Addressing Climate Security in Fragile Contexts

On the coattails of the 26th UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26), commitments to addressing the climate crisis have gained traction, yet one area continues to lag in terms of policy approaches and investments: climate security. Both foreign and national security policy actors increasingly recognize the risk that climate change poses to stability and that responding to it is of growing importance for development, peace, and security. According to the U.S. National Intelligence Council, the growing risk of climate-related conflict globally under current climate change predictions will create “additional demands on [U.S.] economic, humanitarian and military resources” to respond to new geopolitical flashpoints and crises.

Though a growing body of research on climate security has greatly increased our understanding of the relationship between climate change and conflict, what is less clear are the actions that can be taken to address it. Over the years, my colleagues and I at Mercy Corps—a global humanitarian and development organization focused on addressing climate change and conflict in the most fragile countries—have examined the climate-conflict nexus through research and on-the-ground work in peacebuilding, governance, and climate adaptation. Drawing on insights from evidence and implementation experience, the following three key recommendations for development actors can help improve efforts to tackle the impacts of climate change on peace and security.

Use Data and Theory to Diagnose and Develop Tailored Responses

Advancements in data availability and analytical tools, such as predictive analysis (e.g., machine learning) and geospatial analysis, have improved our ability to make data-informed decisions related to climate change. These tools, however, are limited. Making sense of climate-related trends, particularly in relation to other complex phenomena such as conflict requires, first, a clear theoretical understanding of the links. As Ed Carr, a professor at Clark University who specializes in climate adaptation, stated, “Without an explanation for how temperature rise produces greater [conflict] risk, I have no means of targeting programs, diplomacy, or other resources to address the things that create this greater risk.” To help clarify the nature of these relationships, researchers and practitioners can turn to social science literature.

Academic studies generally find that the relationship between climate change and conflict is complex and nonlinear. Several studies have identified a relationship between measures of climate variability and conflict, including Burke, Hsiang, and Miguel’s (2013) meta-analysis of 60 quantitative studies that found a positive and significant relationship between temperature increases and conflict. Yet, others have found no relationship or, in some cases, an inverse relationship: for example, Hedrix and Salehyan (2014) find that the likelihood of large-scale organized conflict is reduced by water scarcity and drought. When climate variability and conflict are indeed connected, the relationship tends to be indirect. That is, climate factors such as increasing temperature or variability in precipitation can affect conflict through several different pathways. These mixed findings highlight that though climate change and conflict may be linked, the relationship doesn’t always play out in predictable ways.

Nonetheless, development actors can use data and analytical tools to test hypotheses about climate-conflict linkages and formulate appropriate context-specific responses. For example, in Mali, Mercy Corps analyzed the dynamics between environmental factors and conflict to better understand how climate change may shape instability. Using geo-coded Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project (ACLED) data, the analysis first mapped the distribution of conflict across the country and overlaid it with several different environmentally linked factors, including transhumance patterns. As illustrated in the map below, the analysis did not identify any clear seasonal patterns of conflict overall. But, when disaggregating between land-use types, the statistical analysis found that a greater distance to water was associated with more conflict in grasslands, which are primarily used for pastoralism, whereas the opposite was the case in agricultural land. Coupling this analysis with a theory-based understanding of local livelihoods, mobility, and environmental conditions can lead to more targeted programming recommendations like improving water access in grassland areas to help reduce the risk of conflict. More generally, linking data, sophisticated analyses, and theory can help to better diagnose the ways in which climate change may influence conflict and how to respond.

Figure 1: Monthly Conflict Incidences in Mali, January 2013–September 2020

Note: Green dots represent conflict events.

Source: UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and Centre for International Cooperation in Agricultural Research for Development (CIRAD), Atlas of Trends in Pastoral Systems in the Sahel (FAO and CIRAD, 2012),; “Data Export Tool,” Armed Conflict and Event Data Project, accessed November 2020,; animation created by Dr. Alison Heslin for Mercy Corps.

Target Where It Matters Most

One important task for policymakers and development actors is prioritizing resources to address climate-related conflict where it is most needed. At the global level, experts have predicted that countries that are simultaneously experiencing the most significant variability in climate conditions and are the least prepared to adapt will be most negatively impacted by climate change. These countries tend to be clustered mainly in sub-Saharan Africa, including countries that have faced or are facing ongoing conflict, such as South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Somalia, and Ethiopia. Because climate factors often compound and exacerbate existing drivers of conflict, like low levels of development and political exclusion, climate-vulnerable, fragile states are more likely to see increasing climate-related conflict.

Intuitively, it follows that investing more in addressing climate change in fragile states would help lower climate security risks (as well as other climate-related concerns). However, multilateral climate funds and bilateral donors’ funding allocations to fragile and conflict-affected countries are noticeably lacking, often because donors perceive higher risk and challenges with investing in these environments. While this risk aversion is understandable, the cost of inaction is significant. The transnational nature of climate and security challenges means that this cost will be paid by the global community, even if immediate impacts are experienced in fragile states. Gradual improvements can be made to alleviate climate-related conflict in fragile states through climate finance. For example, because climate adaptation programs and investments can create sources of conflict themselves, a first step could be to ensure that all existing investments are used in a manner that is, at minimum, conflict sensitive.

Within countries, localizing efforts to address climate-related security risks is also important, as conflicts tend to be concentrated in specific areas. But better geographic targeting requires a more sophisticated understanding of the spatial patterns of climate-related conflict. Specifically, development actors may naturally focus on areas that are affected by climate stressors such as a drought, but, as Abrahams points out, places that are at risk of conflict are “not places that most acutely felt the effects of climate change” but rather “proximate places of relative abundance.” One reason for this is due to the disruptive effects that climate change can have on established patterns of mobility and settlement. For example, researchers have documented in sub-Saharan Africa instances of drought inducing pastoral groups to migrate earlier to agricultural areas, causing conflict to emerge. As such, mobility must also be factored into any understanding of climate security. The World Bank estimates that by 2050, over 200 million people may move within their own countries due to climate change, in what researchers say can be a form of adaptation itself. If government policies, services, and development programs fail to understand mobility patterns related to climate change, prepare, and manage emerging tensions, conflict may be one negative outcome of this trend.

Address Shortcomings in Governance

Experience and research have demonstrated repeatedly that governance is a critical factor in challenges related to peace and stability. Increasingly, it is becoming clear that the quality of governance also matters for managing climate-related security risks. In some cases, government actions such as land tenure policies that exclude certain groups or large-scale investments in agriculture that encroach on pastoral mobility can also be the source of conflict under increasingly variable and challenging climatic conditions. Simply, as argued by Crisis Group International, “climate matters when it comes to war and peace, but the politics and policies surrounding climate matter even more.”

Studies have posited that effective governance and political institutions can play a mediating role, in that they may be able to interrupt the link between climate variability and conflict by offering forums for conflict resolution. A recent Mercy Corps study testing this hypothesis in five sub-Saharan countries (Kenya, Nigeria, Mali, Zimbabwe, and Uganda) using large conflict, governance, and environmental datasets found that while temperature variability is associated with an increased risk of conflict, greater local state capacity in several cases mitigates this risk. The study implies that the capacity of states to prevent, mitigate, and respond effectively to the social and economic challenges brought about by climate change may, in large part, determine whether underlying conflict drivers result in violence.

However, some development actors, particularly those concerned with climate change, are often ill prepared to address political or governance-related issues, though routinely confronted by them. Part of the challenge stems from propensities to work in siloed, sector-specific ways, where climate efforts tend to focus on technical solutions like improving livelihood practices (e.g., climate-smart agriculture) or expanding renewable energy options. While these efforts are crucial, they are limited. Questions related to access, rights, and services, which delve into the realm of governance, invariably affect their success. Similarly, another limiting factor for some development actors, such as international nongovernmental organizations, stems from a tendency to operate only at a local scale. While context-specific, localized responses are important—including for reasons mentioned above—equally significant is the need to address national and other supra-local policies that affect community-level dynamics.

Lessons from initiatives working at multiple levels to address drivers of climate-related conflict by improving governance can inform future efforts. One such initiative, implemented by Mercy Corps, worked across three regions of Ethiopia with formal and informal institutions, including the Ministry of Peace and Rangeland Management Councils—customary bodies responsible for the management of over 4 million hectares of land—to improve land governance and avert resource-based conflict. A central part of the program was working with the government to develop a pastoral development policy that recognized the land use rights of customary institutions and helped establish the basis for designating grazing land, farming land, and tourist attractions. Done through a conflict-sensitive and consultative process, such initiatives can address systemic drivers of resource conflict at scale and reduce the risk that climate change will exacerbate instability.


Growing momentum for responding to the climate crisis creates opportunities to advance efforts around climate security. Importantly, development actors can draw on a burgeoning academic literature on climate change and conflict, access to data and new analytical tools, and insights from practical experiences of implementers. Integrating this knowledge and applying it to the design of new programs or policy approaches can lead to promising and effective ways of reducing the risk of climate-related conflict. A failure to increase and improve efforts to deal with this risk will likely mean more conflict and suffering, adding more fragility to an already precarious future.

Beza Tesfaye is a senior associate (non-resident) with the Project on Fragility and Mobility at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C., and director for research and learning for climate change and migration at Mercy Corps.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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Beza Tesfaye
Senior Associate (Non-resident), Project on Fragility and Mobility