Could climate change mean more violent extremism?

Source(s): United Nations Development Programme (UNDP)
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By UNDP/CB/CPPRI Climate Security Team and PVE Team

When Boko Haram attacked Tchiolemé Mallama’s village in northern Cameroon, they kidnapped his wife and seven of his children, stole his cattle and goats and left his farm unsafe to grow crops.

Tchioleme, his daughter and granddaughter, are now displaced from both their home and traditional culture and life is much harder. They no longer have safety, food security, a farm or an income.

The nexus between violent extremism and climate change

Tchioleme’s family are just some of the hundreds of thousands of global victims of violent extremism. And their plight is tied to climate change. Cameroon, along with the rest of the Lake Chad Basin, is one of many places around the world where a recent swelling in the ranks of extremist organizations has coincided with an increase in extreme weather.

While climate change is not necessarily a direct cause of conflict, it may indirectly increase its risk. Rising sea levels, extreme weather, droughts, desertification and floods can cause instability, insecurity and poverty, disrupt agriculture, and worsen resource inequality. Climate change is directly tied to migration and displacement, disease outbreaks, food shortages and weaker health care systems. And these are all factors that exacerbate the “push and pull” factors of violence. Of the 20 countries deemed most vulnerable to climate change, 12 are mired in conflict. “Climate disruption is a crisis amplifier and multiplier,” to quote UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres. 

And from Central Asia to Africa, when natural resources are constrained by climate change, this can prove fertile ground for violent extremism, aggravating other root causes such as complaints against the security sector, limited confidence in governance and the rule of law, rising inequality, rapid social or cultural change, or a lack of inclusive development. Many of these issues have also worsened due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Recent examples include Syria, where the civil war was preceded by a drought that caused 75 percent of farms to fail between 2006 and 2011; Iraq, which faced droughts, extreme flooding, and economic turmoil prior to the invasion by ISIS, who were able to capitalize on the ensuing poverty to recruit members and sow discord; and Yemen, which has seen its recent conflict exacerbated by drought. A recent study estimated that climate change influenced between three and 20 percent of armed conflict risk over the last century, and that influence is likely to increase dramatically as greenhouse gas emissions rise.

Tackling climate change and conflict together

Extremist groups pose a significant challenge to building and maintaining peace. To tackle this issue, UNDP has been exploring ways of connecting the dots between climate security and peacebuilding, ensuring collaboration between those who work in the climate, peace and security sectors.

We have been addressing climate change and violent extremism as linked phenomena in a number of places. In conflict affected Sudan, UNDP is working to stabilize drought-affected communities by helping to restore livelihoods. In Tanzania, we are teaching more than 860 young people marketable skills and helping them start their own businesses. In the Lake Chad region, where lawlessness and a violent extremist insurgency continue in the face of an ongoing environmental disaster, UNDP is supporting the implementation of the Regional Stabilization Strategy, which will result in enhanced cross-border cooperation on security and stabilization, early recovery and improved development. It is hoped that this boost to livelihoods will reduce the appeal of organizations like Boko Haram. Through the SDG  Climate  Facility, UNDP is working with returnees to the Iraqi marshes, by installing solar panels that will ensure clean water, as well as helping to boost the local economy by promoting eco-tourism.

UNDP recently organized a high level virtual forum to discuss the impact of climate security and violent extremism on peacebuilding.

UNDP is also funding research on the issue, with the findings from a recent UNDP/OCSE study in Central Asia proving critical for understanding the link between climate change and conflict in the Fergana Valley, where long-standing tension has in the past erupted into violence between Kyrgyz, Uzbek and Tajik ethnic groups.

UNDP’s solution to preventing violent extremism must be risk-informed – and climate change is one of the systemic risks that we must consider. We have to ‘climate proof’ any future peacebuilding work by ensuring it includes development activities, such as building livelihoods Addressing climate change and violent extremism should be considered from a human security perspective as well. There needs to be better analysis of the future potential effects that the climate emergency will have on human insecurity. To prevent and address violent extremism, we need to prevent and address all drivers of fragility – and this includes climate change.

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