An early example of climate change influencing conflict.

With climate change being the all-encompassing threat it is, affecting almost every single aspect of life, one basically needs to rethink what one thought one knew on all topics, including human rights and conflict.

Climate Change and Conflict

Back now to the present. Although no conflict has ever been primarily caused by climate change, there is a growing and compelling body of evidence showing that climate change is a conflict risk multiplier, an exacerbator of tensions that can make conflict more likely to erupt and more complicated to resolve once it has. This will only increase as the planet gets hotter, weather more extreme, sea levels higher, droughts more frequent, flash floods, crop failure, disrupted livelihoods, and vast increases in migration.

In the last 30 years, I have worked in Iraq, Afghanistan, South Sudan, Gaza, Yemen, the Sahel, Horn of Africa. All of them disproportionately affected by climate change, and in all of them it’s possible to see increased tensions as a result of harsher climatic conditions. One can attribute part of the Arab Spring uprisings in 2011, as well as the emergence of Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, to the drought that had been afflicting the region since 2006 (in fact the worst crop failure and drought since agricultural civilisation began in the Fertile Crescent 11,000 years ago). Not the main cause of the conflict by any means. But a contributory factor.

Growing pressure on resources and livelihoods results in greater numbers being recruited into violent extremist groups, feeling they have no better option. Many others are compelled to move, displaced to cities where basic services are already stretched, increasing the risk of conflict.

This week, we have seen many references to the $100 billion a year that was promised at the COP meeting in 2009 to help finance climate action by developing countries. Though that promise has regrettably not been honoured, there’s hope that it will be, and when it is, much of it should be allocated to the most conflict-vulnerable areas.

Adaptation measures that help communities become more resilient to climate change would include provision of drought-resistant variants of crops, and training for alternative sources of income to help stem the growing armed tensions between nomadic pastoralists and sedentary farmers, as in parts of Africa.

Climate adaptation measures need to be devised and implemented in a conflict-sensitive way, and must take care to avoid provoking local tensions. To avoid what happened with the opening of the Salma Dam in Afghanistan, a project intended to provide over 80,000 hectares with additional water to counter the harsher climate conditions, while producing carbon-free electricity. But in re-channeling water from that dam, the developers hadn’t accounted for local conflict dynamics, and it fueled the disputes between the villages who were meant to benefit.

Conflict sensitivity and climate sensitivity both require community participation. A top-down approach without consulting local communities often leads to tensions between different groups. Just as in some countries in Latin America, where local groups and indigenous communities have opposed renewable energy projects because, as usual, they weren’t involved in the decisions about how their ancestral lands were to be exploited.

The massive Great Green Wall Initiative in the Sahel is perhaps a better example of how to do this. Ongoing since 2007, it is an attempt to re-green a swathe of land across Africa. With desertification pushing south of the Sahara, livelihoods dependent on the land are being lost, increasing the risk of conflict. Aimed at creating 10 million new sustainable jobs and 100 million hectares of regenerated land, it has built on local and indigenous land management practices, which have led to local buy-in for the project – thereby making this climate adaptation program far more likely to suit the local context and avoid violent disputes.

In areas like Yemen, where issues of climate change, environmental breakdown and political-ethnic conflict all overlap, we need to break the cycle – to engage with conflict and environmental issues simultaneously, in what is termed “environmental peacebuilding”, the idea being to use the environment as a tool for cooperation, rather than the usual competition. It has been attempted in parts of the Middle East and Latin America. But knowledge on how best to do it is limited, and a number of us are working to develop this concept.

Berghof’s work in the state of Galmudug in Somalia, is a first step in this direction. We gather members of different communities to raise awareness of what impact climate change is having on them – their knowledge that this is part of a global phenomenon has so far been very limited, and underlines the critical importance of climate change education, not just in its own right but also as a tool for conflict resolution. Our aim in Galmadug is, first, to help create a common understanding of this problem; to isolate climate change from the other grievances driving conflict, and instead open it up as an avenue for cooperation. Second is to guide this participation to discuss opportunities for the locally-sensitive, conflict-sensitive adaptation that I have been talking about.

Climate Change and Human Rights

The second part of my talk today is on the impact of climate change on human rights. In 2019, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights said “the world has never seen a threat to human rights of this scope”. Which might be thought hyperbole, especially if you look back at, say, the 1940s. But it may well turn out to be true. The threats posed by climate-induced dwindling resources, infernally-heated areas, rising oceans among others are indeed likely to be overwhelming for tens of millions of people – with their implications on human rights to food, water, education, health, even the right to life itself.

These are what are known as “positive” rights – largely economic and social rights, rights “to” food and water – and the climate change threat to those is fairly obvious. But what about the “negative” rights – largely civil and political rights – rights “from” being imprisoned without charge, tortured, or denied freedoms of religion, free speech, and assembly?

I fear there is a strong danger – that people haven’t yet focused upon nearly enough – of a terrible reaction once leaders finally wake up to the gargantuan threat we really face. At which point, the risk to human rights isn’t just climate change itself, but is also posed by our own reaction to climate change. It seems all too possible to me that having ignored the problem for far too long, governments will belatedly respond by declaring “states of emergency” that will inevitably undermine human rights.

Indeed, in a seminal UN report of 2019, Professor Philip Alston castigated the human rights community for its failure to face up to the fact that “human rights might not survive the coming upheaval.” The idea that democratic systems failed to prevent global heating could well take hold, with a resulting urge to strengthen state powers at the cost of rights and freedoms – and China no doubt showcasing its authoritarian methods as the only way to take decisive action.

It is not enough to throw money and technology at climate change – important though that is. What is also needed is a much stronger alliance between climate and other environmental activists and human rights groups, not only to enable these to hold governments to account for inaction, but also to make sure their strategies complement one other.

Interestingly, just last week, the Russian representative at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva attacked the “alarmist approach” on climate, arguing that human rights and climate change should be treated as separate issues, as their intersection would lead to “harmful duplication”. But that should come as no surprise. After all, Russia’s government consistently seeks to block both climate change action and human rights – so naturally it wants to prevent these movements making common cause.

One would have thought the environmentalist and the human rights crowds should be natural allies. But over the past century or more, there has usually been little effort to cooperate. This may not be entirely surprising if you consider their conflicting origins. Take the great American National Parks, Yellowstone and Yosemite, which were created in the late 19th Century. These major environmental measures were carried out not merely disregarding the opinions of the indigenous communities who had been living there for centuries, but also involving their brutal, wholescale and permanent ethnic cleansing. Similarly, with the modern-day “peace parks” in southern Africa. It’s clear that, however much one supports efforts to prevent the slaughter of elephant and rhino by poachers, the story of these peace parks (overwhelmingly regarded both historically and now as a concern mainly of white people), has again forcibly relocated communities and preventing their access to lands that have provided them with livelihoods. Neither case suggests much emphasis on peace or human rights. Traces of this type of thinking may survive in some conservation efforts to this day.

For my part, I joined WWF aged 10, and Amnesty aged 15. For most of my life I saw these as separate passions and causes. And it was only in my last job at the UN, that I grasped that having separate silos of human rights activists on the one hand, and environmentalist activists on the other, made no sense at all. Especially in an age when both those movements are under unprecedented threat; when environmental issues and climate change are increasingly responsible for mammoth human rights set-backs; when environmental, indigenous and land rights defenders are threatened and killed at an even faster rate than other human rights defenders (since 2015, at the rate of 4 killed every single week); and when some of the major enemies of human rights are also some of the world’s leading climate change deniers – think Trump or Bolsonaro, to name but two.

These are just some of the reasons why environmentalists and human rights actors must cooperate more – as they have now started to do – and must broaden their mobilisation campaigns to reach beyond their traditional allies.

From the UK and Germany to the U.S. and Australia, an alliance of populist political leaders, corporate lobbyists and the more right-wing press have pushed the idea that any gains for human rights or environmental protection have to come at the expense of jobs. To counter this disinformation, fossil fuel workers, cattle farmers and others need to know that there can be some form of “just transition”: that they will still have livelihoods after serious measures have been taken to reduce global heating. Governments, NGOs and the private sector can offer such assurances through reskilling programs and subsidies for alternative land management and carbon sequestration. Because without job security, many will remain vulnerable to wealthy climate science deniers — such as the Koch brothers in the US — who have been able to convince them that climate change is a hoax against the “people” perpetrated by the “elite”; that a desire from people like us to protect the world’s poorest communities and even one’s own grandchildren from living in unbearable circumstances is merely a form of “metropolitan eco-snobbery”.

In France the 2018 “gilets jaunes” protests were provoked by a fuel tax hike designed to reduce carbon emissions. One of their slogans was “fin du monde, fin du mois” – the sub-text: “listen, green elitists, stop talking about the end of the world, when we ordinary people are just trying to get this month’s pay-check”.

Activists and sympathetic local officials must also work harder to win over indigenous people, by encouraging their full participation in discussion about initiatives within their traditional lands and waters. Climate and human rights activists should be reaching out to these groups to get their buy-in. Governments should be transferring ownership of forested land back to the indigenous communities, who have repeatedly proven to be the most effective guardians of their own ecosystems.

This is all to say that human rights and climate change must be seen more as a common cause. There are several encouraging steps in this regard – but they are going to need far greater recognition if they are seriously to reduce the impact of climate change on human rights.

In recent years, we have seen the development of the term “ecocide” – the destruction of the natural environment by deliberate or negligent human action. President Macron referred to it last year in possible connection with the Brazilian government’s increased deforestation of the Amazon. And Pope Francis endorsed making it a crime referable to the International Criminal Court in the Hague.

The concept of “climate justice” is increasingly talked about, and can mean two different things. The first is that at the heart of this entire issue lies a monumental historical injustice: that those countries that are on track to suffer by far the worst effects of climate change are not only those that are least able to pay for the huge measures required to adapt to it, but they are also in the most part countries whose patterns of production and consumption have been so marginal over the past two centuries that it means – historically – they contributed very little to the great problem causing the Anthropocene: carbon emissions.

These are just some of the reasons why environmentalists and human rights actors must cooperate more and must broaden their mobilisation campaigns to reach beyond their traditional allies.

This historic legacy partly explains why it is so hard to persuade today’s nation states to come to agreement on who should do what to mitigate emissions. Many countries in the developing world understandably point out that countries such as both of ours (UK and Germany) have long reaped the industrial and agricultural benefits of their emissions that have raised average global temperatures by 1.2 degrees since the 19th century. This of course implies that those rich countries also have by far the greatest responsibility to reduce emissions and to help fund alternative means of power for poorer countries. Because until we do that, there is little leg to stand on in appealing to developing countries to take steps to restrict their own development paths. Slashing foreign aid, as the UK did this year, sends a thumping signal to developing countries that we haven’t understood this at all.

“Climate justice” also has a second meaning, referring to efforts to promote litigation either against governments or corporations for failing to act. Last April, we saw a landmark ruling in Germany’s constitutional court that demanded changes to the country’s climate policies, ruling that the slowness and insufficiency of current efforts to cut emissions placed inequitable burdens on future generations after 2030.

And on 26 May, three separate decisions were taken against the world’s largest emitters of greenhouse gases: two where environmentalist shareholders insisted on changes to the boards of both Chevron and Exxon. And the third, in a case brought by Friends of the Earth, whereby a court in the Hague ordered Royal Dutch Shell to reduce its emissions by 45% by 2030. The latter was the first case against private corporations on the basis of the overall obligations of a company. Others will surely come.

And in September, human rights and environmentalist activists alike celebrated when, after a long campaign, the UN Human Rights Council recognised a new human right: the right to a healthy environment, which should catalyse new legislation in support of the new right.

In terms of reducing the impact of climate on human rights, these are important and hopeful signs. And by God we need hope. Indeed the loss of hope is a useful tool for the fossil fuel companies and the climate change deniers. If environmentalists (and regrettably there are some) pronounce that it is now too late to reverse catastrophic climate change, it could paralyse movements pressuring governments and corporations to change. So it’s crucial that those people who understand all this balance the message of righteous anger and doom with messages of hope. It’s not quite yet too late.

The other message I would stress is that – precisely because so many more people need to be won over, before there is general understanding of what’s needed –however radical one may think the counter-measures need to be, it’s important to make sure people don’t regard climate action to be about wholescale political-social-economic revolution, or even too much personal sacrifice: of preferred diets, holidays abroad, cars, and heating at home. Communicating the opportunity we have to enact positive change – if we act now – is much more likely to win support for climate action.

As a venerable Oxford philosopher, Henry Shue, pointed out to me over the summer: “Not only are we the first generation to be able to understand what to do, but we may also be the last to be in a position to act before we cause some major threats to grow more severe.” That of course puts an extraordinary responsibility on us, a level of responsibility to succeeding generations for which no generation in history has ever remotely had before. And it probably boils down to what we manage to do over the next 10 years, by which time we really could have reached an irreversible tipping-point.

Acting on that responsibility, using some of these means I’ve been discussing, isn’t just the challenge of our time. I really think it’s the challenge of all time.

The 9th annual Human Rights and Science Symposium was organised by the Royal Society of Edinburgh and the Leopoldina Nationale Akademie der Wissenschaften, where our Executive Director Andrew Gilmour gave a keynote speech.

You can find a recording of the speech given and watch it here.

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