Looking beyond COP-21 to tackle climate change induced conflicts in the Horn

By Fana Gebresenbet*

We are now more certain of the anthropogenic causes of climate change, but what that change entails, especially for tropical Africa, is not yet concretely established. For the Horn of Africa what various circulation models have been consistently predicting was shattered by a paleoclimate study published on 9 October 2015. This study, which covered the past two millennia, has confirmed that the region’s long rains showed a steep and persistent decline in the past century, coinciding with global warming/emission of greenhouse gases. Based on this, the predictions tell that the region gets drier, thus droughts becoming more frequent and intense in the future. This increase in aridity is further exasperated by temperature increases. Despite the stochastic nature of its methodology, this study confirms of the hard days to come in our region.

Beyond its direct (and obvious) economic and public health impacts, predictions of increased aridity foretell times of more intense competition and (violent) conflict. That is what historical studies of decline in temperature (thus reduction in agricultural productivity) and war related deaths for the northern hemisphere (Europe and China) tell. And correlation between climate induced drop in productivity and conflict is not new in the Horn.

The argument advanced here focuses on what the region’s governments should do to preclude the possibility of climate change induced conflicts. There is no debate on the fact that climate change could stress the limits of societies and state institutions. However, agreeably, climate change induced conflict is not inescapable. With the right knowledge, institutions, and policy frameworks the threat could be minimized and diffused. Climate does not dictate human behavior and interactions. Short of this, the likelihood of conflict incidence and severity increases to the extent that a community/society did not put the appropriate response mechanisms and institutions in place beforehand.

Thus, governance, as well as institutional and technological innovations to deal with a forthcoming unknown future, play a crucial role to dissuade climate-induced conflicts. Hitherto attempts should be adopted at a multi-level governance framework, as climate is a multi-level commons. In fact, the global platform is becoming prominent to deal with the global phenomenon of climate change as is often visible in the triennial Conference of the Parties meetings, with the 21st underway this December 2015 in Paris, France. In these meetings, Africa has attempted to have a stronger voice by speaking as one. Through a recent creation of the most vulnerable countries, the V-20 are concerting their efforts to influence major climate financing decisions to be reached in CoP-21. Of the twenty, six are from Africa: Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Madagascar, Rwanda and Tanzania. Yet, is the global level, the most important level to deal with climate-induced conflicts?

Seen from the surface, it appears that climate finance has become yet another source of funds leaders of developing countries claim from the developed world. Not questioning the rationale of this position and without reducing the importance of global solutions to climate change, it would be fair to question if an external, and merely financial, solution will solve potential conflict implications of climate change. There is no debate on the indispensability of a multi-level governance scheme for climate change, with the triennial meetings, such as this year’s Paris meeting, taking the lead and regional organizations, states and civil society organizations playing active roles.

If climate change contributes to (violent) conflict, most of such conflicts will be at local levels. Decisions reached at global or national levels will not necessarily be implemented with the same spirit at local levels. As a typical example of collective action problem, if there is little trust among different local actors a free-rider problem will challenge climate deals. To tackle this problem, climate change negotiations should consider centers of power, other than the global and national, and go polycentric.

Fana Gebresenbet (fana.g@ipss-addis.org) is a Lecturer at the Institute for Peace and Security Studies (IPSS), Addis Ababa University. Currently he is a PhD Candidate in the joint program of Global and Area Studies offered by the Addis Ababa and Leipzig Universities. He also worked as a research assistant in the Africa Program of the UN-affiliated University for Peace. Fana has published on issues relating to development, environmental/climate security, pastoralism, and resource conflicts.

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