Climate Action Holds Key to Tackling Global Conflict

3 November 2021 (UNEP)* — The impact of climate change on global peace and security is high on the agenda as world leaders gather at the COP26 UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow this week.


Photo: Reuters/Muhammad Fuhaid | Belongings on a truck heading to a camp for internally displaced people in Marib, Yemen.

As UN Secretary-General António Guterres said in his landmark state of the planet speech: climate change is one of the biggest dangers to peace. “The fallout of the assault on our planet is impeding our efforts to eliminate poverty and imperiling food security. And it is making our work for peace even more difficult, as the disruptions drive instability, displacement and conflict.”

UN Environment Programme’s (UNEP’s) Emissions Gap Report 2021: The Heat Is On released last week shows that current commitments by countries put the world on track for a global temperature rise of 2.7°C by the end of the century. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, even an increase of 2°C would have a major impact on food, security and human health.

Since 1946, the year after the founding of the UN, the absolute number of war deaths has been declining, and conflicts have become less deadly. But experts fears climate change could reverse that progress. Here’s how.

1. Climate change as a risk multiplier

A woman walks in a storm in Cabo Delgado
Photo: Chris Huby/ Cover Images via Reuters | Cabo Delgado in Mozambique has been experiencing extreme climate change and a humanitarian crisis.

Seventy per cent of the most climate-change-vulnerable countries are also among the most politically and economically fragile. And almost half of the 15 countries most susceptible to climate-related risks host a UN peacekeeping or special political mission.

Although climate change may not always be a direct cause of conflict, it can multiply and amplify existing risks to peace and development. It can obstruct access to water, food, health and housing. People who are already in vulnerable situations – including those living in poverty or in situations of conflict – may experience impacts more acutely because they have less capacity for coping and fewer resources with which to build resilience.

2. Climate change adds pressure on state and community structures

A village in Turkana County
Photo: UNEP/Duncan Moore | The villages around Kenya’s Lake Turkana have long suffered serious impacts of climate change.

Climate change contributes to slow-onset and extreme weather events, requiring state institutions to redirect their attention and resources. Meanwhile, the decrease in livelihood opportunities caused by a changing climate can expose household and community-level vulnerabilities, impact livelihoods, compound economic inequality and erode social structures that would normally offer support and protection.

A recent report on climate-related security risks and peacebuilding in Somalia found that increasing unpredictability of seasons has effects on herders, farmers, markets, families and entire communities. Over the past four decades, Somalia has experienced increasing dust storms and droughts, which have tended to induce herder-farmer conflicts over access to resources.

3. Climate change can drive displacement and undermine human rights

Extreme weather and other adverse effects of climate change can lead to displacement. The latest Global Report on Internal Displacement found that, in 2020, 30 million people were newly-displaced as a result of weather-related disasters – compared with 9.8 million as a result of conflict and violence. In addition to being uprooted from their homes, internally displaced persons tend to be poorer and less food secure.

A recent report by the World Bank found that as many as 216 million people could move within their own countries due to slow-onset climate change impacts by 2050. Their enjoyment of civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights may also be compromised.

4. Climate change leaves women especially vulnerable

Women fetch water in Tajikistan
Photo: UNEP/Lisa Murray | Indira Ismailova collects water with her sister in law in Tajikistan.

Research has shown that women suffer disproportionately from the impacts of climate change for various social, economic and cultural reasons.

A study led by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) found that in many developing countries, most smallholder farmers are women whose livelihoods and food sources are at risk from climate change. Climate change is causing rises in sea levels, temperature and acidity, which are depleting fish populations and compromising the livelihoods of women involved in fish catching, processing and trading.

Food insecurity caused due to climate change affects women’s health differently because of their nutritional needs during pregnancy, lactation and childbirth. Climate-related disasters can decrease the quality and availability of sexual and reproductive health services. Women can also suffer increased risks of sexual and gender-based violence.

For indigenous peoples, the effects of climate change can cause cultural loss. Indigenous women, for example, are often keepers of traditional knowledge about their lands and the medicinal value of plants. Rapid climate change can reduce the biodiversity of their ecosystems and can affect traditional knowledge and its application.

In 2016, UNEP, UN Women, the United Nations Development Programme, and the UN Peacebuilding Support Office established the Joint Programme on Women, Natural Resources and Peace to test innovative approaches in the field and develop good practices for using natural resource-based interventions to strengthen women’s participation in conflict prevention and resolution. The programme was piloted in Sudan and Colombia.

5.  A safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment is a human right

Children swim in the ocean
Photo: Ocean Agency/Fabrice Dudenhofer | Children swim in clean ocean waters in Indonesia.

Last month, the United Nations Human Rights Council (HRC) recognised for the first time that having a clean, healthy and sustainable environment is a human right.

Inger Andersen, Executive Director of UNEP, called the adoption of the resolution “a breakthrough moment for environmental justice”, saying it would help shield individuals and communities from risks to their health and livelihoods. She encouraged Member States to consider a similar resolution at the UN General Assembly, which has universal membership.

While more than 80 per cent of UN Member States already recognize the right to a healthy environment through national law, court decisions or regional treaties, this resolution still marks a watershed moment in the fight against the triple planetary crisis of climate change, nature and biodiversity loss and pollution and waste.

A rights-based approach requires states to respect, protect, promote and fulfil all human rights for all people. This means preventing harm occurring because of climate change, making resources available and enabling people to take appropriate action.

To learn more, contact Angela Kariuki at UNEP: or Amanda Kron at OHCHR:

This story is part of a series on environment and human rights, produced jointly by UNEP and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR).

UNEP is at the front in support of the Paris Agreement goal of keeping the global temperature rise well below 2°C, and aiming – to be safe – for 1.5°C, compared to pre-industrial levels. To do this, UNEP has developed a Six-Sector Solution. The Six Sector Solution is a roadmap to reducing emissions across sectors in line with the Paris Agreement commitments and in pursuit of climate stability. The six sectors identified are Energy; Industry; Agriculture and Food; Forests and Land Use; Transport, and Buildings and Cities.


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