ECC Platform Library


Backdraft Revisited: The Conflict Potential of Climate Change Adaptation and Mitigation

12 January, 2017
Lauren Herzer Risi

Whether or not we respond to climate change – and the security implications of that decision – is a major public policy question. But increasingly experts are paying closer attention to how we respond.

At a recent Wilson Center event updating research on the unintended peace and conflict consequences of climate change responses – or “backdraft” – panelists said awareness of the need to respond to climate change has spread but things have otherwise changed little since the initiative began in 2010.

“In some ways, things are not as different as we thought,” said Ohio University Professor and ECSP Senior Advisor Geoff Dabelko. “Sectors are still operating in siloes in counter-productive ways.”

“We’re still bad at making climate change adaptation and mitigation policies that actually improve peoples’ lives in the things that actually concern them,” said Stacy VanDeveer, professor at the University of Massachusetts Boston.

Not only can failure to go in with “eyes open” result in failed projects, wasted resources, and missed opportunities, it can also lead to increased tensions and conflict. The event brought together experts from the academic and practitioner communities to explore where backdraft effects are playing out and how to address gaps in program and policy development.

Different Resources, Same Problems

One area of backdraft research is in extractive minerals used in the “green” economy. There is a large body of work on the impacts extractive industries can have on societies, from social, political, and economic dynamics, to environmental damage and violent conflict. Initiatives like the Kimberley Process (diamonds) and Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (oil, gas, timber, other minerals) have been developed to increase transparency and reduce the potential for these valuable resources to contribute to violence.

Yet this work has not translated to the renewable energy and climate sectors. “Things like the renewable energy economy and high-tech economy are still the global economy that we’ve inhabited for some time,” said VanDeveer. “When you look at where the raw materials come from for renewable energy and battery technology, they still get mined. The extractive industries around the world still work very much like they have worked for quite a while.”

In research for International Alert, Janani Vivekananda found that the lack of a conflict-sensitive approach in northwest Kenya ultimately stalled a wind energy project there. “This was an initiative that needed to consult those people that used the land, and yet the consultation process – the prior informed consent process – involved elites in Nairobi rather than Turkana which was hundreds of miles away,” she said. Despite the fact that the nomadic communities in the area lacked electricity, there were no plans to share energy generated from the turbines.

“The conflict risks were very evident, had they looked at this from a conflict-sensitivity perspective,” Vivekananda said.

Understanding Local Effects of Global Solutions

Similar challenges can be seen in the implementation of REDD+, a mechanism to encourage the preservation of forests for their carbon trapping and to reduce emissions from deforestation, which are a substantial contribution to global emissions.

“REDD+ is mandated to use free, prior, and informed consent and to represent local populations in decisions, and yet it doesn’t,” said Jesse Ribot, professor and director of the Social Dimensions of Environmental Policy Program at the University of Illinois.

In a 30-case, 13-country study of REDD+ and its implementation in sub-Saharan Africa, Ribot found that in almost every case, local democracy was undermined and circumvented as a result of programs being rushed. “Democracy is slow,” said Ribot, and “many of the people mandated to implement this do not have the knowledge to even be able to define local democracy in a way they can operationalize it.

REDD+ led to a shift away from flexible land use approaches and a breakdown in conflict resolution

Governance side effects have also been observed in Laos, said Kimberly Marion Suiseeya, assistant professor at Northwestern University. With its technical monitoring, reporting, and verification requirements, the implementation of REDD+ led to a “dramatic shift away from more flexible land use approaches, where communities can rotate their crops based on their needs and climate conditions, to having fixed properties.” Not only did this undermine community-level decision-making processes, but it led to reduced adaptive capacity, eroding resilience goals.

“Community networks for conflict resolution have started to break down,” Suiseeya said. “People are able to make claims [and] lay claim to specific resources that they otherwise wouldn’t have been able to in the past.”

“If you understand what’s going on in a particular place and if you drill down to a very local level, what you realize is that peoples’ identities have a lot to do with decisions they make and how they view the world,” said Edward Carr, professor at Clark University.

Climate models suggest that Mali, where Carr does research, will get warmer and drier as a result of climate change. A natural response might be to encourage farmers to change to crops that can withstand drier conditions. But men’s identities in that part of the world are closely tied to their ability to grow food for their families, Carr said, and the climate-friendly alternatives are sometimes cash crops rather than the traditional food stuffs. “So if you grow the crop, sell the crop, and buy food, that actually counts as being a failed farmer – you’re not able to feed your family through your own production directly.” This tension makes male farmers reluctant to change practices and could lead to unexpected social problems.

The Conflict Potential of Climate Change Adaptation and Mitigation: Backdraft Revisited

An Institutional Challenge

Not understanding the small-scale effects of solutions calibrated to address a grand problem is a common source of backdraft, said Ken Conca, a Wilson Center fellow and professor at American University.

“Often what constitutes a solution at one scale simply exports the problem to another,” Conca said. Lacking ways to perform multi-level analysis, something that looks like a cooperative solution at one level may create conflict at another, and such analysis is difficult given the many institutions responding to climate change, from the multi-lateral efforts of the United Nations, to regional and state-to-state efforts, national initiatives, cities, and on down.

In the wake of the ambitious goals set by the Paris Agreement, geoengineering is one response ripe for backdraft effects at a global scale, said Conca. Climate commitments so far will not be enough to prevent warming beyond the 1.5 degree and 2.0 degree Celsius targets, raising the possibility that some actors may turn to the promised “quick fixes” of geoengineering.

“Often what constitutes a solution at one scale simply exports the problem to another”

The deliberate tinkering of large-scale natural processes – to try to provoke rainfall in a specific area or reflect solar energy, for example – is still a relatively abstract science that, by its very nature, will have unintended consequences, he said. “When you start talking about things that might perturb the monsoonal patterns or have regional consequences, there’s obvious conflict potential in that.”

“The world is not currently prepared to think about this problem,” Conca said. One rogue nation that decides to try geoengineering could have a major impact on the global or regional climate and there are few norms, laws, or organizations to prevent them. “We don’t know who the national focal points are for an international discussion,” Conca said. “The intergovernmental organizations and UN haven’t had a discussion about what’s the appropriate division of labor among specialized agencies.”

University of Texas Austin Professor Joshua Busby urged the U.S. government to consider these spillover effects across levels of governance, using the example of water security. U.S. water assistance has traditionally gone to a select group of priority countries. Meanwhile, other basins remain “under-institutionalized,” Busby said, particularly those in Africa. If assistance expands to these new areas as concerns about water conflict grow, “would U.S. efforts…be productive, would they be helpful, would they be welcomed by the players?” he asked. “Or…would they displace conflict to another level?”

Good Conflict and Bad Conflict

Poorly considered climate change adaptation and mitigation responses may carry with them the potential to exacerbate conflict, but they can also produce outcomes that promote peace and more productive use of resources, said panelists.

“Conflict is ubiquitous in this space,” said Conca. “We’re talking about changing land use, disruptive infrastructure, we’re talking about extractive industries… The challenge is to tap that energy, channel it in a productive direction through the right kinds of institutions.”

The presence of non-violent conflict can actually be a good thing, said Suiseeya. “Especially in oppressive regimes, conflict can often be a really healthy signal that change is coming towards more democratic approaches, towards more legitimacy, towards more empowerment of a broader base of constituencies than those who have traditionally been in power.”

Conca pointed to the changing narrative around large dams as more evidence of valuable conflict. “Setting aside the question of whether or not a dam should be built, if you look at the norms of how it will be built today versus 30 years ago, it will be better today,” he said. That progress is the result of a “broader, very aggressive, very conflictive, transnational network of environmental and human rights activists who engaged and contested and blew the doors off of the more polite conversations among experts and financiers about how dams ought to be constructed.”

“The question is not whether or not there is conflict,” said Carr. “The real question is what does conflict mean in a given context to those who are experiencing that conflict – who is experiencing it, where is it going, what is happening with it?”

Event Resources:

BlogA New Climate for Peace
New Security Beat

Tags adaptation Africa agriculture Asia backdraft climate change conflict COP-21 democracy development


Adaptation & Resilience

All countries will need to adapt to some of the environmental, social and economic impacts of climate change that are already unavoidable. Food security, livelihoods, water resource availability and public health are some affected areas. People living in poverty are more vulnerable, having a lower capacity to adapt. Thus, it is essential to promote resilience building. The adaptation and resilience aspects need to be mainstreamed into planning by policy makers and the private sector as well as integrated into development strategies.

Biodiversity & Livelihoods

Nature protection is most sustainable if it essentially contributes to the long-term stability of human needs. Today many regions around the world are confronted with increasing destruction of the natural foundations of life. The consequences of wide-ranging resource destruction are no longer regionally limited, but rather represent a global threat. Those affected are mainly rural populations, who find the sources of their income and the foundations of their way of life swept away. The depletion and destruction of natural resources goes hand in hand with decreasing agricultural yields and increasing poverty, which in turn forces the affected populations to deplete the remaining resources.

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Capacity Building

On the one hand, conflicts are caused by structural factors, such as economic and social inequality or environmental destruction. On the other hand, conflicts are fuelled by a lack of democratic structures, deficient mechanisms of non-violent conflict settlement, inadequate rule of law, the destruction of social and cultural identity and the disregard of human rights. Against this backdrop, development policies have been dedicated to a broad concept of security, which comprises political, economic, ecological and social stability. As a consequence, development cooperation agencies and actors have developed a broad spectrum of approaches for conflict prevention and transformation as well as for sustainable use of natural resources.

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Civil Society

Civil society is the first victim of environmental pollution, under-development and conflicts. Economically disadvantaged and politically marginalized population groups are particularly affected by violent conflicts as well as increasing resource degradation. Simultaneously, civil society is a fundamental pillar for implementing sustainable development. It contributes in many ways to strengthening conflict prevention and plays a significant role in the peaceful and democratic development of states. It must be supported to strengthen civil rights, adherence to human rights in general and democratic participation.

Climate Change

Climate change resulting from the emission of greenhouse gases represents one of the vital challenges for international environmental policy. Flooding, droughts, shifting of climate zones and increasingly frequent and intense extreme weather events will have serious economic and social consequences for entire regions. The climate problem is also directly linked to the question of future energy generation.

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Climate Diplomacy

To address the challenges posed by climate change, a new profile of climate diplomacy is evolving. This utilises a full range of policies, including development cooperation, conflict prevention efforts, and humanitarian assistance, in addition to more traditional measures of climate change adaptation and mitigation. Moving from a risk analysis of climate-related threats to well-timed preventive action requires a greater commitment to integrating climate change concerns into development, foreign, and security policies. Examples include strengthening diplomatic networks, building new alliances with partners, and raising awareness – not only of potentially negative climate change impacts, but also of opportunities to embark on a sustainable transformation of our societies.

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Climate action entails an array of economic, social, political and environmental co-benefits. It provides an opportunity for economic growth and new jobs. Many investments can take into account climate considerations without becoming more costly. Further important co-benefits include: improved energy security, less local air and water pollution, health benefits as well as ecosystem and biodiversity protection.

Conflict Transformation

In order to overcome the structural causes of violent conflicts and thus bring about an improvement in the framework conditions for peaceful and fair development, it is essential to have long term and broadly planned peace development and peace advancement. Various governmental and non-governmental, national and international actors and groups are involved in these processes.

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Climate change and development are inextricably linked. Climate change endangers the development agenda and has the potential to reverse development goals. Furthermore, successful mitigation of climate change heavily depends on development choices around the world. Therefore, development strategies need to be climate-compatible to provide long-term success, and there are viable policy options that support this compatibility. Many mitigation and adaptation activities can present development opportunities to developing countries and avoid the lock-in to environmentally damaging technologies.

Early Warning & Risk Analysis

The reasons for the development and escalation of conflicts and the incidence of risks are multifaceted and complex. Simultaneously, the assessment of the specific causes in the form of risk and conflict analyses can contribute to a better understanding of these processes and make it possible to provide warning of negative developments, or ideally help prevent them. In the context of natural resource use, risks and conflicts have gained increasing attention in the past years. The debate on possible future water wars is merely one example.

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The well-being of individuals, communities and nations depends on the availability of energy resources. The gap between energy supply and demand appears to be growing, making the world vulnerable to serious economic shocks. At the same time, the burning of fossil fuels causing climate change is one of the vital challenges of international environmental policy. So far, only rudimentary approaches exist for shaping climate and energy security in a sustainable way. The components of a strategy that can contribute to reducing vulnerabilities related to climate change and energy policy include a greater role for renewable energies, the improvement of energy efficiency and a stronger decentralisation of energy supply.

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Environment & Migration

The economic, social and environmental consequences of climate change aggravate the breakdown of eco-system-dependent livelihoods and are likely to become dominant drivers of long-term migration. Natural disasters already cause massive shorter-term displacement and the number of temporarily displaced people is likely to further increase with climate change. For vulnerable populations in vulnerable regions, such as the Sahel zone or the Ganges delta, migration often becomes the sole survival strategy. In order to address climate-related displacement and migration successfully, knowledge of effective adaptation and an improved understanding of how environmental change affects human mobility is essential. 

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Climate finance, from all sources, plays a key role in supporting and enabling adaptation and mitigation action as well as climate and energy innovation. The Paris Agreement ensured that the Green Climate Fund and the Global Environment Facility are at the core of climate finance architecture as entities entrusted with the operation of the Financial Mechanism of the UNFCCC. Increasing climate finance from all relevant public and private sources is crucial. Furthermore, much needs to be done to redirect finance flows to sustainable paths, e.g. reducing fossil fuel subsidies, introducing maritime and air transportation taxes. The conditions for green investment in developing countries should also be improved.


Forests are disappearing at an alarming rate. Competition for forest resources triggers, exacerbates, or finances numerous crises and conflicts in tropical developing countries. Illegal logging and timber trade foster instability and sometimes violent conflict by strengthening illegal and armed groups, increasing corruption and exacerbating use and claim conflicts among local communities, the state and the business sector. Forests are a vital resource to poor people but they can also become areas of conflict. Sustainable management of forest resources is therefore key to preventing violent conflict over and within forests.

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Gender plays an important role as a category of conflict for many reasons. The interlinkages between gender, environment and conflicts are complex and much research is still needed. Existing insights suggest that conflicts may worsen gender inequalities that existed before the outbreak of violence. The unequal distribution of land property rights in many parts of the world serves as an example. Moreover, women (and children) are among those most affected by both violent conflict and natural disasters. At the same time, women carry much of the burden of trying to implement rehabilitation measures after crisis events.

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Land & Food

Increasing water scarcity, desertification and crop failures due to extreme weather events are becoming more and more of a threat to global food production. While the world’s population continues to grow rapidly, food production is unable to keep pace. Due to the global food crisis in 2008, the number of hungry people reached the symbolic one billion threshold for the first time – corresponding to about 16 percent of world population. Food insecurity may be a consequence or cause of conflicts. Violent conflicts often lead to the destruction of agricultural infrastructure and means of production, as well as to the displacement of local communities.

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Minerals & Mining

In the past, the discovery and tapping of valuable or strategic resources like valuable minerals, oil and natural gas, particularly in developing and emerging countries, has often led to large scale environmental contamination and negative development. The "resource curse" of some countries shows that the wealth from resource yields is frequently unfairly distributed; instead of serving development it advanced the formation of corrupt elites and in some cases even led to conflicts and civil wars. Measures in various sectors and at all levels are important in order to use the potential of these natural resources in a manner that is sustainable and prevents conflicts.

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Private Sector

The spread of violent conflict not only affects people but also companies located in such regions. Destruction of investments and infrastructure, collapse of markets and trade partnerships, flight and expulsion of employees are phenomena of conflicts and environment-induced crises that directly affect companies in unstable regions. Almost all branches of the economy thus have a clear interest in a stable and peaceful environment for their activities. Conversely, the business sector plays an important role in the interaction of economic growth, social development and a healthy environment, all of which can advance peace and sustainable development. 

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Environmental issues have a significant security dimension. Access to, and overuse of, natural resources often play a key role in civil wars or other forms of internal domestic conflict. This is compounded by climate change and environmental degradation. Climate change is now widely recognised as a non-traditional, risk-multiplying threat that will have increasing security impacts. Key risks with possible implications for human and national security include water scarcity, food crises, natural disasters, and displacement. More preventive diplomacy and advocacy is needed to address the strategic implications of climate and environmental change.

Sustainable Transformation

Sustainable Transformation allows societies to profit from a growing, environmentally sustainable and socially inclusive economy – especially in emerging and developing countries. This requires a higher up-front investment, but the benefits of a sustainable transformation in the medium and long term are significant. For instance, energy cost savings and reducing the impact of price volatility offer major incentives for deploying renewable energies and promoting energy efficiency. Such benefits exist in all key sectors of the economy.

Technology & Innovation

Innovations and technologies are already readily available and affordable but their global diffusion and uptake remains a challenge. Innovation and technology are crucial to achieving ambitious climate change mitigation and adaptation targets. However, research and development often do not receive appropriate public support. Developing countries can leapfrog high-carbon industrialisation phases by adopting, deploying and improving existing innovations and technologies. For this, it is essential to minimise financial, administrative and political barriers.


The availability of freshwater resources in sufficient quantity and quality is essential for the preservation of human health and sound ecosystems. The use of water resources is also vital, however, for economic development: whether for agriculture, industrial production or for electricity generation. The world's freshwater resources are distributed very unevenly in terms of geography and seasons. In addition, water shortage is becoming more prevalent in several regions due to population growth, economic development, urbanisation and increasing environmental pollution. Thus, water resources can hold potential for conflicts between parties who have different interests and needs.

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The environment in Asia is already under tremendous pressure as a result of the unsustainable use of land, forests, water and even air in many regions. Climate change will only exacerbate these challenges. Rising sea levels will likely endanger densely populated areas, changes in the monsoon patterns can strongly impact agriculture, melting glaciers will increase long-term water scarcity, and extreme weather events such as heavy rainfall and cyclones can pose further hazards.

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Central America & Caribbean

Natural disasters and water scarcity are key challenges for most of Central America and the Caribbean. These challenges will become even more pronounced as the climate changes. Weak resource and disaster risk management and land disputes pose additional security challenges for large parts of the region. Several countries of Central America and the Caribbean have limited adaptive capacities as they face political instability caused by high social inequality, crime, corruption, and intra-state conflicts.

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As one of the most developed and most densely populated regions in the world, Europe makes heavy use of its resources, resulting in difficult trade-offs and negative consequences for the environment and ecosystems. Land is used for settlements, agriculture and dense infrastructure, creating problems of soil degradation. Water resources are stressed due to unsustainable agricultural practices. Despite nature protection policies, Europe continues to lose biodiversity at an alarming pace. Some of these trends are exacerbated by climate change, which is expected, for instance, to lead to shifts in water availability.

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Global Issues

Resource scarcities, environmental pollution and climate change are not limited by national borders, but often have a transboundary or even global impact. These issues interact with political stability, governance structures and economic performance, and can trigger or worsen disputes and violent conflicts. Exacerbating some of these trends, climate change is likely to lead to the degradation of freshwater resources, declines in food production, increases in storm and flood disasters and environmentally induced migration. All these developments pose potential for conflict.

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Middle East & North Africa

The geopolitical position of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), its fossil fuel resources, high population growth and the political changes spurred by the Arab Spring all make the region one of the most dynamic in the world. Nevertheless, it is also one of the most arid and environmentally stressed. Dwindling water resources, limited arable and grazing land, high pollution from household and industrial waste, remnants of conflicts and increasing desertification are key environmental challenges.

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North America

Climate change has various impacts on the three North American countries of Canada, Mexico and the US. Canada and the US have well-developed adaptive capacities and foster the strengthening of capacities in other regions as well. With high per capita emissions, these two countries also bear a greater responsibility for a changing climate. Mexico has a sound national strategy for climate change adaptation, yet fewer capacities than Canada and the US. The poorer and rural populations of Mexico are especially vulnerable to climate change, due to an increased sensitivity and a lower adaptive capacity.

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Oceania & Pacific

In Oceania, population growth and economic development trends put a strain on oceanic and island ecosystems. Freshwater scarcity, overexploitation of fisheries, loss of land biodiversity, forests and trees, invasive species, soil degradation, increasing levels of settlement, poor management of solid and hazardous waste and disproportionate use of coastal areas are some of the problems. Climate change exacerbates most of these trends, while also raising questions about the future sovereignty of some island states.

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South America

South America has diverse and unique ecosystems and is very rich in biodiversity. Weak natural resource management, land disputes and extreme weather events bring about significant challenges for the region. While South America accounts for relatively few CO2 emissions, the changing climate will alter its ecosystems and greater climate variability will lead to more hurricanes, landslides, and droughts.

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Sub-Saharan Africa

In many African states, environmental security issues rank high on the political agenda. Throughout the continent, countries suffer from water scarcity, food insecurity and energy poverty. These chronic and worsening resource scarcities have severe livelihood implications and are exacerbated by political conflicts over access to and control over these resources. Climate change may seriously threaten political and economic stability in Africa. It may also put a severe strain on the capacities of states and societies to co-ordinate activities, to communicate and to organize.

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