Conflicts, Climate and Corona: Reasons to Rethink Current Policies

By Janpeter Schilling

World War II ended 75 years ago. Today, internationalized civil wars cause the most suffering. Climate change and the Corona pandemic may aggravate conflicts. To better deal with these conflicts and crises, serious rethinking and a shift in policies are needed.

The end of World War II has its 75th anniversary on 8 May 2020. It would be a reason to celebrate that mankind managed to live for so long without a world war – if it wasn’t for the countless armed conflicts that still cause great harm in the world. Nowadays most people don’t die in traditional wars, meaning state versus state in direct confrontation, but in “internationalized civil wars”. This term describes a state fighting a group within that state with at least one other state being involved. Current examples can be found in Afghanistan, Syria, and Yemen. The violent conflicts in these countries caused more than half of the worldwide 77.000 conflict-related deaths in 2018.

Today, a handful of internationalized civil wars cause most deaths. At the same time, the number of armed conflicts without state participation (e.g. conflicts between Mexican drug cartels) and the violence against civilians, most prominently by the Islamic State, have increased over the past ten years.

Against this background, key questions arise: What causes armed conflicts? Which role does climate change play? How does the Corona pandemic affect war and peace? How can we better deal with all of that?

Causes of Armed Conflicts

Armed conflicts are often the result of a combination of various factors, whose identification and quantification are usually challenging. Economic and social inequalities combined with a growing discontent within the population can stimulate civil wars. Nevertheless, it needs actors who anticipate benefiting from the conflict and who are capable to arm and mobilize groups. Often distinctive attributes such as religion and ethnicity are instrumentalized as dividing factors. If external states get involved in civil wars, it is mostly because they expect advantages, for example strengthening of their geopolitical position or access to resources.

The Role of Resources and Climate Change

Broadly speaking, two types of resources can be distinguished. First, high-valuable resources such as oil, gold, and diamonds. These can be used to finance armed conflicts like the one in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. If at least one of the conflict parties benefits financially from the conflict, this party has an interest in the continuation of the conflict.

The second type is renewable resources such as land, water, and forest. These have gained more attention as part of co called “climate change conflicts or even “climate wars”. The underlying argument is that climate change is, for instance, depleting water resources over which armed conflicts break out. That is misleading. There is not a single scientifically proven case in which climate change has been the main cause of armed conflict. It is, however, undisputed that climate change has predominantly negative impacts on resources such as water and land, and that these pose major challenges for the population, especially in poorer countries depending on agriculture for labor and national income. However, a direct and automatic link to violent conflicts or even wars does not exist. It is often forgotten that people also cooperate with each other when resources decline.

Nevertheless, in regions where armed conflicts over renewable resources are already taking place, a deterioration of resources related to climate change may well exacerbate conflicts. An example can be found in northwestern Kenya, where prolonged dry periods escalate conflicts between pastoral groups over livestock, pasture, and water. However, before labeling climate change as a general “fuel for fights”, it should be noted that the availability of resources (whether renewable or high-valuable) plays a much smaller role in violent conflicts than the control and distribution of resources. This means that institutions, from village elders to state governments and the United Nations, strongly influence whether or not armed conflicts break out. Institutions also play a key role in managing the Corona pandemic.

The Role of the Corona Pandemic

The impact of the pandemic on war and peace in the world will depend very much on when and how the Corona crisis will be overcome. This is difficult to predict at the moment. However, it is already clear, that the state is needed and hence it receives more attention by its citizens. If the state shows the ability to act and the willingness to care, its reputation among the population will increase. This can currently be observed in Germany. While the ruling parties enjoy rising popularity, populist parties such as the AfD (Alternative für Deutschland) have so far been unable to capitalize on the pandemic. In the medium term, however, Corona can also lead to social distortion and conflict in Germany, namely when unemployment and inequality are increasing.

In countries where the capabilities of the state are limited anyway, the pandemic can overstretch the health system and thus undermine people's trust in the state. This is particularly the case where the state uses police force against citizens who do not or cannot comply with mobility restrictions because they and their families would suffer from hunger without the income. Such developments can already be observed in slums in Nairobi and Cape Town. There is a general risk that the Corona pandemic will bring vulnerable countries closer to a social tipping point. This is a point at which current harmful developments accelerate or (hardly) reversible effects begin. Once a social tipping point is crossed, violence, war, and collapse become more likely.

Time to Rethink: Four Recommendations

To avoid reaching a social tipping point, the recently agreed debt relief for poor countries or the United Nations’ appeal for a "global ceasefire" are not enough. It is time to rethink – in all policy areas. Only when we no longer focus our foreign, economic, trade, agricultural, security, arms, refugee, development and environmental policies exclusively on our own (predominantly economic) interests, but instead prioritize the improvement of living conditions in particularly vulnerable states, will we be able to convince other rich countries to follow this path and jointly avoid social tipping points Shifts in four areas are particularly needed:

First, we need to rethink the distribution of expenditures. The billions now being made available in the Corona crisis must not only be spent on saving domestic companies and jobs. The funds need to be used to support vulnerable states in coping with conflicts, climate impacts, and the Corona crisis. In Germany’s federal budget, development cooperation must be prioritized over military defense.

So far the Federal Government has pursued the goal of spending two percent of the gross domestic product on defense and only 0.7 percent on development cooperation. The Corona crisis is a good time to abandon the two percent target for defense. To be clear here: the Bundeswehr (Federal Armed Forces) should not be abolished. However, the experience of recent years, whether in Afghanistan or Mali, has shown that the military is not the appropriate instrument for solving armed conflicts.
In general, it is easier and cheaper to prevent armed conflicts than to solve them. That is why we need a two percent target for development cooperation in combination with the following point.

Secondly, development cooperation needs to be more focused, particularly on countries that are already particularly affected by crises, wars and climate impacts, and countries where these risks are foreseeable. The current focus of development policy on economic promotion alone must be replaced by the aim to reduce economic and social inequality in the respective countries and to strengthen local institutions that can help to prevent and overcome crises without violence. In the end, an armed conflict is always the result of the failure of institutions that have not succeeded in reducing grievances and resolving tensions peacefully.

Following this logic, Germany must also abandon the assumption that social problems in developing countries can be solved by German technology. A new high-tech well will not reduce tensions over the control and distribution of water. Instead, every measure must be socially-embedded. This is more likely to succeed if other policy areas also follow suit.

Therefore, thirdly, economic, trade, and arms policies must explicitly take into account their impact on inequality in vulnerable countries. For example, Germany should insist that the EU does not pay subsidies to industrial fishing vessels that deprive local fishermen in coastal West Africa of their livelihood. Chicken parts, that wanted in the EU, should no longer be exported at ridiculously low prices to countries such as Ghana, where cheap imports make local poultry farming unprofitable. Instead, Germany and the EU need to open up more to agricultural products from developing countries.

As the world’s fourth-largest arms exporter, Germany has a great responsibility. So far, Germany exports arms to (potentially) repressive states. This practice must be stopped. Arms do not cause conflicts, but they do make them more violent and solutions more difficult. One can see this in the long-lasting wars in Afghanistan or Syria. This leads us to the next issue.

Fourthly, Germany should rethink its currently rather passive role in international politics and position itself clearly as an advocate and enabler of peace. The conditions are favorable: Internationally Germany enjoys a high reputation and degree of trust. The German government should use this to advocate for global cooperation and offer itself as a mediator in internationalized civil wars.

Certainly, the implementation of the proposed policy shifts is not easy, especially in times of growing populism and an impending global recession. However, setting new goals would be a start.

This blog post is a revised version of the article “Landauer Konfliktforscher fordert: Umdenken, bitte!”


About the author

Dr. Janpeter Schilling is Klaus Toepfer Foundation-Junior Professor for Land Use Conflicts at the Institute for Environmental Sciences at the University of Koblenz-Landau and Scientific Director of the Peace Academy Rhineland-Palatinate.