From Swords to Ploughshares: Climate and Conflict Part 2

November 26, 2019

I gave a lecture at Chichester Cathedral recently for World Peace Day, examining the relationship between climate breakdown and conflict. In Part 1 of this mini-series, we looked generally at whether there is a link between them, where in the world we are seeing it, and how it’s affecting people, both at an individual, local level and a national one. In Part 2 I will look more closely at the key issues and some of the links between the two problems.

Given we can see that the two issues are linked, how do they affect each other? Let’s take a look at some of the key areas that mean climate and conflict are often mutually reinforcing…

1. Agriculture and food security
Changing rainfall patterns affect the fertility of the land and force people whose ancestors may have lived in an area for many centuries to relocate because they are unable to produce enough food to eat and make a living. A 2016 study showed that a 1℃ temperature rise in countries that are dependant on agriculture was correlated with a 5% increase in migration to other countries. Migration due to food shortages can also take place within the same country, e.g. from rural to urban areas. This problem of climate-induced food insecurity is not limited to land-based food sources: ocean acidification is also forcing communities reliant on dying fish stocks to migrate to find new sources of food. As we will see, migration can have significant effects for stability and levels of violence.

2. Climate adaptation capacity
In the case of slow-onset disasters, people will usually try to adapt to changes in climate (like those mentioned above) as a first response over migration. But this can actually serve to increase tensions, by highlighting or exacerbating societal inequalities more than sudden shock events, that affect everyone in the same way in the short term. Relative deprivation and perceived injustice can create conditions that make conflict more likely. Conflict in turn significantly affects an individual’s ability to adapt, making it much more difficult to deal with the challenges arising from environmental degradation.

3. Weak governance
Adaptive capacity is not only significant at an individual level, but at a societal one too, meaning the role of governments is pivotal. In fact, vulnerability is caused by society – hazard, exposure to hazard and capacity to cope are determined by people’s social, political and economic situation. In turn, climate-induced scarcity has been recognised to increase areas of ‘ungovernable spaces’ by contributing to economic hardship and fuelling social tensions that allow for increased recruitment into terrorist organisations with the potential to destabilise a region. In countries that are on the verge of conflict, sudden climate-related disasters can be exploited by those seeking to achieve a particular political aim, because the ensuing chaos stretches military and police capacity and allows their activities to go unnoticed and unchallenged. This then facilitates further environmental degradation because, although measures such as the SDGs and the Paris Agreement make provisions to help the most vulnerable countries, support hardly reaches the most fragile contexts where this vulnerability is most acute and climate finance is most needed.

4. Displacement and migration
Where individuals and governments are unable to adapt to situations of climate shocks and conflict, people often have no choice but to leave their homes, either for another part of their own country or a new country altogether. Global displacement is currently at an all-time high, and one person is displaced every second by natural disasters, whether climatic shock events, chronic droughts or cyclonic flooding. One place we see this is in coastal cities whose inhabitants are suffering the effects of sea-level rises. Sometimes it works in reverse with people displaced by conflict exposed to unpredictable climates in their new environments. For example, in Colombia, many people moved to the Mocoa area to seek refuge from armed groups, not knowing that it was a hotspot for flash floods and landslides. The landslide there in 2017 claimed 300 lives, and left many more people missing. This issue is set to become more problematic. By 2050, the World Bank estimates that given high greenhouse gas emissions combined with unequal development, more than 143 million people could become internally displaced, with potential knock-on effects for political stability, as the resources of host regions become increasingly stretched.

5. Resource competition
Competition over natural resources, often exacerbated by climate change, can lead to conflict and movement of people. For example, low-level disputes over water or land can escalate into armed conflict during a drought. Migration can in turn increase the pressure on resources in host communities, leading to tension and violence. One example of this is the way that climate change is moving the borders between agriculturalists and pastoralists in the Sahel region in north Africa, as desertification is decreasing the land available for cattle grazing, meaning pastoralists are increasingly encroaching on farmers’ land, which is directly linked to the upsurge in violence in these areas. Resources are also sometimes deliberately restricted as a means of manipulation for political ends. One example of this is water weaponisation, involving tactics such as cutting off the flow of freshwater, the policing of narrow seaways or the re-routing of shipping (e.g. in the Panama canal or Palestine).

These brief thoughts from my lecture give just an overview of some of the main ways that climate change and conflict interact, but this is an area that is just gaining traction amongst researchers and future study will shed more light on these important interrelations. In Part 3, we’ll look at what needs to be done to help address these issues.


From Swords to Ploughshares: Climate and Conflict Part 1

November 11, 2019

We know that climate change is an ever-present and increasingly serious threat, and it seems there is always more news of wars, conflicts and violence – but is there any link between the two?

I was recently invited to give a lecture for World Peace Day at Chichester Cathedral, looking at the relationship between climate breakdown and conflict. As I prepared for the lecture, I was reminded of the moving day I spent with Daniel a few years ago, on his shamba, on the floor of the Rift Valley in Tanzania. One of the things that became apparent on that day was how the climate crisis was leading to conflict between him and the herders around him, as they looked for land on which to graze their goats. With good grazing ground becoming increasingly scarce, the goats kept breaking through his thornbush fences. He would have to throw stones at them to scare them away, and you can imagine he was none-too-happy with the herders themselves.

We have been aware of the reality of climate breakdown for decades, and wars and conflict have gone on since the beginning of human society, but there is a particular interest growing in looking at these two topics together. It has become increasingly recognised that – alongside poor governance – conflict and climate change pose the biggest threats to international development, and their effects could see millions of people pushed back into poverty, reversing the progress that has been made in the last thirty years. In fact, Tearfund has seen these two issues as so central to combating global poverty that it has made them two of its three corporate priorities.

So how might climate change and conflict relate to each other? Although a strong causal relationship between the two has not yet been proved by research (this is a new area where further study is needed), there is evidence to show that they are linked. Some researchers have suggested that climate change ‘loads the dice’, increasing the likelihood of the outbreak of violence. But not only that, for both agriculture and warfare, the way we use the earth’s resources has undergone a radical transformation – more intensive methods of production have gone hand-in-hand with greater exploitation of the natural world. Tearfund has found as it has developed its work in these two areas that the root causes of fragility and the challenges for environmental stability are very similar.

There certainly seems to be a correlation between climate issues and fragility: 26 of the 39 states with the highest fragility have chronic, high exposure to multiple climate hazards, facing some combination of floods, wildfires, chronic aridity, rainfall anomalies, cyclones, and coastal inundation. And, of the 10 countries in the world with the largest number of multilateral peacekeepers, 8 of these countries are also highly exposed to climate change.

This correlation means that there are climate and conflict ‘hotspots’: the MENA region (Middle East and North Africa), the Lake Chad region in west-central Africa, the Sahel region in north Africa, parts of west, central and east Africa, parts of Latin America (particularly tropical Latin America), and parts of Asia. For example, in the Lake Chad region armed conflict and climate change are compounding each other and affecting water governance, leading to displacement and poverty. There were 11 million people in need of urgent humanitarian assistance there in 2018. To take an example from a different area, Iraq is both one of the countries in the Middle East that has been hit hardest by climate breakdown and one that has seen much conflict and instability. And in Latin America, which is more than 85% urbanised, the rapid movement of people from the countryside to cities driven by climate breakdown (particularly in tropical Latin America), has fuelled deadly violence given a context of poor government services, lacklustre policing, plethora of firearms, inequality, youth bulge, and dislocated families. These are countries and regions nearer the equator that are less developed, meaning their governments are less able to cope with the effects of climate change, and there are pre-existing higher levels of poverty and instability, increasing the risk of conflict.

Nigeria is a notable example of a country where climate change and conflict are perpetuating and reinforcing each other. Drought and desertification have seen a significant reduction in crop yields for farmers as well as pasture for herders to graze their cattle, leading to competition for the limited fertile land and water resources available, which in turn has led to violent clashes between the two groups. The country is now the poverty capital of the world, with the number of absolute poor rising there and in DRC, meaning that by 2030 these two countries will account for more than 40% of Africans in extreme poverty. The Global Terrorism Index also named it the third most terrorised country three years in a row, whilst the Fragile States Index ranked it 14th in its listings for 2018. Between 2010 and 2015, Nigeria lost 6500 citizens and $14.7 billion, with 62,000 others displaced in a record 850 perennial clashes between herdsmen and farmers in the middle belt region of the country. The crisis is now a full-blown national security threat.

So climate change and conflict are increasingly appearing together, worsening the crisis that fragile communities find themselves in. In Part 2, we’ll look at some of the key issues that tie these two problems together before looking, in Part 3, at how we might work to bring about change.


Saved by Zero

May 2, 2019

Businesses are saying ‘get on with it’, adults and children across the UK are calling for it and now the committee advising the UK Government on climate change has said it’s both feasible and affordable: the UK setting a net zero emissions target by 2050.

This net zero target is needed to meet the Paris Agreement commitment to stay ‘well below 2C’ and pursue efforts to limit temperature rises to 1.5C. In order for businesses and others to work confidently towards this target, we now need the UK Government to legislate for this and start implementing the changes needed. Tearfund is asking the Government to raise that ambition further and become net zero emissions by 2045 at the latest. Research from WWF and Vivid Economics shows it is possible for the UK to go net zero by 2045 by reducing emissions and then balancing the remaining emissions out by planting more trees, restoring peatlands and using technologies to capture and store carbon.

This guidance from the Committee on Climate Change comes at a crucial time when the UK public is making it clear that we want increased and urgent action on climate change. Over recent months we’ve seen a seminal TV documentary by David Attenborough, protests, school strikes and declarations of a climate emergency by local and regional authorities, and this week, the UK and Scottish Parliament.

Today’s recommendation, if adopted, would be a key opportunity in turning that sense of urgency into action and be a litmus test for how serious the Government is to tackle climate change.

The Committee has calculated that to reach net-zero emissions will only cost 1-2% of GDP.  This is the same as the cost it estimated for reaching the 80% emission reduction target enshrined within the Climate Change Act in 2008.  All the economic evidence is that the cost of action is far less than the cost of inaction. Dangerous levels of climate change could cause massive and permanent damage to the UK and global economy.

We know that climate change is already affecting all of us, but as we’ve seen from the unprecedented occurrence of two cyclones in five weeks hitting the coast of eastern Africa – people in poverty are hit the hardest. So, the decision the UK government now faces is a no-brainer – it has to act swiftly to implement today’s recommendations.

Environment, Spirituality

Plastic-Less Lent 2019

March 4, 2019

This little video tells you more about what we’re doing for Plastic-Less Lent this year, so do have a watch and then sign up here to join in: https://www.facebook.com/groups/148636355799566/.

This is a great way to get together with a whole load of other folk from around the world to take steps to reduce our plastic use, which we know is causing massive problems from our seas and for people in poverty.

I look forward to doing this with you!

Bible/Theology, Environment, Videos

Love Always Hopes

February 15, 2019

‘Love Always Hopes’ was the challenging theme I was given to speak on at The Justice Conference in the Netherlands. How do we stay hopeful in the face of millions of people still living in extreme poverty and with global inequality increasing? How do we hope for a better future when our beautiful earth is being devastated by the effects of climate change and waste?

To hear my reflections on remaining hopeful, watch the video of the talk below. (Please note that while the introduction to the talk is in Dutch, the talk itself is in English!)


Christians Who Make a Difference

November 11, 2018

It’s a pretty scary thing asking an external body to do some research for you and having absolutely no control over the findings. What if you don’t like what they come back with?!

So it was with some nervousness that we decided at Tearfund to team up with the research firm Barna Group to look into connections between caring for people in poverty and spiritual growth.

In particular, we wanted to look at what we call a ‘whole life response’ to poverty. Tearfund is absolutely committed to helping Christians, in the UK and around the world, respond to poverty in a ‘whole life’ way: through prayer, giving, advocacy, lifestyle, and other actions such as volunteering. We summarise that as Pray, Act, Give.

In the research we wanted to explore this whole-life response and see how that features for Christians in the UK (and in the US too – a US version is soon to be released). The research came back with a huge amount of fascinating findings – too many to go into in detail here! But three things in particular stood out for me:

  1. There is a close correlation between the Christian faith and responding to poverty, and Christians are more likely to engage in poverty activism than others.

Four out of five Christians (87%) have taken action on poverty in the past year and, in every area of poverty response, churchgoers scored more highly than non-churchgoers. Of particular interest to me was the small minority (16%) of Christians who took action in all five areas and were what we would call ‘whole life responders’. Consistently the findings showed that Christians who prioritise serving people in poverty also prioritise faith practices such as reading the Bible, being a regular part of a church, and praying.

  1. The Christian faith has a continued legacy when it comes to poverty response.

I was fascinated to see in the findings that growing up in a Christian household is a significant predictor of later poverty activism, even among adults who don’t attend church now. Six out of ten poverty activists (62%) grew up in a home where Christianity was practised regularly, even though they no longer attend church. This underscores the long-term impact that religious upbringing has on caring for the poor, even without current involvement in a church.

  1. We have a long way to go

Although the links between responding to poverty and Christian faith are strong, the research also shows there is much more we can do. It’s great that 73% of UK self-identified Christians gave to a charity last year but, quite honestly, why isn’t that 100%?! And only 34% say they respond to poverty in their prayers. It is encouraging to see that 63% have been engaged in advocating for political change in some way (the majority through petitions), but only 39% report making a concerted effort to change their lifestyles, and especially their consumer habits.

So what can we take away from this research? Well I’ve no doubt all sorts of different things will be brought out by people looking at it, but for me there are two things to take away:

  1. Responding to poverty and discipleship are deeply intertwined

This should be pretty obvious to any church leader reading this, but somehow we still seem to miss it. Around the world, discipleship is one of the big issues being discussed (how can we form faithful and effective disciples in today’s challenging context?) and we run all manner of discipleship courses to try to make this happen. Sometimes we fall into the trap of thinking we need to sort out people’s prayer life and bible reading habits first, and things like responding to poverty come further down the line.

If you are a church leader, the message is clear: if you want your congregations effectively discipled, get them engaged with people in poverty and their relationship with Christ will be transformed. 

  1. An effective response to poverty requires our whole lives

Giving financially is a vital part of how we can respond to poverty. Tearfund couldn’t do the brilliant work it does if it wasn’t for the generosity of our incredible supporters. And giving to help others is a Biblical command and reflects our values – if you want to know what is most important to a person, look at their bank statement! But giving on its own isn’t enough. We must also take practical action through, for example, volunteering. And alongside these things, we must be advocates: speaking to governments, institutions and businesses to encourage and push for policies and practices that work on behalf of the poor, instead of against them. Underneath all of this is our own lifestyles and endeavouring to live in ways that are respectful to both people and planet. And finally, surrounding all these human endeavours is prayer. Through prayer we connect with who and what we are praying for and we believe prayer is powerful: at Tearfund we have seen amazing things happen through prayer!

For all of us reading this post, let’s ask ourselves: what are the areas of response we are stronger or weaker in, and what are the steps we could take to live a life that is focused on spending ourselves on behalf of the hungry and satisfying the needs of the oppressed (Isaiah 58:10)?