We need to explore how climate change is influencing the trade, use and legacy of conventional arms – and how arms flows will exacerbate climate insecurity.
There has been limited research on the relationship between climate change and conventional arms. To date, it has either focused on the impact of climate change on conflict – without integrating the arms and ammunition dimension – or on the environmental impacts of conventional arms, which does not include the effects of climate change. This guest commentary by UNIDIR outlines some of the areas that could benefit from further research.
Climate change, conventional arms and conflict
The global community converged in Glasgow last month to discuss the threat of climate change during COP26. While the outcome can be interpreted as a reaffirmation of the importance of staying below 1.5oC of warming, the lack of structured approaches to bring financing to the most vulnerable is disappointing. This failure will mean the most vulnerable communities will continue to be exposed to climatic extremes and environmental degradation.
The state of the environment impacts local, national, regional and international security. While some progress has been made to understand the broader intersections of climate and conflict, significant opportunities remain to understand the relationship between conventional arms control and climate – including climate change, and climate shocks and disasters.
Research by the International Committee of the Red Cross has shown that 12 of the 20 countries most vulnerable to climate change are also impacted by armed conflict. While we have some data on authorised arms flows to these countries, we are missing information on illicit flows and unregulated production. Further, significant gaps remain in understanding how authorised and illicit arms flows impact climate-exacerbated conflict, or whether such data could act as an early warning for future areas of conflict.
This leads us to two key questions:
- With climate change impacts set to increase, how might this affect the demand, supply and use of conventional arms in the future?
- Does the conventional arms community have the necessary tools to address climate change, including the risk of future climate shocks and environmental degradation, in its prevention and mitigation mechanisms?
Climate shocks and conflict
Climate change is an existential threat: the latest report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change highlights the wide-ranging impacts that we can expect, which include a likely increase of hazards compounding with other climate hazards and non-climate crises. These will have disproportionate impacts, with women facing greater risks than men.
Outlining the urgency of the situation, the UN Secretary-General has called this report a “code red for humanity.” Code red seems justified when we consider that climate change and climate shocks are already contributing to instability and conflicts at different levels, and inaction on climate change goals will aggravate the situation in the coming years.
Climate shocks have the potential to influence the dynamics of conflicts, for example by lengthening or shortening them, or leading to relapses, and can also impact on peacebuilding processes and the distribution of humanitarian aid. Climate change could become a significant “threat multiplier” across the African continent, in particular due to the effects of drought and dwindling water resources. Already we see climate change consequences, reduced access to land, and an increase in violent extremism sparking conflicts among traditional nomadic herding groups in West Africa. Meanwhile, earlier this year during a High-Level Security Council Open Debate on Climate and Security, several Council members called for the incorporation of climate change considerations into peacekeeping operations.
Conventional arms and the state of the environment
Research into how climate events such as heat waves impact explosive remnants of war, ammunition and landmines is limited. Research has however shown that flooding and landslides linked to increasingly frequent extreme rainfall events can displace and remobilise landmines and that sector-wide attention is needed to better integrate environmental risks into clearance operations.
Disposal of conventional weaponry can also be a source of environmental contamination. For example, for decades, conventional and chemical munitions were dumped in the sea. Prohibited by the London Convention in 1972, the negative environmental effects of this disposal method persist, and are now set to impact the blue economy. Furthermore, guidance on the disposal of arms and ammunition, such as the Modular Small-arms-control Implementation Compendium (MOSAIC) and the International Ammunition Technical Guidelines do take into account environmental factors within the disposal process. However, it is hard to know the extent to which this guidance is employed in practice.
The process towards a political declaration on the use of explosive weapons in populated areas has helped draw attention to their environmental costs. These range from the direct environmental damage from the explosive blast, to the generation of millions of tonnes of debris, pollution from hazardous chemicals, damage to sanitation infrastructure, spread of vector-borne diseases, and include the carbon costs of clearing and rebuilding towns and cities.
The process has also helped facilitate the engagement of the UN Environment Programme in a debate over conventional weapons control. Encouraging the systematic inclusion of environmental expertise in disarmament processes is key to ensuring that the environmental dimensions of these topics do not go underestimated, and help the community shed light on the “true” cost of armed conflict.
New avenues for research: conventional arms and climate change
Overall, the relationship between conventional arms control and climate change remains underexplored. This is despite the significant risks posed by the uncontrolled proliferation and misuse of conventional arms in areas that are likely to be severely affected by the negative consequences of rising temperatures and other climate disasters.
We believe the following themes at the nexus of climate change and conventional arms stand out as meriting further investigation, although these do not form an exhaustive list:
What new conflicts or resource-fuelled tensions could lead to increased arms acquisitions?
Competition over resources may lead to new conflicts. Not just the example above of conflict between nomadic herding groups in West Africa, but also competition for resources between northern countries, as is occurring in the Arctic. Research is needed to understand arms flows to areas that are or could be “hotspots” for climate-related conflict, as well as into the root causes of climate insecurity that are leading to conflict. This can help ensure that early warning and conflict prevention approaches are adapted to upcoming climate shocks.
Exploring these relationships can also help us understand whether the arms control “toolbox” – which ranges from international treaties and instruments, voluntary norms and standards, to technical assistance focused on different weapons systems – is well-suited to addressing future arms proliferation and misuse, or whether it needs to be updated to factor in issues linked to climate change.
To what extent could climate change fuel an arms race, and how might the dynamics differ depending on the location of these tensions?
Controlling and regulating the flow of arms and ammunition could play a role in preventing and managing conflicts exacerbated by climatic stress, but this requires further exploration. A first step would be to examine whether any relationship can be identified between climatic extremes, weapons flows, and conflicts and situation of armed violence. If a positive relationship exists, it could be used to inform the development of early warning systems as to when a situation exacerbated by climate change may turn into armed violence. This knowledge could then be integrated into the prevention and management of other conflict and other fragile contexts.
What are the human impacts of climate-related armed conflict?
Beyond the supply and demand of arms, there is also a need to understand the human impact of armed conflict and armed violence exacerbated by climate shocks and disasters. For instance, its differential gendered impacts, as little is known about how the compound effects of armed conflict and a changing climate affect women, men, girls, boys and non-binary persons differently. Research in this area can in turn inform conflict prevention, UN peace operations, environmental peacebuilding and protection of civilian strategies.
Conclusion: from research to action
The conventional arms and ammunition community is working hard to find and act on solutions to address weapons misuse and proliferation. But climate change and its impacts add another layer of complexity. We must look further out on our horizon and understand what future issues may arise as a consequence of climate hazards. The climate crisis and environmental degradation are increasing the risk of armed conflict and violence, and it is time to look at the role played by conventional arms and ammunition, and what can be done to ensure a safer – and cooler – world.
Sarah Grand-Clément is a Researcher at the UN Institute for Disarmament Research (UNIDIR); Andrew Kruczkiewicz is a Senior Researcher at Columbia University, International Research Institute for Climate and Society; Manuel Martinez Miralles is a Liaison Officer at UNIDIR; and Alfredo Malaret Baldo is a UNIDIR Researcher.