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The Need for Ecological Peace In Times of War

by Curtis Lam Global Commons Dec 5th 202211 mins
The Need for Ecological Peace In Times of War

In November, world leaders gathered in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt for COP27 to discuss action to tackle climate change. Like past climate summits, this year’s conference addressed the usual issues, including deforestation, decarbonisation, gender equality, water security, and biodiversity. Yet, COP27 also had a slightly different flavour. This year, the theme of war was also brought up, which raised many new questions, bringing to the fore those which have hitherto been buried among other alarming issues plaguing our world today. What is the relationship between war and climate change, and more crucially, what are the opportunities for ecological peace and environmental justice?

On November 8, 2022, Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky spoke to fellow delegates at COP27, delivering a haunting statement on Ukraine’s situation under months of relentless Russian aggression: “There are still many for whom climate change is just rhetoric or marketing or political ritual – whatever – but not real action,” he said. 

“The Russian war has brought about an energy crisis, [but it has also] brought an acute food crisis to the world, even worse for those countries that suffer from existing manifestations of climate change. The Russian War destroyed five million acres of forests in Ukraine in less than six months.”

Discussions about the impact of war on climate change are not new. The importance of a global commitment to the protection of human rights around the world has always been a central message of past COPs, and the Russia-Ukraine war today has only provoked more intensive deliberation on such matters. As the EU scrambles for new energy sources, experts and activists have urged for new policies and investment directions, ones that take human rights issues seriously.

Perhaps, as the founder of Ukrainian public relations agency Gres Todorochuk  Yaroslava Gres says, people are already “a little bit tired of Ukraine” after reading headlines about it every day and for so many months. However, as conflicts heighten, or rather, as people begin to grasp the gravity of war on people and the evironment – the moral imperative to examine closely the connections between climate change and violence becomes greater than ever. Regardless of whether or not one wishes to learn about the terrible events unfolding in places like Ukraine, Afghanistan, Palestine or Syria, climate justice cannot be achieved without tackling ongoing violence in these places.

The relationship between climate change and violence has been studied for decades and is well-acknowledged by international organisations around the world. The overarching idea is captured persuasively in the Ecological Threat Report 2022 published by the Institute for Economics and Peace (IEP) this year: “The degradation of resources leads to violence. Violence leads to the degradation of resources”. 

The ways through which these processes occur are endless. Yet the field of peace and conflict studies equips us with useful tools to handle the complexities arising from our understanding of the kinds of violent possibilities that intersect with climate change and environmental degradation.

You might also like: The Growing Importance of Food and Water Security Amid the Ukraine-Russia War

Climate Change and Violence

In 1969, a Norwegian sociologist by the name of Johan Galtung – also known as “the father of peace studies” today – published a paper called Violence, Peace, and Peace Research. It was an ambitious attempt at developing a systematic framework for understanding the many dimensions of violence. While Galtung’s work was not specifically written in consideration of the potential existential challenges brought about by climate and environmental changes, the various dimensions that Galtung outlines is still relevant half a century later. We may identify several takeaways from his paper for climate change:

1. Violence that causes, or is driven by, climate change, is not only direct but also psychological.

War is destructive to both people and nature. Not only are bombings directly harming wildlife and biodiversity, the energy consumed – and hence the levels of greenhouse gases emitted – to develop existing military capacities in peacetime is huge. It is not just direct warfare that damages the environment; human activities (agricultural, industrial, and commercial) place an immense burden on the environment in the long run and lead to desertification, rising temperatures, hazardous pollution levels, and sea levels rise, just to name a few.

In either case, the security of goods essential to the fulfilment of basic human needs becomes jeopardised. As war-torn and forcibly displaced communities flee to find new homes,  competition over scarce resources intensifies. While not everyone is as unfortunate to have experienced these direct impacts in their most extreme forms, it is also worth noting that climate change has profound mental health impacts as a result of conflict, heightening socioeconomic precarity or perceptions of a world that is falling apart day by day. It is not hard to see how these factors, in turn, can be key drivers of violent conflict.

2. Climate-related violence is not always intentional but rather symptomatic and intertwined with forms of structural violence.

While countries of the Global South are often blamed for their incapability in combating climate change. Yet, the narrative is very different from reality. Developing nations, which are the ones experiencing the most devastating effects of climate change first hand, are not intentionally trying to dismiss climate change as a real issue. The reality is that massive structural, political, and economic impediments erected and reproduced for long periods of their histories make climate action so challenging to tackle.

While this view certainly does not to justify the brutalities and atrocities that occur today when warring parties compete for scarce resources and land, as highlighted in a report published by the UK’s International Development Committee in October 2022, it sheds an important light on the mess that colonialism and capitalism –a far more pervasive kind of ideology and system which world leaders and international institutions today less eager to admit –have left on the soil of many countries in the Global South.

Fortunately, it’s not all bad news. COP27 decisively marks the beginning of a new phase for an ongoing countermovement against such simplistic narratives of blameworthiness. For the first time, the issue of climate reparations was finally included in the climate summit agenda. The idea of reparations is no longer only an idea in public discourse; it is beginning to inform action at the diplomatic level. The overarching message is clear: it is time rich states, in particular Western states, take responsibility for the contemporary legacies of colonialism on climate change.

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3. Violence that emerges from climate change can take “manifest” (actual) and “latent” (potential) forms.

This is one of Galtung’s more under-appreciated analytical contributions to the field of Peace and Conflict Studies: just because violence does not seem to be, or has yet to become, apparent, this does not mean its seeds have not been planted.

Take the fact that climate change exacerbates violence against women and girls as an example. It is a view well-rehearsed by the UN and as well as a recurrent topic in Egypt. By reflecting on Galtung’s point of view, however, it becomes apparent that it is not enough – and also too late – to analyse violence only when it has happened. Instead, when considering its “latent” forms, we may begin to realise that laws are not enough.

As much as COP27 has pledged to finance and promote women’s empowerment schemes across the globe, these institutional developments are only the tip of the iceberg. The inequalities in cultural and economic domains of society, when unaddressed, continue to disproportionately put women at greater precarity and risk of violence, be it in the context of climate-change or not. Even when violence has not happened – at least to a life-threatening extent – many women live under the fear that it will eventually happen.

As the intensity of discussions taking place among world leaders in COP27 and elsewhere demonstrate, we might also add, on top of the reflections from Galtung’s paper, that:

4. The issue of climate change itself can become a discursive tool of violence.

Discourses in climate change have been employed by countries to vilify rivals in pursuit of certain political agendas that have little to do with climate change and even stifle ongoing collaborative efforts to tackle climate change. To deflect accusations of incompetence or insincerity, they call out hypocrisy or frame accusations as inaccurate and dismiss them as politically motivated.

Today, the US and China are still engaged in a diplomatic row about each other’s alleged empty promises, lies and failures. Yet, everybody knows that nothing good really comes out of these petty quarrels. In the end it is the most vulnerable – domestically and globally – that suffer the most from their ineptitudes and finger-pointing.

As Galtung himself would also argue, there are many more lessons to draw. Moreover, complicating our view of violence only makes it harder for us to feel like we can ever do the right thing. However, this is only an excuse for perfunctory and unambitious action. 

In sensitising ourselves to the complex forms, origins, intertwinings and effects of climate-related violence is essential, we realise that tackling climate violence is not just a task performed by the powerful, but a responsibility that everyone shares. What can we do to prevent further escalation of conflict or unnecessary spillovers to other fronts? And more importantly, beyond containment and prevention, what can we do to transform these cycles of violence?

Climate Change and Peace

Galtung’s most significant contribution to the field of Peace and Conflict Studies has not been his analysis of violence, but rather his commitment to an idea of peace. Galtung was not just interested in a “negative” peace that sought only the reduction of violence, but he also envisioned a “positive” peace which would encompass constructive actions and sustainable relationships.

While Galtung’s work was not exactly environmentally-driven, many of his antecedents have endeavoured to draw on his ideas to develop a kind of peace relevant to climate change. Just as violence fuels climate change and environmental degradation – and vice versa, peace and climate and environmental justice are also intertwined.

This idea gained traction after the end of the Cold War. As the USSR was no longer what was once considered the biggest threat to global security, security threats were being redefined around the world, in which “the environment” came to the forefront of peace research, and later influencing global policy discourses and agendas, the establishment of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in 2015 in particular. Throughout the years, it has been somewhat implied that sustainability and peace depend on each other; however, as the recent re-realisation of their interdependence suggests, we may have forgotten this, assuming that they are two distinct fields in need of deliberate bridging.

It is difficult to give a clear definition to what it means to have an environmentally-informed notion of peace. Nonetheless, Peace Ecology, written by director of the Program on Justice and Peace at Georgetown University Randall Amster in 2015, offers an interesting perspective, which sees “peace among ourselves [as] contingent upon and necessarily related to our ability to live peacefully on earth”.

While Amster also does not provide a blueprint for peace, his concept of “peace ecology” demands us to develop a “vision of interconnectedness” between “self, society and nature”, as a counterpoint to violence: “apathy, isolation and despair”.

This is to say, societies can only be peaceful if they are sustainable; and sustainable if they are peaceful. Put differently, the factors that fuel war or climate change might be those that drive both; and perhaps similarly, the things that contribute to peace or sustainable transformation, might also be those that promote them.

Global measurements on peace and environmental performance might also indicate so. Briefly looking at the performances of 154 countries on the Global Peace Index 2022 (GPI) published by the IEP and the Environmental Performance Index (EPI) jointly created by Yale and Columbia, we see that:

There are always exceptions. For example, Ukraine’s ranking on the GPI has gone down by 17 places (because of Russia’s aggression) while its environmental performance remains consistent. Nevertheless, it is reasonable to suggest that peaceful societies tend to also be focused on sustainable development, and “green” countries tend to also be invested in fostering domestic and global peace.

Of course, there is always great value in “learning from the best”. However, the point is not that countries ought to implement in their respective societies whatever the best have implemented in theirs; rather, it is to encourage actors (governments, businesses, NGOs and local communities etc.) to see how similar lines of action might be possible and how strategies can be “re-tailored” to their immediate circumstances.

As Amster also argues, our visions must also be connected to the “past, present and future”; the best countries for sure did not get things right the first time round. Reflecting on their journeys, how might other countries learn from their mistakes and avoid repeating them?

Altogether, interdisciplinary exploration is needed. Why and how might initiatives conducted in the name of sustainability, also foster peaceful interactions? What are the animating principles within existing peacebuilding efforts that might “coincidentally” also encourage sustainable development?

Are Humans Wired for Peace or Violence, Conservation or Destruction?

Wars and atrocities have been as long as the history of humankind. Hence, some argue that human beings are fated to be at war with one another and (at the expense of) the environment. The possibility of a global ecological peace lies in the surrenderance of individuals’ capricious freedoms to a powerful central governing body that will organise us.

Others more optimistic argue that human beings are selfless and peace-loving. Indeed, throughout history, humans have demonstrated the capacity to respect others and devise peaceful and environment-loving arrangements for coexistence. Hence, we are called upon to harness the peace-making potentials of ecology: to acknowledge intimate connections and interdependence with nature to pursue a “good” life and create a “good” world democratically.

Which view is truer remains up for debate. But the answer is irrelevant to whether we should promote ecological peace. Just because humans might be inherently violent, it doesn’t mean that humans have never worked things out peacefully. That international cooperation activities like the COP have managed to not break down for decades shows that humans do believe that peace can and should be pursued. And even if humans are wired to be peaceful and to love the environment, it does not mean peace will exist, and it does not mean we already know how to love our environment. These things need to be learned regardless of human nature.

How can we develop the passion and efficacy to concretely transcend and transform our existing circumstances? Nobody knows for sure. After all, we do not have access to “ultimate” principles for what laws to implement, structures to build or relationships to nurture.

At least, as we recognise the interconnectedness between certain things, we might be able to get those who are determined to put an end to war and those who are adamant on tackling climate change to join hands to make this world more peaceful and sustainable. Rather than “killing two birds with one stone”, perhaps this is what we mean by “feeding two birds with one scone”.

You might also like: The Environmental Implications of the War in Ukraine


About the Author

Curtis Lam

Curtis is a Research Analyst at Peace Generation (Hong Kong). He completed his MPhil in Knowledge, Power and Politics in Education at the University of Cambridge, where he also did his undergraduate degree in Education Policy and International Development. His research revolves around issues in education, exploring how education can promote equality, democracy, peace and climate justice in different contexts around the world.

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