Skip to main content

The Nexus of Climate Change, Fragility, and Peacebuilding

The Wilson Center and USIP hosted a timely discussion with experts on the linkages between climate and fragility, and how a more integrated approach to climate and fragility policies and responses can simultaneously strengthen resilience outcomes and minimize threats to peace and prosperity.

Date & Time

Apr. 13, 2021
10:00am – 11:30am ET


“Addressing the link between climate, conflict, and environment is a critical piece of the new USG framework for addressing fragility, and, as the Biden administration scales up its efforts to center climate change in its foreign policy and national security agendas, it’s going to be essential to consider the linkages between climate action and opportunities to build peace,” said Joe Hewitt, Vice President at the U.S. Institute of Peace during a recent event co-hosted by the Wilson Center and the U.S. Institute of Peace on the importance of integrating climate change responses, conflict prevention efforts, and peacebuilding.

In the United States, concern over the impacts of climate change has gained renewed traction under the Biden administration and amidst the record-breaking devastation caused by extreme weather events both in the United States and abroad. “Environmental change is on everyone’s radar. There are very real opportunities on the horizon for the Biden administration and all of us here today to innovate on our own and in support of the new administration,” said Cynthia Brady, a Wilson Center Global Fellow and former Senior Peacebuilding and Conflict Advisor at USAID.

But while the Administration is working to center climate change in its foreign and domestic policy agendas, corresponding attention to integrating peacebuilding into the burgeoning climate agenda remains so far unaddressed. This is an oversight, said Brady, since many of the countries around the world most affected by fragility and conflict are the same places facing the steepest climate-related challenges. “While that is a daunting reality, there is actually an opportunity there too. One we cannot afford to miss it by staying in technical silos of work.”

As it ambitiously pushes forward a new climate agenda the Biden administration has a window of opportunity to integrate climate action and peacebuilding through the Global Fragility Act (GFA)—legislation that requires the development and implementation of a new 10-year interagency approach to conflict prevention and stabilization in fragile contexts—as well as through its national security strategies and recent Executive Orders.

Integration is key to breaking down silos

“One of the biggest issues we have is our siloed programs,” said Liz Hume, Acting President and CEO of Alliance for Peacebuilding. “The peacebuilding field has not done a great job of integrating our work throughout other sectors.” Integrating attention to climate change and peacebuilding includes moving away from technical silos of work toward systems thinking in policy approaches and integrated programming. “Interdisciplinary thinking, adaptation, and creativity will be the hallmarks of how we get this done, which means we have to lean across some non-traditional lines of thinking and operating in order to work together in new ways,” said Brady.

Incorporating risk reducing conflict prevention programs into climate mitigation and adaptation efforts can help ensure that climatic hazards do not exacerbate violent conflict, said Hume. For example, strategies that improve collaborative natural resource management or foster social cohesion can reduce potential conflicts and also shore up the ability of fragile states and societies themselves to better cope with climate stresses.

 “In many of these fragile places, it is not sufficient or appropriate to address climate change and conflict as two disconnected global challenges. We need to look at the two together and in a much more intentional way,” said Dina Esposito, Vice President of technical leadership at Mercy Corps. During the 2015 drought in Ethiopia, a USAID drought resilience program implemented by Mercy Corps helped sustain communities’ food security even in the face of that enormous weather shock. But the programs were operating at highly contentious border areas where ethnic groups have historically both shared and clashed over resources, and the program did not have any peace components in it. What we found, said Esposito, was that eventually, without cross border dialogues—which are signature to peace programming around resource management—some of our climate smart market work was diminished because of growing insecurity in the border area. In the next round of programming, Mercy Corps was able to explicitly incorporate conflict mitigation and peacebuilding into the program that had previously been exclusively focused on climate shocks and drought-related resilience.

Reframing climate threats as a “risk multiplier” opens up new opportunities

Framing climate as a “risk multiplier” focuses attention on how climate interacts with a range of social and political factors beyond traditional security threats. It encourages attention to both risks and opportunities, offering more natural entry points for engagement through peacebuilding.

People are asking new and better analytical questions, like how do climate effects shape conflict and instability, fragility, and prospects for peacebuilding, said Erin Sikorsky, Deputy Director at the Center for Climate and Security. This helps move the conversation beyond a conventional understanding of security so that decision-makers are able to draw on a more diverse set of diplomatic and development tools in response to climate insecurity.

Today’s peacebuilding and climate work is focused on addressing near term shocks, said Esposito, but we need that future-oriented understanding and approach to ensure that the choices we make today reduce those risks for the future. Advances in new predictive capabilities and efforts to create robust risk tools and use scenario-planning can help policymakers and government practitioners understand the linkages between climate change effects within larger systems, said Sikorsky. These tools are great, but you have to put them into policy and practice, and you need people within government that can understand and use them.

The first step is ensuring that policymakers understand what is at stake, said Alice Hill, Senior Fellow at Council on Foreign Relations. Incorporating climate education into training and hiring requirements and ensuring decision-makers are equipped with the science and background knowledge needed to address climate change across portfolios is key to the U.S. making progress, said Hill. We can have great analytical tools for climate but they aren’t useful unless people know how to apply them in their work.

Elevating a climate, peace, and fragility agenda in the New Administration

The GFA provides an opportunity to integrate climate change into conflict prevention and stabilization efforts and think intentionally about operational next steps. It moves us towards a new conflict prevention approach that signals progress in breaking down silos by requiring the integration of humanitarian, conflict prevention, and development sectors. But more can be done, such as raising the profile of climate within the Global Fragility Strategy itself and requiring attention to it in the risk profiles of the selected countries.

Operationalizing a more integrated climate, peace, and fragility agenda will require longer programming cycles and investing more money in peacebuilding over time. The GFA moves progress in that direction by providing a 10-year timeline rather than the more traditional 2-5 year development programming timeframes. Taking a longer-term view will also require U.S. foreign assistance to be adaptive and flexible to capitalize on lessons from the ground and adjust where necessary, said Hume.

Early experience has shown that integrated assessments and planning can yield well-designed climate action that fosters collaboration and promotes peace, and strategic investments in peacebuilding can yield climate resilience. It is time for the U.S. government to recognize those shared vulnerabilities and harness the opportunities for co-benefits. “Developing a shared narrative to help actors among different agencies even conceptualize the same version of the problem is a really important place to start,” said Brady.

Written by Ratia Tekenet, edited by Lauren Risi and Cynthia Brady

Continue the conversation on Twitter @NewSecurityBeat using the hashtag #ClimateAndPeacebuilding


Thank you for your interest in this event. Please send any feedback or questions to our Events staff.