For national security, climate finance must be made ‘conflict-proof’

AP Photo/Petros Giannakouris

As the House takes up the America COMPETES Act of 2022, a comprehensive bill to promote innovation and economic competition with China, climate change is at the center of the discussion. One goal of the bill is ensuring the United States is the preferred partner for countries around the globe as they face security risks from rising temperatures and increased extreme weather events. The provisions aimed at strengthening support for allies and partners include $8 billion over two years to assist developing countries with mitigating and adapting to climate change. While such climate financing measures have traditionally been a key focus of human rights and development communities, they are increasingly central to U.S. national security as the United States looks to prevent climate-driven conflict and instability as well as strengthen the capacity of its allies and partners to weather climate shocks.

One of the gravest challenges that climate change poses is as a threat multiplier. Both short-term impacts such as hurricanes and fire as well as longer-term impacts such as drought and sea-level rise can cause loss of lives, livelihoods and spur large-scale migration. The National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on climate change released by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence last year identified 11 highly vulnerable countries of concern, and predicted that these 11 countries “will lack the financial resources or governance capacity to adapt to climate change effects, heightening the risk of instability-induced migration … and increasing their already substantial needs for foreign aid and humanitarian assistance.”

Robust climate financing programs can help fill these financial and governance gaps and strengthen security. The old adage that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure may be a cliche, but when it comes to the security risks posed by climate change, it’s absolutely right. The NIE notes that, “building resilience in these countries and regions would probably be especially helpful in mitigating future risks to US interests.”

A key example of this dynamic is the opportunity for climate finance to increase local adaptive capacity to prevent displacement and migration. Widespread climate-driven migration is not only a future risk — it is also a current reality. According to a report by the International Federation of the Red Cross and the Red Crescent Societies, in the six months preceding February 2021, 12.5 million people were displaced around the world, with 10.3 of those displacements attributed to climate-induced events.

Climate adaptation investments can help minimize and regularize these flows. Take Bangladesh as an example. Increases in soil salinity due to sea-level rise are reducing agricultural yields and driving rural to urban migration. However, more resourced farmers have been better able to adapt — and are therefore less likely to migrate — because they have transitioned to planting salinity-resistant rice strains. Climate finance could help fill this gap for poorer farmers by providing them access to salinity-resistant seeds and climate-smart education. In this case and in other local contexts around the world, financial investments in the most vulnerable communities can help slow and prevent forced migration flows, and in turn, strengthen state and regional stability.  

Strategic climate finance investments can also promote climate justice and counter risks of violent extremism. The most climate-affected and least climate-prepared countries are also, in many cases, the least responsible for the problem. Leaving this inequity unaddressed is both an injustice and a security threat. As a recent Center for Climate and Security Briefer on Climate Change and Terrorism explains, “climate change is easy to portray as a problem caused largely by the industrialized countries of the West, which may help the anti-Western messages of many of these [extremist] groups resonate with potential recruits.”

One of the most important reasons to bring a security lens to climate finance is the opportunity to target conflict-sensitive areas to bolster peace and security. Developed nations have promised an annual sum of $100 billion in climate finance through the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change through 2025. While some of the funding has been delayed, the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development ( OECD) predicts that the full sum will be mobilized in 2023 and beyond. This funding is channeled into projects on the ground through mechanisms such as the Global Environment Facility (GEF) and the Green Climate Fund. In a flagship analysis, GEF assessed the impact of its financial investment in fragile and conflict-affected contexts, finding that conflict and fragility negatively impact the implementation, effectiveness and sustainability of climate adaptation as well as mitigation projects. The report identifies a need for GEF to integrate conflict sensitivity into its guidance and support for its on-the-ground partners. 

In other words, climate finance must be made “conflict-proof.” Not only is there a need for strategic guidance on making climate investments effective in conflict-affected areas, but there is also a need to direct finance flows into the areas that are most at-risk for conflict or fragility, in order to — returning to our earlier point — build stability and conflict resilience.

Ultimately, taking an integrated approach to climate finance and climate security is common sense. Robust climate financing will strengthen U.S. national security by building stability and conflict resilience, averting forced displacement, promoting climate justice and countering violent extremism. Strategically targeting at-risk areas with conflict-sensitive climate finance approaches will further boost these efforts, strengthen relationships with allies and partners, as well as help America compete on the world stage.

Elsa Barron is a program assistant at the Center for Climate and Security. She is also the host of the environmental peacebuilding podcast, “Olive Shoot.”

Erin Sikorsky is the director of the Center for Climate and Security and the International Military Council on Climate and Security. She previously served on the U.S. National Intelligence Council where she led the U.S. intelligence community’s environmental and climate security analysis.

Tags Climate change climate conflict climate resilience Elsa Barron Erin Sikorsky Global warming National security

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