The Climate-Conflict Cycle
Climate change increases the likelihood of conflict, and conflict-related emissions further exacerbate climate change.1 Stabilizing ongoing conflicts and preparing for climate impacts are both large-scale undertakings requiring high amounts of dedicated resources. The amount of funding currently available is nowhere near the amount required to make a significant difference and break the cycle of climate change induced disaster and conflict that is very likely to emerge this century.
Climate Vulnerability and Ongoing Conflict
Climate vulnerability and violent conflict are reinforcing phenomena. The figure above illustrates locations’ vulnerability to climate impacts on a comparative spectrum from lowest risk (green) to highest risk (red) as of 2016. (Base layer created by Verisk Maplecroft.)2 Overlaid (black circles) are current conflicts.3 The size of each circle represents the number of years since each conflict began. The figure illustrates the co-occurrence of climate impact risk and conflict: Ongoing conflict poses serious structural challenges to climate adaptation, while climate change induced resource scarcity increases conflict risk and complicates peacebuilding and resolution in existing conflicts.
Highly targeted work focused on breaking the cycle between climate change and conflict is critical. Because climate impacts often function as a “threat multiplier”, it is important to look at which methods can best reduce communities’ overall risk and decrease the probability of conflict.4 Fortunately, several of the most cost-effective methods for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, such as locally owned renewable energy resources, regenerative agriculture, and education of women and girls, also can help reduce conflict. These interventions help communities adapt to climate impacts and reduce associated socio-political instability and likelihood of conflict outbreak through their impacts on groundwater withdrawal, soil resilience, population dynamics, and governance.5
Unfortunately, advanced interventions designed to prevent climate-induced conflict are rare. The tragic Syrian Civil War, which as of 2017 had claimed an estimated 400,000 lives and displaced 11 million people,6 might have been prevented through targeted efforts at environmental peace building. Prior to the Syrian Crisis, the UNFAO estimated that $20 million in agricultural aid could have prevented or delayed the conflict’s onset long enough for deeper interventions to take place.1 Yet the UN’s 2008 Syria Drought Appeal, aimed at preventing the crisis, was ignored for what appear to be political reasons.1
Data analytics can help prevent climate-induced conflict
International organizations with the ability to channel large amounts of funding and resources into climate mitigation and adaptation are often also responsible for maintaining peace and responding to natural disasters. Organizations with this dual mandate include national development agencies like the USAID, international peacekeeping organizations like the UN Security Council, and international NGOs like Oxfam International. 7–9 Often this dual mandate, when combined with funding constraints, pushes large organizations to devote the majority of their resources to conflict and disaster response, leaving them unable to devote sufficient resources to targeted, timely, and cost-effective interventions to prevent climate-induced conflicts before they emerge.
Early efforts to raise private donations can help to ease these apparent funding shortfalls; $200 million in private donations were made in a single year after Syria’s refugee crisis began, and prevention-oriented donations are not uncommon.1 The Gates Foundation alone, for example, recently pledged $300 million over the next three years toward climate adaptation research intended to benefit low-income farmers.12 Effectively targeting private donations through cross-organizational collaboration around timely, targeted interventions is critical to saving lives and preventing conflicts.
Recent advances in data analytics can help target interventions to prevent climate-induced conflict at a highly granular scale. However, few of the existing aid and development organizations are engaged in this work. Because of the limited use of data analytics and siloed communication around conflict prevention, most vulnerable communities face huge challenges in obtaining the resources and support they need in a timely enough manner to prevent disruptive conflicts from climate impacts. By building on the most recent developments in data science and collaborating with IGOs, NGOs, private foundations, and grassroots environmental organizations, we hope to help organizations better target their resources and help prevent climate-induced conflict around the world.