The G7 report “A New Climate for Peace” emphasised that climate-fragility risks are already playing out today and concluded that these risks are likely to worsen in the decades to come. This assessment is borne out by developments since the publication. Both in terms of climate and conflict, 2015 and 2016 broke new records. This chapter examines these developments and provides a concise risk horizon scan for 2015 and 2016. It focuses in particular on climate change impacts, the increasing number of conflicts and of refugees, and renewed geopolitical rivalries. It is not a comprehensive assessment, but focuses on major trends and events that affect climate-fragility risks and will most likely continue to shape these risks in the years to come.

This is what climate change looks like

2015 was the warmest year on record with temperatures about 1°C above pre-industrial levels.[14] Each month of the first half of 2016 broke further records: the average temperature for the full six month period was 1.3°C higher than the average in the late 19th century.[15] This was partly due to the extremely strong El Niño event[16] in 2015-2016 which was among the strongest El Niños on records.[17]

The increasing temperatures put marine ecosystems under further stress, with coral reefs bleaching at record rates and eventually dying. Since 2014 the world has been experiencing one of its longest coral bleaching events. Scientists estimate that 35 per cent of corals on the northern and central Great Barrier Reef are dying or are already dead and 80 per cent of corals in Kiribati have died due to mass bleaching.[18]

At the same time, the sea ice cap of the Arctic reached the smallest annual maximum extent in 2015 and hit a new record low in the first half of 2016.[19] The melting of the Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets contribute to rising sea levels.[20] The global average sea level from January to November 2015 was the highest ever recorded by satellites.[21]

Extreme weather events continued to increase in severity and number.[22] In 2015, major heatwaves struck India and Pakistan, where temperatures reached up to 47°C for several days and claimed the lives of about 4,000 people.[23] Various countries are coping with droughts, with Ethiopia facing the second year of its worst drought in decades, and California entering its sixth year.[24] Extreme rainfall and flooding in Paraguay, northern Argentina and southern Brazil affected about 180,000 people and displaced about 80,000 in 2015. Further, 91 tropical storms were recorded in 2015, which is six more than the annual average of 1981-2010.[25]

Although many records were broken, this was not a surprising development. Leading climate scientists concluded that “[g]lobal warming is proceeding pretty much exactly as predicted”.[26] It was “confirm[ed] once again […] how unusual the age of modern global warming due to our greenhouse gas emissions is”.[27] In short, breaking records for temperature and extreme weather has become the new normal.

Some previous estimates seem to have been too conservative. For example, the melting of Greenland’s ice was underestimated. With the help of new GPS technologies, a study found that the ice loss is about 7.6 per cent higher than previously estimated.[28] Some scientists concluded that the tipping point for the parts of the West Antarctic might already have been reached, in which case the melting of ice might be unstoppable.[29]

Looking into the future, several new assessments underline the severity of increasing impacts of climate change and outline gloomy scenarios. The World Bank stated in a 2016 report that, unless action is taken soon, water security will be at risk in most parts of Africa and Asia by 2050 – even in regions where water is currently available in abundance – with severe impacts on economies, health and incomes and increasing the risk of conflict and violence.[30] Researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry and the Cyprus Institute in Nicosia have warned that, even if global warming is limited to an average of 2°C, large parts of the Middle East and North Africa will become too hot for human habitation. They project that by the mid-century, in the warm period of the year, temperatures will oscillate between 30°C at night and 46°C during the day. Combined with air pollution caused by desert storms, these conditions may become unbearable and force large numbers of people to move.[31]

Conflicts on the rise

2015 was “one of the darkest years for international stability and human security since the end of the cold war in 1991”.[32] The total number of state-based armed conflicts rose from 41 in 2014 to 50 in 2015 and non-state conflicts from 61 in 2014 to 70 in 2015. Although the upward trend since 2012 in fatalities did not continue in 2015, in terms of conflict-caused fatalities, it was the third-worst year[33] since the end of the Cold War.[34]

Warfare in Syria accounted for most of the fatalities. The country is going through a complex conflict involving insurgents, the government, outside powers and international jihadi fighters.[35] Although there is no certainty about numbers of victims, and estimates vary greatly[36], it is evident that several hundreds of thousands of Syrians have lost their lives and millions have been forced to leave their homes since war began in 2011.[37] Other parts of the Middle East remain in turmoil and neither regional nor global efforts to mitigate the violent conflicts seem to have had much effect. Armed conflict involving local and international actors escalated in Yemen in 2015. In Iraq, Libya and Egypt, ISIS was gaining ground for most of 2015 and part of 2016; major offensives against it in northern Syria and in Mosul, Iraq, appeared by late 2016 to be inflicting reverses on ISIS but longer term outcomes remain uncertain. Meanwhile, the relationship between Israel and Palestine remains tense and violence erupts repeatedly.[38]

Another major trouble spot is Ukraine where there is prolonged crisis. Armed conflict between Russian-backed separatist groups in the eastern Donbass region and the Ukrainian Government has claimed about 10,000 lives and displaced about 1.7 million persons.[39] The mostly unimplemented 2015 Minsk peace agreement could reduce the fatality rate, yet the ceasefire “is being violated daily and heavily” with no end in sight.[40]

There have been, nonetheless, some positive developments in 2015 and 2016. Among them was the agreement on a Joint Comprehensive Plan of action for the regulation of Iran’s nuclear program between Iran, the United States, the European Union and five other states.[41] In September 2016, the Colombian Government and the guerrilla group FARC signed a peace agreement, sparking hope to overcome 52 years of civil war. Although it was rejected in a public referendum, the Government and FARC leaders are working to save the peace deal. In October, both parties resumed talks to renegotiate the agreement and the bilateral ceasefire was extended at least until the end of the year.[42]

In the 1990s and the first decade of this century, Sub-Saharan Africa was a zone of widespread, chronic, and violent conflict. Across large parts of the continent, the picture in 2015 and 2016 was not so grim though conflict remains high in Nigeria and South Sudan and showed signs of escalating in Burundi, the Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of Congo as 2016 wore on.[43]

Overall, 2015 and 2016 are a continuation of a longer trend. After the end of the Cold War, the world’s “zone of peace”[44] expanded, with fewer and on average shorter armed conflicts, largely driven by an increase in international activism in peace mediation, conflict prevention and peacebuilding.[45] Yet, from 2010 on, the “zone of peace” started to contract as the number of conflicts rose and are today back at a level the global community has not seen for two decades.[46]

Refugees and migration: short and long-term consequences

Mainly driven by conflicts, the number of forcibly displaced people and refugees has been rising in recent years. 2015 was no exception: worldwide displacement numbers were the highest since World War II. Forced displacement as a result of persecution, conflict, violence and human rights violations increased to a total of 65.3 million people in 2015 with 12.4 million newly displaced. The Middle East and East Africa are especially affected with Syria (4.9 million), Afghanistan (2.7 million), Somalia (1.12 million) and South Sudan (778,700) leading the list. [47]

Most people who were displaced remain within their countries. In 2015 there were 40.8 million Internally Displaced People (IDPs) due to violence and conflict, twice as many as the number of refugees who crossed national borders. The total included 8.6 million newly displaced, topping international refugees from violent conflict by about 2:1. Further, it bears emphasising, that most international refugees only move to neighbouring countries. The six top receiving countries worldwide are all neighbours to a conflict-affected country: Turkey (2.5 million), Lebanon (1.1 million) and Jordan (664,100) have borders with Syria; Pakistan (1.6 million) and Iran (979,400) are neighbours with Afghanistan; and Ethiopia (736,100) borders Somalia and South Sudan. Only a relatively small percentage of people who flee their homes have the will, ability and means to undertake long journeys through multiple countries. Worldwide, 86 per cent of displaced people are in the developing world.[48]

In short, the refugee crisis that had an impact on European politics in 2015 is not primarily a European crisis. In the European Union, over 1.2 million first-time asylum applications[49] created tasks that rich countries should be able to handle, though there was a heavy administrative burden and significant human, physical and financial resources are needed to fulfil the international duty of care. The refugee crisis is primarily a crisis for refugees themselves.

Rapid-onset disasters resulting from natural events such as extreme weather or earthquake were responsible for more displacements than conflict and violence in 2015. That year, around 19 million people were newly displaced by disasters, all staying in their own countries. This is twice as many new IDPs as from conflict. As in recent years, Asia and the Pacific were especially affected. India (3.7 million), China (3.6 million), Nepal (2.6 million), the Philippines (2.2 million) and Myanmar (1.6 million) had the highest number of persons displaced by disasters.[50]

Looking to the future, the impact of climate change is likely to increase these trends. It will make extreme weather events both more frequent and severe and it will exacerbate environmental degradation that can threaten the livelihoods of millions of people. Most of those affected will be in Asia and Africa. Forecasts of the number of people who will move for climate or environmental reasons are hard to provide; it is extremely difficult to disaggregate the environmental component from other factors that lead to a decision to migrate.[51] There is clear evidence, nonetheless, that climate change will continue to shape migration patterns and will increase the number of migrants in the future.[52] How large these changes are will depend on the efforts to mitigate climate change and the efforts to reduce vulnerabilities and strengthen resilience.


During the last two years, geopolitical rivalries have increased in severity. Already in 2014 Walter Russel Mead concluded that geopolitics have returned to the world stage.[53] Though the trend was established by the time that Russian forces moved into and occupied Crimea in 2014, that action was a turning point. Not only did it foreshadow Russian military action in the Donbass region of Ukraine – covert and denied at first but increasingly obvious as time went on – it was also a forerunner to Russia’s intervention in the war on Syria on the side of the Assad government. Regional powers in the Middle East like Iran and Saudi Arabia have also been using force, both through proxies and directly. Likewise, China has shown increased willingness to use shows of force in pressing its sovereignty claim in the South China Sea. Leaving to one side any judgements about the rights and wrongs of any or all of these actions, one conclusion to draw from this is that the US and its allies have ceased to be the only powers to wield the military instrument in support of policy goals. What has happened in the past half-decade is not that the use of force by global and regional great powers has reached new levels but, rather, that a monopoly on using force internationally has been broken.

On each occasion when force is used, the motive for doing so, while often complex and multifaceted, has been related to the object of intervention but the effect reaches wider. In the case of Ukraine, Russia was probably less concerned about the situation of Russians in Ukraine than about the possibility of Ukraine getting closer to the EU[54]; this would bring the West’s perceived encroachment in eastern Europe to another of Russia’s borders. In the case of Syria, it is the country’s strategic location that makes it of such great interest and priority for Russia, Iran and, against them, Saudi Arabia. In the South China Sea, China is pursuing long held national objectives by pressing its sovereignty claims. But while the motivation is localised, the effect is globalised, by chipping away at the willingness to cooperate with each other on other issues, and undermining the mutual belief that good faith cooperation is both possible and effective.

Britain’s impending withdrawal from the EU may also reduce the stock of cooperation as a means of approaching world problems. This is more likely if the eventual Brexit in 2019 is preceded by particularly tough negotiations. Some analysts go so far as to warn that Brexit “might trigger a chain reaction that could turn it into a full-blown catastrophe”.[55] Awareness of this risk is likely to ameliorate negotiating behaviour on all sides but, overall, Brexit is a setback for European solidarity, for the political culture of multilateralism and for peaceful international cooperation.[56] The ramifications of withdrawal are far-reaching for both the EU and the UK and may hamper the ability of both to engage internationally on some key issues to the depth and with the proficiency of which they have generally been capable.

On top of this has come the US presidential election in November 2016 Donald Trump has made a range of statements on environmental policy (including climate change) and on foreign policy, that fall outside previously established mainstream and consensus opinions. As events unfold in 2017 and beyond, it will start to become clear which of those statements are guides to forthcoming developments in US policy. Reasons for concern were enunciated in a public letter signed by 50 senior former officials of Republican administrations. A key part of their criticisms of candidate Trump focused on his attitudes about cooperation with long-standing allies:

“Mr. Trump has demonstrated repeatedly that he has little understanding of America’s vital national interests, its complex diplomatic challenges, its indispensable alliances, and the democratic values on which U.S. foreign policy must be based. At the same time, he persistently compliments our adversaries and threatens our allies and friends.”[57]

One of many of today’s unknowns is whether the seeming distaste for some current allies will translate into a rejection of cooperation as such – as the NATO Secretary-General evidently fears[58] – or rather into a search for new cooperation partners.

To the extent that these developments diminish the will and capacity for cooperative solutions to international problems, since they will have an impact on inter alia climate change policies, they will have a magnified effect on security. Climate change is often referred to as a threat multiplier for security. In the same way, geopolitics may be a problem multiplier for climate change policies. Decreasing geopolitical rivalry after the end of the cold war provided an enlarged space for mediation efforts for the international community and the expansion of the zone of peace. Renewed geopolitical rivalries seem likely to have the reverse and negative effect. They increase the complexity of conflicts and hinder efforts to resolve them peacefully. As the example of Colombia shows – and it is not the only positive development in 2015 and 2016 (see below) – we have not yet arrived at a point of zero possibility for consolidating peace but the challenges of today are indeed unusually sharp.

Conclusion: the new normal

The events and crises of 2015 and 2016 are the result of a number of larger trends playing out over contrasting chronologies. Climate change is a challenge that has been building for decades. There is considerable scientific consensus and confidence about where it is headed in global terms and improved knowledge to help understand and forecast the detailed effects and local impacts.

In 2015 A New Climate for Peace compiled the evidence that was available about how climate change was interacting with other features of the social, economic and political landscape to contribute, in some places and some cases, to instability, insecurity, low level conflicts and worse. Developments in 2015 and 2016 confirm that assessment and the trend of an increasing number of armed conflicts has continued. The pressure that this generated produced a record number of refugees. It is possible that conflict developments in the coming two or three years may produce comparable pressures with comparable results.

The complex task of addressing, managing and resolving armed conflicts has been yet more daunting as a result of the deterioration in relationships between the global great powers, each with local allies who are regional powers in different theatres of politics and conflict. These geopolitical rivalries have intensified in the past five years and became particularly sharp in the last two.

The intersection of accelerating impacts of climate change, the continuing increase in numbers of armed conflicts and deepening geopolitical rivalries create a deeply unsettling new normal.

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