ECC Platform Library


The Double Burden of Climate Exposure and State Fragility

19 October, 2018
Josh Busby, Ashley Moran (UT Austin) and Clionadh Raleigh (ACLED)

A new USAID report focuses on the intersection of climate exposure and state fragility worldwide. It finds that the factors that make a country vulberable to large-scale conflict are similar to those that make it vulnerable to climate change. The report thus offers a way for global audiences with an interest in climate and security to identify places of high concern.

The security implications of climate change emerged as an important area of concern in the mid 2000s in both policy circles and academia. Since then, there has been much research exploring causal pathways between climate phenomena and violent conflict, often with inconclusive or mixed results.

We sidestep that causality debate in our new report for USAID. Instead we focus on the intersection of climate exposure—that reflects exposure to climate hazards—and state fragility worldwide. We map the countries and places within them that face the double burden of high climate exposure and high state fragility.

Vulnerability is not determined by physical exposure alone. The factors that make a country vulnerable to large-scale conflict—such as exclusive political institutions and low economic and human development—are similar to those that make a state vulnerable to climate change-related extremes.

Regardless of whether fragility is caused by climate hazards, countries that have fragile governments are less likely to respond effectively to them. Climate exposure will make ending or avoiding conflict even harder due to the strained capacities and resources of governments in these states. Humanitarian emergencies are likely to be more severe in states with fragile governments or strained state-society relationships.

This report offers a way for global audiences with an interest in climate and security to identify places of high concern. We hope our report generates a conversation about places that the international community should focus on most to prevent conflict and humanitarian emergencies, helps shore up local resilience, and bolsters more inclusive governance. This is particularly important for global audiences with limited resources.

To follow up on the 2015 report for the G7’s A New Climate for Peace, USAID tasked us to provide a global portrait of compound climate and fragility risks.

Operationalizing Climate Exposure

To capture climate exposure, we use data on historical exposure to climate hazards as our point of departure, with an index that combines indicators of cyclones, floods, wildfires, rainfall anomalies, chronic water scarcity, and low elevation coastal zones (see table below). For those familiar with the Climate Change and African Political Stability (CCAPS) or Complex Emergencies and Political Stability in Asia (CEPSA) programs, these indicators correspond to those in our physical exposure basket in our vulnerability mapping work. The exposure maps are global but capture variation within countries.

Busby 1

Operationalizing Fragility

We measure fragility with a set of indicators of state effectiveness and legitimacy in four key spheres: political, security, economic, and social (see table below). We combine these to produce country fragility scores that we can track over time. This approach builds upon USAID’s internal methods and framework for analyzing fragility.

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Which Places Should We Be Worried About?

With different mapping and data visualization techniques, we estimate combined climate and fragility risks. For example, the map below shows climate exposure risks in countries with the highest levels of fragility. Darker areas within each country show areas of highest exposure. These countries with the highest fragility are concentrated in Sub-Saharan Africa though a number of other highly fragile countries like Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Myanmar (Burma) also contain pockets of high exposure (see map below).

Busby Climate Exposure 1

An alternative version of this global map depicts all levels of exposure and fragility risks on the same map with color ramps for both dimensions (see map below).

Busby Climate Fragility 2

We also provide metrics that identify what portions of states’ populations and territories face high climate exposure.

In a majority of highly fragile states—26 of the 39 states with the highest or high fragility—more than one million people and/or more than 10 percent of the population live in high exposure areas. These states are mostly located in Sub-Saharan Africa, followed by a few in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, a few in South and Southeast Asia, and one in Latin America (see table below).

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In 12 of these highly fragile states, more than one million people and/or more than 10 percent of the population face not just high but very high climate exposure. Unlike the fragile states with large populations facing high climate risks—which are located mostly in Sub-Saharan Africa—fragile states with large populations facing very high climate risks are located predominantly in South and Southeast Asia and in the MENA region. Cambodia and Myanmar (Burma) stand out as fragile states with a large number of people, a large share of the population, and a notable portion of territory facing very high exposure (see table below).

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High Climate Risk Hotspots

Our population analysis also reveals countries facing high climate risks that are not as visible in the compound risk maps and analysis. For example, small, low-lying island nations are difficult to see on a global map, and some have such low population numbers that they are not tracked in indicators used to create fragility rankings. These countries could thus be missed in the compound risk analysis.

The table below shows countries and territories with the highest share of their populations facing very high climate exposure. A number of low-lying island countries like Kiribati, the Marshall Islands, and the Maldives feature prominently in this list due to the existential challenge climate change poses for them.

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The table below shows countries and territories with large numbers of people living in very high exposure areas, including states like the United States and China that face very high population risks. These findings suggest that, while less fragile, some of the richest countries in the world also face climate challenges. This is consistent with what we have observed over the last year, with the United States experiencing 16 separate billion-dollar weather events and a record $300 billion in damages last year alone, driven largely by Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria. This year, the United States has already faced 11 separate billion-dollar weather events as of this writing, with the latest damage from Hurricanes Florence and Michael not yet tallied.

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This study set out to identify highly fragile states with high exposure to multiple climate hazards. However, a few highly fragile states face high exposure to a single climate hazard to a degree that risks exceeding their capacity to address it. These states do not show up as highly exposed in terms of the multi-hazard climate exposure emphasized in this study, yet this is an additional aspect of compound fragility-climate risks that policy makers should consider. These states include Mali, Niger, Republic of the Congo, and Yemen. 

Fragility Patterns and Trends

On the fragility side, the study provides global maps depicting overall fragility as well as patterns of fragility across key state features (effectiveness and legitimacy) and spheres (political, security, economic, and social). The report also tracks trends in fragility for each country, classes of countries, and regions over time.

Legitimacy deficits have been steadily growing over time in today’s fragile states (i.e., those with some, moderate, high, or highest fragility). This trend is even more pronounced for highly fragile states that also face high climate exposure. Further, in states experiencing the highest levels of fragility today, both legitimacy deficits and effectiveness deficits grew over the 15-year study period (see table below).

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Country Briefs

This study includes three country briefs that explore how compound fragility-climate risks take shape in different regions of the world, with reports for Nigeria, Bangladesh, and Colombia. These country briefs draw on the study’s data and findings to show how the global data can be translated to country-level analysis but are not based on additional fieldwork.

Each brief identifies the locations and populations facing the greatest exposure risks and the specific climate risks they face; identifies current fragility dynamics, the state’s capacity to respond to public needs, and aspects of fragility that present the greatest risks to stability; and describes how the state’s compound fragility-climate risks heighten insecurity in the country. We hope these briefs help people analyze how compound fragility-climate risks unfold in different contexts and reveal where there may be opportunities and focal points for intervention.

Policy Recommendations

Our central aim was to develop maps and metrics to identify the intersection of climate exposure and state fragility. This prompted some discussion of potential interventions that could be deployed to address the particular challenges and opportunities arising from these compound risks.

For highly fragile countries like Nigeria, with extensive territorial exposure and large numbers of people facing high climate risks, policy approaches will likely be systemic and require significant mobilization of finance to help address large-scale societal risks. Other highly fragile countries like Colombia appear to face more localized climate risks in high-density, high-exposure places such as Colombia’s coastal city of Barranquilla. More targeted interventions to address flood risks and state mismanagement of those risks in densely populated areas might be more appropriate in such circumstances.

For moderately fragile countries like Bangladesh where large numbers of people face very high climate exposure, preventing an escalation of simmering fragility risks is crucial to protect gains made in resilience and prevent large numbers of people from becoming more vulnerable to the very high climate risks they face.

Though the country has improved its response to and preparation for these challenges, its high exposure both in terms of the absolute number of people and share of the population suggest that its status has to be closely monitored on both the exposure and governance sides. Bangladesh has at times experienced contentious relations with international donors regarding climate preparedness, so new partners need to be aware of this context and history as well.

Use with Caution

Efforts to construct a global portrait of overlapping climate exposure and fragility risks require choices about what indicators to include. Lack of data and computer processing power complicate the task. In this study for example, we could not include heat waves in our global exposure measure, though our prior regional exposure maps have included them. This is one important area where such global exposure measures could be further developed in the future. Also, our findings are not triangulated with projections of future climate change impacts, though we recognize that this would be an important undertaking.  

In all of our mapping projects, we encourage readers to use maps with caution. Maps and indicators do not tell the full story. They require country-specific expertise and ground-truthing for further validation and more fine-grained analysis of the geography of exposure and the realities of state fragility. Nonetheless, we think this portrait and the diverse measures we have devised to represent facets of exposure and fragility offer fresh insights.

To learn more, see the study’s reports, data, and maps—including data sources referenced in this post.


[This article originally appeared on]

ArticleClimate Diplomacy
Adaptation & Resilience
Capacity Building
Climate Change

Sub-Saharan Africa
Central America & Caribbean
Middle East & North Africa


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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