Creating an Environment of Peace Means Avoiding Backdraft

By Noah Bell & Geoffrey D. Dabelko





The much-needed transition to a zero carbon, green economy offers opportunities to contribute to peace, but only if the conflict risks of transition are understood and managed to produce a just and peaceful transition. That means minimizing “backdraft”—the unintended negative impacts of transition that are a key obstacle to that goal.


Raising questions about the potential for conflict and injustice in responses to climate and related conservation crises is central to SIPRI’s new Environment of Peace: Security in a New Era of Risk report. As two members of an international author team, we dug into the wide range of pitfalls that await those who are trying to chart a path to decarbonization and robust ecosystems through mitigation, adaptation, and conservation.


Highlighting the conflict and injustice potential in our absolutely essential climate response can be interpreted as making arguments against taking action itself. But it is not. Quite the opposite, in fact. It is because making these transitions is so important that it is so critical to raise—and respond—to these questions of conflict and injustice. This integration must be done ahead of the massive a changes, and not after we have made them.


The stakes for this immense transition are high. And even as war and public health crises compete for senior policymakers’ attention, political setbacks to climate response and backsliding on commitments have the unprecedented long-term consequences for our planet.


Earlier Warnings

Our present moment is not the first time these potential downsides of well-intentioned actions have been raised. Over a decade ago, a number of us at the Wilson Center introduced the concept of backdraft to flag the conflict potential of our responses to climate change. We wanted to raise the profile of this emerging but largely overlooked arena for climate and conflict links.


At that time, and still in large part today, connections between climate impacts and the onset of organized violence have dominated research and policy debates. These links are no doubt critical ones, as are the wider human security threats that climate change and biodiversity loss will bring to livelihoods and life-supporting ecosystems captured in the Sustainable Development Goals.


Our ambition at the time in identifying backdraft was to spur a still more inclusive and more applied agenda. It is even more essential to address it now, as a host of actors at all levels and sectors move ahead with the absolutely necessary transition activities of mitigation, adaptation, and conservation agreed under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) processes.


Steps to combat climate change are not inherently unproblematic simply because they help achieve a needed decarbonized future. Yet some players, understandably occupied with the considerable hurdles to meaningful action, are reluctant to engage with the issue. They prefer to avoid further complicating the enterprise, or add more conditions to satisfy as change is undertaken. Indeed, raising more hurdles to climate responses was—and often still is—viewed as what might politely be termed “inconvenient.” Such concerns are deemed to be addressed more usefully after pressing climate responses were truly underway.


Such monumentally challenging transitions are bound to create winners and losers. And the systematic assessments of mitigation, adaptation, and conservation approaches we are conducting as part of SIPRI’s Environment of Peace Initiative make clear that conflict and injustice are very real possibilities from these well-intentioned efforts.


Related research efforts come to a similar conclusion when they identify a similar boomerang dynamic which undercuts support for governance institutions that fail to adequately and justly respond to climate impacts. Thus, it is incumbent upon us to ask and answer questions about how facing up to these inconvenient possibilities at the outset will maximize winners and minimize losers in ways that reduce potential conflict. This is especially the case given we are still at the beginning of efforts that will truly bring about these transitions.


Learning Lessons from the Past

As we argue in the Environment of Peace report, focusing up front on a just and peaceful transition is tactically wise as well.


Groups like Indigenous peoples, with demonstrated successes in conservation outcomes and high levels of vulnerability to climate impacts, need to be allies, and not opponents of these efforts. Yet if the conservation and climate goals of forest protection efforts under prominent banners of the 30×30 Initiative or the 2021 Glasgow Leader’s Declaration on Forests and Land Use fall prey to past “coercing conservation” or “fortress conservation practices, these communities will understandably become opponents of such essential steps. Similar conditions also are emerging as a major stumbling block for the key mined mineral and metal inputs that power renewable energy and battery technologies.


Resistance from Indigenous, poor, and marginalized communities will ultimately only serve to slow down and undermine this needed transition. Therefore, all interventions need to be both context and conflict sensitive. How will this project interact with existing conflict dynamics—or even create new ones? And as we work proactively to build resilience, how can this project be used to minimize existing conflict, build trust, or strengthen cooperation?

Humanity and the planet cannot wait decades more for meaningful climate and environmental action. Yet this “code red” urgency serves only to bring about a renewed focus on backdraft. Our actions must be immediate, which easily can lead to poor implementation. Thus, policymakers need to actively design policies and projects so that conflict and justice are factored in from the outset. They also must learn from feedback loops and implement lessons learned into both those on-going projects, as well as those in development.


This new era of risk in climate transition and backdraft is woven into an international security landscape that underlines the need for international cooperation even as the COVID pandemic and war in Ukraine compete for attention and resources from policymakers. Yet the door is open to frame climate and conservation crises not just as challenges, but as opportunities to accelerate those essential transitions. By forthrightly addressing multiple crises that are connected in many ways, we can come together to discover that as the UN Secretary General suggested: “renewables are the peace plan of the 21st century.”


We must ask not only how environmental policies should seek to minimize knock-on negative societal effects, but also how they can be designed to enhance the wider resilience of communities, especially in fragile contexts. Just as the underlying causes of these crises are interconnected, our responses also must possess the context and dexterity to make unified progress across climate, development, and security objectives.


Noah Bell is a Project Assistant for the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute’s Environment of Peace Initiative and was a contributing Research Assistant to the Environment of Peace Report.

Geoffrey D. Dabelko is Professor and Associate Dean at Ohio University’s Voinovich School of Leadership and Public Service. He serves as a senior advisor to the Wilson Center’s Environmental Change and Security Program and associate senior fellow to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute’s Environment of Peace Initiative.

Sources: UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC); Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD); SIPRI; Water, Climate Change and the Boomerang Effect (Routledge); Scientific American; UN Climate Change Conference UK 2021; Global Environmental Change; Fortress Conservation: The Preservation of the Mkomazi Game Reserve, Tanzania (Indiana University Press)

Photo Credit: USAID partners with Nigerian fishery to reduce vulnerabilities to climate change and make economies and livelihoods more resilient. Courtesy of flickr user, USAID in Africa.



This post first appeared on New Security Beat.

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