ECC Platform Library


The UN Wants to Respond to Climate Change and Prevent Conflict, But When?

08 June, 2017
Jonathan Rozen

Climate action and conflict prevention require honest reflection on tensions between long-term planning and short-term action.

Climate change, civil conflict, and violent extremism are among the most significant threats to global human development, peace, and security. UN-led plans to address all three require immediate action to prevent future crises, yet crucial investments may not yield tangible results for years to come—well beyond democratic term limits.

If implemented in earnest, climate action and conflict prevention plans function along multi-year timelines, with some targets set over a decade in the future. These plans require governments to prioritize long-term peace, accept short-term costs, and effectively manage regressive domestic pressures.

Climate change can multiply threats to peace, aggravating fragile situations and contributing to the rise of non-state armed groups.


Climate change can multiply threats to peace, aggravating fragile situations and contributing to the rise of non-state armed groups. Recognizing this, the Paris Climate Agreement and Sustainable Development Goals embody strategic forethought to support social, economic, and political conditions for peace. Responses require investment to massively transform energy systems and planning early for context specific adaptation.

This temporal recognition is central to emerging UN-led conflict prevention. Yet, similar to climate action, other plans remain plagued by the challenge of getting governments to invest for future outcomes, which may be difficult to quantify before the next election.


Sustaining peace

Just over a year ago, in April 2016, the UN Security Council and General Assembly adopted a resolution agreeing to the principle of “sustaining peace.” The resolution recognizes that by addressing potential sources of instability before they become violent crises the UN may build societies that remain peaceful for the long-term.

It’s part of what diplomats have called a “mindset shift” within the UN on when to build peace. But much like climate action, governments are faced with the short-term costs of implementation.

Known as a “rapid response mechanism,” the United Nations Peacebuilding Support Office (PBSO) is charged with administering small but targeted investments to prevent conflict around the world.

Their initiatives have included supplying police to calm violence in the Central African Republic, and supporting the demobilization of child soldiers in Myanmar. In the face of geopolitical inertia, the PBSO is working to activate the principle of “sustaining peace” through quick and pointed projects to prevent escalation of political violence and other threats to peace.

Financed through contributions to the Peacebuilding Fund, diplomats have praised the PBSO’s work. Government’s financial commitments, however, have so far not matched the positive rhetoric.

Countries’ pledges during a financing conference last September only amounted to just over half of the Peacebuilding Fund’s $300 million goal. Moreover, the roughly $152 million is scheduled to be delivered over four years, meaning certain portions are only expected for 2019.

While Germany, Switzerland, and several additional donors have since contributed a further $11.7 million, Marc-André Franche, Chief of the PBSO’s Financing for Peacebuilding Branch, told me the funding gap remains significant.


The usefulness of force

While UN member states have not yet reconciled short-term investment to sustain peace, plans to address another emerging threat to global peace—violent extremism—face a similar problem.

In recent years, a growing body of research has shown that forceful security responses may be counterproductive for preventing violent extremism, potentially increasing persuasiveness of extremist propaganda and recruitment.

During an event on preventing violent extremism last December, Michelle Breslauer, Program Director for US Operations at the Institute for Economics and Peace, cited increased terrorism following the 2003 US invasion of Iraq and the beginning of the Syrian Civil War as evidence that military interventions are increasing rather than reducing terrorist activity.

“The [largely military] strategies that we have had to date, and that includes the two previous US administrations, aren’t really working, Breslauer continued. “There isn’t that kind of quick fix.”

In response, new strategies have emerged prioritizing prevention through the construction of more inclusive communities. Instead of relying solely on repressive measures, fresh strategies seek to build local sources of resilience to violent extremism. Similar to climate action and sustaining peace, these require certain defiance of short-term political incentives in favour of long-term peace.

Community-strengthening initiatives may better recognize the importance of fulfilling people’s search for meaning, purpose, and social belonging—human needs that extremist propaganda deftly exploits. “[T]errorism will not be defeated by military force, law enforcement measures and intelligence operations alone,” the UN Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy 2016 Review explains.

Beneath the tactical differences between forceful counterterrorism and community building lies a fundamental distinction of timeline. Security service responses often operate in the short-term, grounded in the perceived need for immediate, reactive action.  

As Former UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon’s 2015 Plan of Action for Preventing Violent Extremism acknowledges, community based strategies require long-term commitment and sustained investment in building support networks and social resilience to prevent violent extremism.

With differences in how to prevent violent extremism come fundamental questions of when.


A frustrating counterfactual

The Paris Agreement and SDGs, along with sustaining peace resolution and the evolution in thinking around violent extremism indicate growing global acknowledgement of the value of strategic forethought. Yet, acceptance of the timeframes for implementation of these UN-led plans for conflict prevention remains a political challenge. This may be due to prevention’s frustrating counterfactual. How does one know if something was prevented?  

Politicians want to see short-term returns on their investments to stay in office, and it is difficult to deliver measurable success to voters when a positive outcome may be that nothing happens, or that results are only apparent years in the future. When political leadership prioritizes quick victories between elections and an electorate calls for demonstrable security, why invest in long-term agendas with outcomes that are difficult to quantify, sometime in the future?

…governments’ commitment to plans’ investment for long-term outcomes will require recognition of mutual interests among major powers and management of perverse political pressures.


The UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres has reaffirmed conflict prevention and sustaining peace as “the priority” for the institution, acknowledging the “exacerbating” role of climate change. But governments’ commitment to plans’ investment for long-term outcomes will require recognition of mutual interests among major powers and management of perverse political pressures.

Despite a global trend of inward-facing populism, countries will need to come together, engage in honest reflection, and focus on creating the political conditions to actualize these plans for peace. Without political commitment to match UN-led plans’ strategic timeframes, economic investments in climate action and sustaining peace risk being undermined.

UN conflict prevention plans for climate action, sustaining peace, and preventing violent extremism involve a temporal shift, which requires honest reflection on tensions between long-term planning and short-term action. Recognizing when plans need to be implemented will be critical to their success.



BlogA New Climate for Peace




Guest Writers

Tags climate resilience conflict prevention UN funding finance


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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