Climate Change and Human Rights
Climate Change and Human Rights
A pastoralist walks with his goat in Laikipia County, Kenya, June 2022. Nicolas Delaunay / CRISIS GROUP
U.S. Congressional Testimony / Global 12 minutes

Climate Change and Human Rights

In a 28 July hearing before the U.S. House Committee on Foreign Affairs, Crisis Group’s Future of Conflict Program Director Robert Blecher spoke about climate change and conflict.

Chairman McGovern, Chairman Smith, Members of the Commission, thank you for inviting me to speak about climate change and conflict. It’s an honour to be here today of all days. Just hours ago, the UN General Assembly for the first time recognised the human right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment, by a remarkable 161-0 margin.

I direct the Future of Conflict Program at the International Crisis Group, which was established in 1995 as an independent organisation with a mission to save lives by preventing, mitigating and resolving deadly conflict. We do so via a three-part process: 1) on-the-ground research with all sides in dispute; 2) impartial analysis of conflict drivers to identify pragmatic policy options for addressing those drivers; and 3) advocacy with conflict actors and those who influence them to shape their understanding and alter their behaviour in accordance with our recommendations.[fn]Details of Crisis Group’s mission and method can be found here.Hide Footnote

Crisis Group started its climate and conflict project because it became obvious to us that we could not fully understand conflict today, much less what it will look like in the future, without understanding the role of climate.[fn]For an overview of Crisis Group’s climate work, see the Crisis Group data visual, “How Climate Change Fuels Deadly Conflict”.Hide Footnote  Our analysts, in certain parts of the world, increasingly identify climatic distress as a factor in the conflicts that they cover. Most scholars who study the topic agree: climate change can worsen conflict.[fn]Dell et al. (2014), Mach et al. (2019)Hide Footnote  At the very least, it tends to exacerbate conflict risks that already exist, making some tense and fragile situations even tenser and more fragile. Sometimes climate can light the match, transforming a tense and fragile situation into a violent one.

The actions of authorities matter: how equitable, competent, inclusive and accountable they are affects how climate resilient or fragile a region will be.

But there is considerable debate about when, how and why climate change worsens conflict. General observations don’t tell you very much about how climate will interact with people’s lived reality in any given context at any given moment. Conflict risks, according to social scientists, rise 10-20 per cent for every half-degree Celsius of warming.[fn]Burke et al. (2015).Hide Footnote  But in some places, small variations in temperature and precipitation will significantly increase deadly violence, whereas in other places, even large variations will not. This is because politics, history, economics, social relations and any number of other factors matter for peace and security. In particular the actions of authorities matter: how equitable, competent, inclusive and accountable they are affects how climate resilient or fragile a region will be.

Even though every last detail of the relationship between climate and conflict has yet to be nailed down, the fact is we already know a lot about it. Policymakers must not ignore it.

The most devastating climate security risks today and likely over the next two decades will be in Africa, the Middle East and Latin America, and can be divided into three categories:

1) Cascading risks, which is to say, how climate change can undermine livelihoods and induce competition over land, water and other resources, driving conflict.

2) Risks relating to the security consequences of climate displacement

3) Risks relating to transboundary disputes, particularly water disputes

Let me give you a few examples.

First, cascading risks in Nigeria: Conflicts there between farmers and herders have claimed thousands of lives. Erratic precipitation and temperature have damaged crops and exacerbated food insecurity, inequality, displacement and criminality, which in turn have aggravated ethnic and political divides. Our analysis has shown that violent disputes are concentrated in Nigeria’s grasslands, along the agricultural fringe used by both farmers and herders.[fn]Crisis Group Africa Reports N°302, Ending Nigeria’s Herder-Farmer Crisis: The Livestock Reform Plan, 4 May 2021; and N°262, Stopping Nigeria’s Spiralling Farmer-Herder Violence, 26 July 2018. Also see Crisis Group’s data visual, “The Climate Factor in Nigeria’s Farmer-Herder Violence”, 21 April 2021. Eberle et al. (2020)Hide Footnote

Second, security consequences in South Sudan: Three consecutive years of historic flooding along the White Nile has caused widespread food and livelihood insecurity and, last year alone, displaced over half a million people. Many displaced have fled south to the Equatoria region, where heavily armed displaced herders have clashed with host communities over land rights, fuelling an existing insurgency and re-energising old grievances about the distribution of political power in the country.[fn]On the insurgency, see Crisis Group Africa Briefing N°169, South Sudan’s Other War: Resolving the Insurgency in Equatoria, 25 February 2021.Hide Footnote

Most climate displacement is ... internal.

Third, transboundary issues in the Horn of Africa: Stalled negotiations between Ethiopia, Egypt and Sudan over the filling and operating rules for the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam have the potential to escalate into conflict. Already, the dispute is helping drive interstate proxy conflict in the region. In the longer term, Cairo sees the risk of reduced water flows once the dam is complete in existential terms. Ethiopia for its part asserts its right to use Nile waters to improve its economy. With scientists expecting more erratic precipitation in the years ahead, this zero-sum approach means that the risk of conflict hangs over this dispute, even if it remains remote for now.[fn]See Crisis Group Africa Briefing N°173, Containing the Volatile Sudan-Ethiopia Border Dispute, 24 June 2021; Crisis Group Statement, “Nile Dam Talks: A Short Window to Embrace Compromise”, 17 June 2020; Crisis Group Statement, “Nile Dam Talks: Unlocking a Dangerous Stalemate”; Crisis Group Commentary, “Calming the Choppy Nile Dam Talks”, 23 October 2019; and Crisis Group Africa Report N°271, Bridging the Gap in the Nile Waters Dispute, 20 March 2019.Hide Footnote

The security consequences of the climate change can be severe, even beyond the immediate human suffering. The failure to manage climatic distress can discredit central states and play to the advantage of non-state actors, such as jihadist and criminal groups. In Iraq, ISIS took advantage of the country’s decimated agriculture in its recruiting drives. In Mexico, with state services failing, cartels are dispensing humanitarian aid packages in areas ravaged by natural disasters to bolster recruitment and win hearts and minds. In Somalia, Al-Shabaab reportedly has seized control of watering points. Four failed rainy seasons, with a fifth likely coming later this year, has left the population at the mercy of whomever controls the dwindling water supply – though the group itself seems concerned about its own vulnerability to drought.

When it comes to human rights, climate-related violence often exacerbates a long list of abuses and violations – from those that threaten the right to life and other civil and political rights to those that interfere with socio-economic rights such as those to adequate food, water, housing, work and clothing. The burden of these harms is not spread equally. Women, as well as children, struggle to get access to basic services and protect themselves from exploitation, sexual and otherwise. Women specifically are often targeted in real and symbolic struggles between jihadists and state authorities. More generally, the Global South suffers disproportionately from climate change, and even more disproportionately from climate-related violence.

Misidentifying the causes of conflict muddies the search for solutions.

It is as vital to know where climate change is a factor in conflict as where it is not – even if, or rather precisely because, conflict drivers are complex and climate change never acts alone. Misidentifying the causes of conflict muddies the search for solutions. Just as disregarding climate change deprives policymakers of relevant knowledge, the improper attribution of deadly violence to climate change can be used to shirk responsibility for poor governance or abusive rule. In this sense, the stakes of climate science are high, and we still have far too little of it.

There is a way forward. Recent improvements in forecasting, in combination with political analysis, offer the possibility that governments, international agencies and humanitarian aid groups might someday be able to intervene before violence erupts or escalates. Having a reasonable sense of where and when droughts will strike, crops will grow, rivers will overrun their banks and storms will hit have already enabled humanitarian groups to pre-position supplies, provide cash, and deploy technical support and machinery. The right kind of system could do something similar for conflict, showing where to focus preemptive dialogue and target resilience efforts.

Of course, given the existential challenge posed by the climate crisis, focusing on this type of mitigation measure may seem woefully insufficient. In a sense that is right: the world is already mired a climate crisis whose implications far outstrip our management ability. We desperately need policymakers to protect the planet at the necessary scale. But that does not absolve us of the duty to consider what we can do to save lives and protect human rights today. Developing our capacity for early intervention in climate-related violence offers one way to do so, even as we keep pushing for change at the highest and deepest levels.

Thank you. I look forward to your questions.

Transcript of Q&A session that followed Robert Blecher's Testimony

Jim McGovern

We ask a few questions here. Mr. Blecher I've seen several recent reports that raise alarms about the rapid pace of deforestation in the Colombian Amazon. Colombia happens to be the only country in the Western Hemisphere that is still confronting internal armed conflict. Is the deforestation linked to the conflict? If so, might the incoming government's commitment to total peace offer an opportunity to both end the conflicts and reduce deforestation?

Robert Blecher

Thanks. Thanks for that question. I mean, the short answer is yes. Certainly the current wave of deforestation is linked to armed conflict. In fact, it's linked to the incomplete implementation of the 2016 peace agreement that was supposed to end armed conflict, but has not done that. Even more important than that peace is the weak justice system in the country that has not proven capable of confronting the economic elites who work along with armed forces on the ground in order to profit from the deforestation of the Amazon.

So the state just hasn't been able to establish a presence in the most remote parts of the country, and with the economic and criminal interests that are now involved, deforestation has been accelerating. The latest numbers are pretty bleak. So prior to 2016, prior to that peace agreement, for both strategic and ideological reasons, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) largely prohibited deforestation in the areas that they controlled.

They needed the forest cover to avoid detection, and also managing forest resources was a means of social control over local populations. Following the peace agreement, the map of economic possibilities just opened up in the forested areas. And so you've ended up with sort of a gold rush into the areas that were formerly controlled by the FARC.

A lot of reconstituted small armed groups are backed by big economic interests. So the comment that we hear, you know, “we” meaning our analysts on the ground in Colombia, what we hear is nobody is controlling this. And if nobody's controlling it, that leaves a lot of room open for powerful people to move in. So to answer your question, the possibility of negotiations with the remaining armed groups is important.

And the commitment of the president-elect to move forward in this direction is an important commitment, and hopefully he does it. But fundamentally, deforestation is about a lot more. And he's going to have to take on some entrenched elites that right now really have total impunity, if he wants to reverse the damaging tide.

James P. McGovern

I think Mr. Blecher was trying to seek recognition.

Robert Blecher

Thanks for recognising me. I actually agree a lot with Chairman Smith and Mr. Destro. I think that looking at governance factors is extremely important. And too often climate change and natural disasters are used as excuses for either neglect or bad behaviour by governments. It's so they can kind of use it as a get out of jail free card.

I think the challenge, though, is that in order to make that case convincingly, we need to do the work to figure out where climate change is responsible for what. And I think on that, you know, the library probably still has not been filled up quite enough. But I do think that there are certain things that we do know are important.

So they take the Nigeria instance, for example. In Nigeria, the herder-farmer conflict tends to correlate with climate variation on the agricultural fringe. It's where the herders and the farmers are meeting that violence tends to take place when land productivity is low.

There's not enough, there's not enough vegetation, there's not enough for everybody's needs. So they fight over it on that fringe. That, to me, suggests that climate change is playing a pretty important role. It's not the only role. Like I said in my testimony, politics are important. Economics are important. History is important. Social relations are important. All of that is really, really important. But that's a pretty good indicator that climate change is playing a significant role in this conflict. And I'm happy to continue the discussion. If there is evidence to the contrary, that would be great to hear. But I think it's important to not only recognise that there are many factors, it's also important to actually do the research to pin this stuff down, because once we do, I think we're better equipped both to intervene on the climate change side, but also to intervene with poor and corrupt and bad governments when they're using climate change as an excuse.

James P. McGovern

Those of us on this commission get reports weekly of human rights defenders, in Central America, Colombia, all over the world, who are constantly under threat. People who need to leave the country for their own security. People who have been murdered for their advocacy. So it is a major concern of this commission. Mr. Blecher, any final words?

Robert Blecher

Yes, I'd say two things. The first is in regard to your question about successful examples. I think there are successful examples out there, but unfortunately, there's also a lot of unsuccessful examples of maladaptation. And I think especially in conflict settings, people need to be extremely careful that what they do for climate, what they do is conflict sensitive. Of the most climate affected countries, something like half of them are also affected by conflict, and of climate IDPs – internally displaced people – something like 88 per cent of them are in conflict affected countries.

So that lets you know how important it is to take conflict seriously when you're thinking about these things. The other thing that I would say is just in response to that, the maybe deal which we heard about yesterday on climate, you know, cutting emissions is certainly a necessary and welcome step.

Of course, the details need to be analysed, but cutting emissions by roughly 40 per cent by 2030 is going to do some good. But we also need to recognise that at this point, a lot of the effects of climate change, or let's say important effects of climate change, are already locked in. We're already at one point, one degree, and that is already having effects, as you noted, Chairman McGovern, in your opening statement.

So, you know, what do I urge? I urge more data sharing, more early warning, more climate resilience, more climate financing. These things are going to be crucial. And the U.S. is in a position to lead on these issues, to lead by itself, but also to lead at the UN and in other multinational fora where it can act. People talk about climate as a threat multiplier. The U.S. could use these institutions as force multipliers in order to rally the international community around these important issues, as the U.S. has started to do under the Biden administration. In New York, Rosemary DiCarlo, former State Department official, current number two in DPA, she's done a great job. The U.S. and UN have been very active on this, but the problem is of such a magnitude that, you know, the more they lean forward, the more people we could help, the more lives we can save and the more rights we can protect. Thanks.

Find the recording of the hearing before the U.S. House Committee on Foreign Affairs here.

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