Topic Guide: Conflict, climate and environment


This Topic Guide will support DFID advisers in the Conflict, Security and Justice Cadres as well as the Humanitarian, Climate and Environment Cadres in gaining a greater understanding of the importance and complexity of the links between conflict, climate and environment. The Topic Guide focuses on violent conflict at the sub-national, national and trans-boundary level in relation to natural resources, climate variability, climate change and environmental change. The guide concentrates on longer-term development objectives to build resilience, support adaptation, create peace and address underlying causes of vulnerability.

Key Messages

  1. Climate change (natural and man-made) is already having an impact on conflict, security and fragility. Climate related stressors have played a role in, for example, the ongoing political economy of conflict in Darfur and in food insecurity across the Sahel. Climate change has also been claimed to play a complicating role in more recent conflicts in the Arab Spring, though no conflict has a single motivating factor.

2. Climate change will continue to be a ‘risk multiplier’ of conflict, insecurity and fragility unless it is effectively embedded into the management of risk and building of resilience. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Fifth Assessment Report affirms that the impact of climate change on human wellbeing, peace and security will worsen, especially for the poorest members of society. Many of the most affected live in fragile states where under-development is intractable and national capacity to manage climate risks is weak. In many countries, as climate change interacts with other features of the social, economic and political landscape, there is a high risk of political instability and violent conflict.

3. What determines whether (or how) climate change will lead to conflict lies in the ‘intermediary factors’ which affect the relationship between climate and conflict. The effects of climate change, such as more frequent natural disasters, long-term changes in precipitation and temperature and sea-level rise, could combine with other factors to increase the risk or prevalence of violent conflict. Increased vulnerability to conflict depends on a mix of factors: the context of poverty, effectiveness of governance and institutions, adaptive capacity, political inclusion and financial management. These factors affect the capacity of individuals and institutions to adapt to climate change and manage conflict in a peaceful manner.

4. There is much that can be done to ensure that climate change does not lead to increased conflict, insecurity and fragility, even in the absence of downscaled climate forecasts at the sub-national level. Addressing the root causes of vulnerability to climate change impacts – such as the lack of livelihood diversification, political marginalisation, unsustainable management of natural resources, weak or inflexible institutions and inequitable policy processes – can help ensure countries plan for uncertainty and peacefully manage a range of possible futures which climate change presents.

5. Taking account of the links between conflict, climate and environment is central to building resilience in an ever uncertain world. Better policy responses are required to ensure conflict prevention initiatives take account of climate changes, and to use climate change adaptation in support of peace and stability. Practical steps, such as ensuring that all climate change adaptation is conflict sensitive and that all conflict programming takes account of medium- to long-term climate change predictions, will help minimise the risk of interventions inadvertently doing harm. However, given the multiple levels of uncertainty – for example, how much average temperatures will rise, what the knock-on consequences will be on peace and security and how demographic changes will interact with these risks – a comprehensive risk management approach is required.

6. Gaps in the evidence exist on how to achieve multiple wins. There is a lack of well documented examples, at scale, on how to achieve ‘multiple wins’ in order to support resilience building. For example, what are the policies and programmes that have positive outcomes on peace, adaptation and development progress? Building resilience and managing risk is becoming the new mantra of the post-2015 era, bringing with it opportunity to improve policy action on the intersection of conflict, climate and environment.

This peer reviewed Topic Guide has been produced by the Overseas Development Institute (ODI) and International Alert with the assistance of the UK Department for International Development (DFID) contracted through the Climate, Environment, Infrastructure and Livelihoods Professional Evidence and Applied Knowledge Services (CEIL PEAKS) programme, jointly managed by DAI (incorporating HTSPE Limited) and IMC Worldwide Limited.


Peters, K.; Vivekananda, J. Topic Guide: Conflict, climate and environment. Evidence on Demand, UK (2014) viii + 59 pp. [DOI: 10.12774/eod_tg.november2014.peterskandvivekanandaj]

Topic Guide: Conflict, climate and environment

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