ECC Platform Library


The Long Tail of Paris and What to Watch for Next

04 December, 2015
Schuyler Null

The most important and anticipated climate change conference in years is finally underway. In some ways, as Bill McKibben and Andrew Revkin have pointed out, its success is relatively assured thanks to the number of major commitments countries have already made. But that doesn’t mean there’s nothing to see here. “The conference isn’t the game – it’s the scoreboard,” writes McKibben. To extend the metaphor even more, you might call it the league scoreboard, giving us a glimpse of many different storylines playing out.

Here are some of the themes we’ve been following to watch out for at Paris.

National Security

The horrendous terror attacks in Paris on November 13 raised the question of whether the 21st Conference of the Parties of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change would even happen. France and the United Nations quickly confirmed it would, however.

In opening remarks this week, President Obama said the continuation of the conference was an “act of defiance that proves nothing will deter us from building the future we want for our children.”

The alleged origin of the attacks in Syria and the possibility that some of the terrorists may have entered the country disguised as refugees brings us to one of the most contentious stories: climate change’s impact on national security.

Violent conflict of any kind has a tremendous number of complex drivers

A historically bad, multi-year drought in Syria that preceded the civil war has been linked in one study to anthropogenic climate change. But how exactly you draw the causal arrows, from resentment of the Assad regime boiling over into protests, vicious government reprisals, and eventually ISIS filling the power vacuum, is still actively debated by policymakers and academics. Recently, conservative commentators have accused liberals of using examples like Syria to rank climate change as a greater threat than terrorism.

The truth is violent conflict of any kind has a tremendous number of complex drivers. As explained quite elegantly in adelphi’s ECC Factbook tool, environmental factors, which can displace people and provoke communal grievances, are critical to understanding some conflicts and how to build peace.

The U.S. military, by and large, has recognized this for some time and is increasingly voicing their concerns about the effects of climate change on outbreaks of conflict, mass displacement, and disaster relief.

Retired U.S. admirals and generals recently spoke at the Wilson Center to highlight just how important climate change is to national security and military operations. Under the auspices of the CNA Military Advisory Board, a research organization based in Washington, DC, more than two dozen flag officers have been touring the country to try to depoliticize climate action for several years.

Foreign Policy

Concern over the geopolitical implications of climate change is not limited to the defense portion of the “three Ds” (defense, diplomacy, development).

Last year the foreign ministries of the Group of 7, recognizing their role as the largest block of aid-giving countries, commissioned a report on the risks of climate change in fragile and conflict-affected countries. The result, authored by a consortium of research organizations including the Wilson Center, recommends concrete steps the G7 and individual foreign offices should take to integrate climate change considerations into development and diplomacy.

Following the report’s recommendations, Secretary Kerry announced the creation of a senior-level task force to “determine how best to integrate climate and security analysis into overall foreign policy planning and priorities.” He also said the State Department will work with the U.S. Agency for International Development to overlay their conflict and climate vulnerability assessments to better identify climate-fragility risks.

How this integration of climate change into foreign policy plays out and whether it fundamentally changes the way the U.S. government does business remains to be seen, but the intention to change the status quo is clear.

Energy in the Developing World and China

Another reason why climate change is so important in fragile and developing countries? There are 1.3 billion people in the world who don’t have access to electricity. Elevating these and many millions more out of poverty while capping and eventually reducing global carbon emissions is a massive challenge.

The expansion of renewable energy in low income countries is critical, in this respect, and there are signs a better path to development may be emerging. Indeed, the renewable energy era may have already started, says the former CEO and chairman of the Global Environment Facility Mohamed T. El-Ashry. Last year the global economy grew without an attendant rise in C02 emissions for the first time in more than four decades. Investment in renewable sources of electricity has outpaced fossil fuels for five years in a row, according to the Renewable Energy Policy Network for the 21st Century.

The renewable energy era has already started

China is the biggest reason why. In terms of total annual investment, China leads the world in its commitment to renewable energy. Bloomberg New Energy Finance’s Ethan Zindler said at the Wilson Center that China’s scale and innovation has been the primary reason solar prices have declined more than 80 percent over the last six years.

Of course China also leads the world in coal production and consumption and it is the largest single emitter of greenhouse gas emissions. The costs of its breakneck coal-driven development are beginning to come to light. Popular discontent over air pollution levels, especially in urban areas, has risen to such levels that the government is being forced to respond.

Over the last year , China has reached a bilateral agreement with the United States to eventually “cap” emissions, announced a national carbon trading system, and finalized a sweeping air pollution law. The results of this “carbon pivot” will be crucial for determining overall warming levels.

“Silver Buckshot”

Bilateral commitments like those between the United States and China (and the United States and India) are important markers for how climate negotiations are evolving.

Wilson Center Fellow Ruth Greenspan Bell has made the case that diplomats should look to the Cold War nuclear weapons negotiations for lessons on how to split up a global, multilateral problem into more manageable components. Writing in Foreign Affairs, she noted this is exactly what we’ve seen in the lead up to Paris. More and more, countries are employing “silver buckshot” rather than rely on the silver bullet of a binding global agreement. The goal of Paris itself is to elicit pledges from every country, not necessarily a perfectly harmonious, equitable, and effective solution to climate change in one shot.

Population and “Human Capital”

One issue that’s gaining attention as more countries begin seriously planning for climate change is demography.

The Worldwatch Institute’s Robert Engelman points out that in the UN synthesis report of emissions reduction pledges made before Paris, “population” appears 20 times, much more than previously and reflecting a greater attention by governments in their climate plans. Population dynamics, including growth and density, clearly contribute to the climate change challenge, but are often ignored, he writes, because they’re “fraught with the potential for shaming of high-fertility groups and individuals and scars from coercive ‘population programs’ by some governments in the past.”

Indeed, in Pope Francis’ otherwise very pro-environment and pro-poor encyclical, which added momentum to Paris this summer, he suggested reproductive health programs are thinly veiled efforts by developed countries to reduce poorer populations.

As governments are prompted to do more long-term planning, however, it’s becoming harder to ignore demography. Engelman argues this may lead to more attention paid to population-related issues, including reproductive health and the status of women. With that attention, he urges “vigilance to assure that any policies that result are based on the rights and reproductive choices of individuals and couples.”

The biggest test of success in Paris may be follow-through

Advocates argue that addressing population in a rights-based way by expanding access to family planning in places where it is scarce – as is the case in much of the developing world – is a win-win for people and the environment. Providing access to reproductive health services to those that want it, can slow population growth rates, improve the health of women and children, and increase resilience to the effects of climate change.

A study released last year by the Wittgenstein Center for Demography and Global Human Capital concluded that investing in “human capital,” including access to health services and education, is more effective at reducing climate vulnerability than large infrastructure projects.

Vik Mohan, medical director of Blue Ventures, a small NGO working in Madagascar, makes the case that the “climate-resilient” development framework gaining attention in Paris in fact describes what they and others have been doing for some time – combining interventions that improve the health, livelihoods, and environment of remote communities, all in one effort.

How exactly climate change and sustainability are incorporated into various development objectives going forward, from reproductive health and girls’ empowerment to food security, will be a major story to follow.

It’s a long process. Decisions made this week and next in Paris, just like those made in New York around the Sustainable Development Goals in September, have long tails and will have consequences that reverberate long into the future. Indeed, the biggest test of success in Paris may be follow-through, years and decades of steadily larger commitments from hundreds of countries to keep warming at safe levels.


Sources: Blue Ventures, Climate Home, Dot Earth, Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, The Holy See, International Energy Agency, National Journal, The New York Times, PNAS, Renewable Energy Policy Network for the 21st Century, The White House, Wittgenstein Center for Demography and Global Human Capital.

Photo Credit: The COP-21 opening plenary in Paris, courtesy of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.

ArticleClimate Diplomacy
Capacity Building
Climate Change
Climate Diplomacy
Sustainable Transformation

Global Issues
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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