Whose Peace Is It Anyway? Thoughts on environmental peacebuilding

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As climate change is increasingly seen as a security issue – a ‘threat multiplier’ – the concept of environmental peacebuilding has received increasing attention. In this blog, Michael Copage, Master’s Student at the University of Ottawa’s Graduate School of Public and International Affairs raises some potential problems that this perspective raises.

As climate changes shift long-standing regional weather patterns over the coming decades, the political and social institutions which have been built around them will have to adapt. Despite the evolving and inconclusive series of hypotheses concerning the link between the environmental change of public goods and violent conflict, some consensus has emerged which regards climate change as a ‘threat multiplier’; it may not incite new conflicts on it’s own, but the tumult resulting from shifting resources – providing relative abundance and scarcity amongst neighbouring peoples around the world – is liable to serve as a catalyst to existing tensions

Recognizing that this presents a new dimension that peace efforts must manage, international organizations like the United Nations Environment Programme have begun undertaking studies of what it would require to adapt. Barring the precise means and mechanisms being laid out, this raises a very interesting set of questions. If the environment becomes a strategic means through which military or peace-oriented organizations negotiate and implement peace agreements, has ownership/stewardship of public goods been effectively transferred from the local host population to an external party? In other words, will the intention of minimizing the people’s exposure to ‘environmental insecurity’(“the way in which environmental degradation threatens the security of people, with a particular emphasis on the differentiated impacts of environmental degradation on different groups of people”) give way to arguments for increased state securitization of environmental resources(effectively expanding the battleground for legitimacy)? What does this imply for the democratic management of public goods like the environment? If the ‘threat multiplier’ of climate change and the rise of environmental peacebuilding goes hand-in-hand, is it desirable that external third parties mediate the distribution of a shifting stock of climate-affected resources in Africa like water and arable land? This piece will explore some of these questions.

Public Goods, Divided Borders

Public goods like rivers and air quality are not constrained by borders, yet the present nature of political territory and property rights are not compatible with this reality. While communities often cooperate to manage shared resources, changing social or environmental conditions can alter the conditions under which cooperation flourishes. It’s been argued elsewhere that the conflict in Darfur may have some roots in the Sudanese government’s 1971 dissolution of the institutions that mediated disputes over land between communities of different tribal background, which occurred just as drought drew pastoral groups into the Jebel Mara area of Darfur, bringing them into conflict with the agriculturalists over feed for pastoralist herds. Therefore, though it’s clear the origins of the conflict are extremely complex and, moreover, that the conflict’s origins cannot explain its current dynamics, it is clear that environmental change can increase the pressure on institutions and ignite conflict.

Whose Institutions?

Hypothetically assuming a third party could have gained acceptance from the Sudanese government and local communities to get involved, where would an external intervention fit? Analysts suggest the breakdown of institutions to resolve conflict between the pastoralists and agriculturalists is partly to blame. However, if local conventions mediate disputes within communities then the imposition of a new institution to regulate cross-community conflict resolution could conflict with these conventions, and upset the balance of power they maintained. This is not to say that the status quo was necessarily optimal or static. But it does highlight the need to ensure that those being assisted by third party interventions don’t have their voices overridden by concerns over security and stability.


Another danger is that as environmental insecurity – or conversely the securitization of the environment – gains greater attention, its definition may be stretched and abused to justify a multitude of interventions. On one hand, there has been discussion about whether international norms like the Responsibility to Protect should be expanded to cover areas where a state is unable or unwilling to protect the environmental security of its people as a result of extended droughts, rising sea-levels, or other disasters. Though there is very little (if any) traction for this notion it raises the question; as environmental emergencies increase in frequency with climate change, where is the line to be drawn? Likewise, there is a danger that states or regional groups could unilaterally use the umbrella of environmental peacebuilding to justify interventions that stand to benefit themselves rather than the local communities affected. To avoid these dangers, new international norms on environmental adaptation assistance – especially in a peacebuilding context – must be jointly developed and designed soon to protect the political and social rights of communities and nations as we face the climate challenges ahead.


African states will experience great challenges as global warming progresses, and managing the offer of international or inter-state assistance is complex. By encouraging discussion of what changes could come, both within local and international communities, African states and communities can and should take a leading role in developing the norms that will guide action in environmental peacebuilding.

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