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Environment, Peace, and Conflict: Opportunities and Risks for the New Administration

The new Biden administration faces a variety of challenges and a rapidly changing environment will exacerbate many of the challenges. There will be opportunities to make progress in the Arctic, the South China Sea, and other geopolitically sensitive regions. The administration could also pursue opportunities to build peace through cooperation in areas such as shared resources, climate action, or disaster prevention. The Environmental Peacebuilding Association and the Wilson Center's Environmental Change and Security Program hosted a discussion on the potential opportunities and risks the new administration will need to navigate in the coming years. 

Date & Time

Feb. 24, 2021
12:00pm – 1:30pm ET


“With climate change, we can make no small plans—we need to go big,” said Lieutenant General Wallace Gregson (ret.), former Assistant Secretary of Defense for Asian and Pacific Security Affairs, during a recent event co-hosted by the Environmental Peacebuilding Association and Wilson Center on opportunities and challenges facing the new administration relating to the environment, peace, and conflict.

Going big on climate change means moving towards a new energy economy, dramatically reducing emissions, conserving water, protecting carbon storage, and managing demand, said Richard Matthew, Associate Dean of Research and International Programs at the University of California Irvine. World leaders need to address climate change and other urgent, complex, and global challenges. By seeking the perspectives of experts—such as the people on this panel—leaders can develop the big picture insights and wisdom they need to address the challenges, said Matthew.

To address climate change, adopt human security and peacebuilding lenses  

“As the administration rightly focuses on the relevance of climate change to national security, I beg of them to keep the development actors at the table and to remember that when we talk about security, we are not talking about only guns and bombs and borders—we are talking about all of the aspects of human security,” said Cynthia Brady, a Wilson Center Global Fellow and former Peacebuilding and Resilience Advisor at USAID. We can avoid exacerbating challenges by being mindful of the systems and the larger contexts in which we are working, and refraining from narrowly defined, technical solutions. Building resilient systems includes finding non-traditional entry points and community-level interventions, said Brady. Environmental peacebuilding can help bring together various interventions, for example, and systems thinking can support resilient systems by connecting macro-level institutional and policy decisions with individual-level decisions.

Another critical aspect of these themes is considering the human security and dignity for people pushed to migrate—especially those “moving from one fragile environment to another,” said Tegan Blaine, Senior Advisor on Environment and Conflict at the U.S. Institute of Peace.

To accomplish these goals, the new administration must advance a proactive, “peacebuilding-forward” approach to foreign policy that builds resilience for “long-term sustained successes,” said Aaron Salzberg, Director of the Water Institute at the University of North Carolina, and a Wilson Center Global Fellow. “We need to embed principles of peacebuilding in all the work that we do. We are forgoing opportunities every single day to embed ways of bringing communities together within our programming,” said Salzberg.

Rebuild trust and credibility with humility and through partnerships

“The U.S. has to come back with humility because we’ve set the wrong tone for the last four years. We have to recognize that, and then we have to realize we are not coming back to the world the way it was even four or ten years ago,” said Sherri Goodman, a Wilson Center Senior Fellow and former Deputy Under Secretary of Defense for Environmental Security. We must think of our partners as equals who bring other capabilities that we may not have, she said. Blaine likewise said about climate change negotiations, “beginning to build partnerships around adaptation is going to be absolutely critical for building U.S. credibility again.”

Strengthening state-society relationships and establishing trust with local communities is also critical to effective climate action. “We have to be thinking about whether or not those institutions are trusted by the population, whether they are considered effective in their ability to deliver services and support, whether they’re considered legitimate,” said Brady. For example, allowing communities to define their problems and solutions can nurture trust-building.

The opportunities for trust-building and partnership require effort. Building strong partnerships require organizational involvement, time, and trust. “Environmental issues in many respects can provide the ideal platform for peacebuilding. These shared interests can bring people together [and] can create the space for shared visioning,” said Salzberg. These peacebuilding processes can be valuable in building capacity, relationships, and political will for sustained and long-term cooperation in these regions. “But it really only happens if we’re focused on some of these process outcomes as ends rather than just the means to an end or an agreement.”

Strengthening interagency coordination is a challenge and opportunity

Addressing these global challenges will require strengthening coordination and communication across agencies within the government, said Matthew. One of the challenges of interagency coordination is bureaucracy, said Salzberg. Managing competing congressional mandates and the financing of an inter-agency response can create silos, which can impede our work, he said. The new administration has opportunities to break down silos and improve interagency coordination through appointments within agencies, field missions, and of ambassadors.

Borrowing from the whole-of-government approach that was employed for environmental security cooperation in the 1990s, a new chapter of “climate and security cooperation 2.0” can foster better interagency coordination, said Goodman. These interagency efforts can create opportunities such as the military supporting peacebuilding and environmental efforts.

A peacebuilding-forward approach for the Biden administration

The Biden-Harris administration’s renewed focus on climate change requires ‘all hands on deck,’ both domestically and internationally, to tackle issues in a strategic and integrated way. “The time is ripe to build this new community of practice where climate and environmental security has environmental peacebuilding concepts embedded into it that is inclusive of development, disaster risk, diplomacy, with defense in support,” said Goodman.

Elevating climate change as a national security priority marks the beginning of the administration’s commitment. Now we need to make sure that the climate and conflict discussions don’t continue to exist in separate silos, and we need to incentivize their integration. Issues of conflict sensitivity and recognition of the fragile context that many countries are struggling with should be intentionally built in to climate processes like the UNFCCC, said Brady. At the same time, we need to bring the world of climate change and the requirement to be aware of and to track the climate resiliency of investments to our peacebuilding efforts, such as through the Global Fragility Strategy.

Written by Ratia Tekenet, edited by Lauren Risi and Jill Baggerman. 

Find related coverage of these issues on our blog,

Hosted By

Environmental Change and Security Program

The Environmental Change and Security Program (ECSP) explores the connections between environmental change, health, and population dynamics and their links to conflict, human insecurity, and foreign policy.  Read more

Polar Institute

Since its inception in 2017, the Polar Institute has become a premier forum for discussion and policy analysis of Arctic and Antarctic issues, and is known in Washington, DC and elsewhere as the Arctic Public Square. The Institute holistically studies the central policy issues facing these regions—with an emphasis on Arctic governance, climate change, economic development, scientific research, security, and Indigenous communities—and communicates trusted analysis to policymakers and other stakeholders.  Read more

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