Peacebuilding in the Anthropocene

Tom Cavanagh

United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres did not mince words when presenting findings of the most recent IPCC report in late February, stating that the report read as an ‘atlas of human suffering and a damning indictment of failed climate leadership’. The report joins an ever-growing body of evidence of the costs of inaction on climate change that adorn the front pages of major headlines on a near daily basis. These are the impending consequences of the Anthropocene, a contested but increasingly accepted geological epoch whereby human activity is the dominant driver of environmental and climate change.


The risks of conflict, instability, and terrorism are multiplied by climate change. Where the effects of climate change are most intimately felt, existing conflicts and fragilities are exposed and amplified, often with devastating consequences. According to the 2021 Ecological Threat Register, countries that are already experiencing socio-economic pressures are often also facing the highest number of ecological threats. Indeed, out of the 15 countries facing the worst ecological threats, 11 are currently in conflict, and the remaining four face increasing fragility.


In the Anthropocene, resource scarcity is likely to increase. Already, food prices have reached their highest levels since the food crisis of 2011, with growing fears that this could spark social unrest and conflict. In Ethiopia, already the site of an ongoing conflict in the Tigray region, severe drought is expected to leave more than 6.8 million people in need of humanitarian assistance and 4.4 million facing critical water shortages.


As conflict and resource scarcity increase, more people will be forced to leave their homes in search of safety and better livelihoods. The changing climate could displace up to 1.2 billion by 2050. Displacement of this scale is likely to see conflicts emerge between refugees and host populations and significantly strain refugee-hosting countries.


The Anthropocene has accelerated recognition of the need for change in how our energy needs are met. Many countries are moving towards renewable resources to meet their energy productions. While this is an important step, it has led to a skyrocketing demand for the rare earth minerals used in these technologies. Many of these minerals are found in fragile states: for example, half of the world’s supply of cobalt is found in southern Congo, a region that has faced years of conflict, poverty, and poor governance. While the demand for these resources can represent a profound economic opportunity for developing counties, all too often, poor resource governance precipitates further conflict and displacement.


Enter environmental peacebuilding


It is clear that the changing climate and its effects increasingly shape worldwide conflicts and humanitarian crises. In responding to these challenges, environmental factors cannot be ignored.


Environmental peacebuilding encompasses a wide range of peacebuilding approaches that centre around models of environmental resource management, to prevent and resolve conflicts and increase resilience to future shocks through better livelihood generation options and more political and social systems.


Central to the field of environmental peacebuilding is the recognition that while environmental challenges can exacerbate conflicts along societal fault lines, they can also represent ‘profound opportunities for peace engagement’, writes Randall Amster in Peace Ecology. Peace engagement can occur at all levels, from large-scale conservation projects, such as the Greater Mapungubwe Transfrontier Conservation Area between Botswana, South Africa and Zimbabwe, down to community-led initiatives involving land and water management.


Water has often been the arena in which the links between environmental change and conflict have been studied. Water scarcity is often theorised to increase the risk of conflict. In this context, water-based interventions that focus on building collaboration and trust between adversaries have been proven to reduce conflict. Where these interventions have taken place, communities once in conflict have displayed increased resilience to food insecurity and other environmental stressors in times of drought - situations that might otherwise lead to outbreaks of violence or civil unrest.


Improvements in social relations and resource governance in one sphere can extend to and influence other aspects of life. This can create a positive feedback loop where seemingly small interventions can extend far beyond the environmental challenge at hand. These interventions allow experimentation with alternative futures, where cooperation, not conflict, is the norm. Futures where an abundance of resources does not lead to kleptocratic authorities and scarcity does not leave communities at risk of violence.


Combatting climate pessimism


While security analysts and policymakers often paint the future as bleak and conflict-ridden, through the lens of environmental peacebuilding, one can observe the plethora of ways in which cooperation is both possible and, in many cases, more viable.


It has rightly been pointed out that environmental peacebuilding is not a panacea. Initiatives can fail to meet their social or environmental goals, and many questions remain to be answered in the young field. However, in the Anthropocene, there is not an option to act independently of the environment. If we try, we are doomed to the dystopian predictions that dominate our headlines.


Tom Cavanagh works in international development on issues relating to forest governance and holds a Masters degree in Peace and Conflict Studies specialising in environmental peacebuilding.