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The grand scheme: power and politics in the climate crisis

Analysis / Climate change, conflict and humanitarian action / Humanitarian Action 10 mins read

The grand scheme: power and politics in the climate crisis
Even in the midst of a pandemic, during a seemingly endless cascade of events, climate change remains a defining issue. Its effects are even more severe for people affected by conflict and violence, who find themselves navigating the collision of war and environmental crises. How can the humanitarian community work with affected people to design policies and practices that have an impact? In this post, Malvika Verma, a project development officer for ACTED Sri Lanka and India, argues that to strengthen climate action in conflict settings, a solid understanding of people’s vulnerabilities and adaptive capacities must be informed by the bigger picture – an analysis of pre-existing circuits of power and political relationships.

It almost seems like a cruel Sisyphean trap: the convergence of conflict and climate continues to compound and exacerbate people’s vulnerabilities, while the humanitarian machinery must perpetually adapt itself to help address these and new vulnerabilities. However, while there’s not much that can be done in the immediate future to stop unpredictable and extreme weather catastrophes, interventions can be made to strengthen the resilience of people, communities, and entire countries to withstand climate shocks and reduce exposure to climate risks. This forms a part of climate adaptation efforts.

For these efforts to have the desired effect, we must also question the wider politics of resource use and power relations in conflict settings. Climate adaptation efforts that seek to address vulnerabilities, including resilience building, are deeply political processes and not one-off interventions carried out in a vacuum. This is not to imply that current climate adaptation efforts pay no heed to socio-political contexts; it is instead recognizing that political relationships and power dynamics are the backbone of any holistic and sustainable humanitarian response to the climate and environment crisis, reinstating this reality from its current status as background information.

When we can see the forest for the trees, the climate and environment crisis lays bare for us the systemic and structural inequalities that run deep in conflict-affected societies. It is here that the variables of power and politics come into play. As conflict and violence erode the entire social, political and economic fabric of a society, the entrenched dynamics of power relations are re-worked. A core tenet of the humanitarian response in conflict settings compounded by the climate crisis should be to uncover established orders of power distribution that perpetuate vulnerability to climate risks or environmental damage. This calls for a recourse to the basics of political theory underpinning the concepts of vulnerability and power, and how these interact.

When the vulnerability of some serves the interests of others

The ND-Gain Index indicates that 12 of the 20 countries considered to be most vulnerable and least ready to adapt to climate change are experiencing armed conflict. To arrive at this statistic, vulnerability and adaptation are assessed in terms of access, or lack thereof, to what are understood as ‘life supporting sectors’ of food, water, health, ecosystem services, human habitat, and infrastructure, measured using a compilation of 36 technical indicators. Similarly, the IASC Framework on Durable Solutions for Internally Displaced Persons establishes a set of eight criteria that measure progress made towards achieving durable solutions to displacement. This framework feeds into tools that assess achievement of durable solutions, including in countries experiencing the dire consequences of conflict, climate change and environmental degradation, such as Ethiopia, by measuring progress in terms of overcoming vulnerabilities.

Vulnerabilities are, in both cases, defined by of a lack of opportunities and/or access; in other words, a deficiency on part of affected people. Such an outlook diverts focus from the individuals and structures perpetuating power imbalances that ultimately enforce vulnerabilities. In addition to providing an incomplete account, these understandings divorce vulnerability from the wider complex power relations.

This flawed understanding also feeds into climate adaptation efforts, which currently tend to rely on an outcome-based interpretation of vulnerability. Typically, this translates into the bulk of adaptation approaches concentrating on the technical and physical impacts of climate change and environmental degradation, for instance, on crop yields, water consumption and livestock production. To proactively reduce exposure to risks and not merely react to impacts of climatic exposure, unpacking the political and structural nature of vulnerability, as shaped by the unequal distribution of power, is necessary.  Depoliticized discourses feed mechanistic and technological solutions detached from empirical realities and power structures, which may, in turn, entrench inequalities. A power-sensitive analysis, therefore, is even more urgent in relation to climate adaptation efforts.

The biophysical reality of the climate and environment does not exist in ontologically distinct spheres, detached from the social and political.[1] When conflict collides with climate risks, vulnerability is driven not only by ecological systems, but also by inadvertent or deliberate human action that reinforces self-interest and (re-)distribution of power.[2] While a purely causal link between climate change and conflict cannot be established, conflict theorists have pioneered a wealth of literature exploring control over and exploitation of natural resources as among the key determinants of war. Although contested, studies indicate that more than 40 per cent of non-international armed conflicts over the last 60 years have been linked to competition over natural resources. Drawing from the ‘greed and grievance’ theoretical framework, this is but a bitter reminder that while conflict and violence destroys certain populations, it also enriches other groups.

Especially when scarcity of resources fuels intercommunal tensions and violence, the situation of those whose power is diminished needs to be analyzed against the motivations and power dynamics of groups controlling and exploiting resources. This understanding is key for both anticipating long-term risks and defining programmatic orientations because power imbalances can, in the long run, potentially lead to misappropriation of resources and add to the vulnerabilities meant to be addressed.

The irony of the failed State and its implications for climate action

It has been established in humanitarian discourse that the effects of climate change and environmental damage put existing governance structures and institutions already weakened by conflict and/or violence under further stress. This entails that the so-called ‘failed’ States are rendered incapable of designing or implementing adaptation and mitigation programmes. The natural course of action for donors is to direct funding towards strengthening ‘weak’ governance structures and institutions. However, there is a tendency to forget that in some contexts, the fiscal foundations of war are rooted in resource extraction for financing operations and other rent-seeking behaviours. This implies that often there lie vested interests in not improving policies or societies as a whole because these improvements of governance compete with preferences to protect existing privileges that perpetuate a power imbalance benefiting certain groups (usually those holding the power).[3] Diverging from dominant Western understandings of statehood, a ‘failed’ State, characterized by weak governance and insecurity, may not be a failed State at all if it achieves what it’s meant to – successfully serves as a ground for competitive interests. Humanitarians need to attune their efforts to the reality that States, and their apparatuses, are ultimately products of power interactions and dynamics of competitive processes.

This has far-reaching implications for climate action, particularly climate finance efforts. Climate financing is pivotal to developing an adequate response to the effects of climate change and environmental degradation. An analysis of power relations is even more important for mobilizing climate finance because the wealth regained through humanitarian intervention, for instance through livelihood programmes, may be quickly extracted from the participants and/or misdirected due to deep-seated power imbalances. More attention needs to be paid to practical questions concerning how existing political relations in situations of conflict and violence influence allocations and delivery of results. For this, the political motivations of both donors and recipients need to be dissected. At the same time, it is worth acknowledging that the modus operandi of the humanitarian sector may make carrying out a robust political analysis a rather challenging task. Annually funded project cycles and programmes make it difficult to carry out detailed and long-term analyses. As such, the case for multi-year humanitarian funding is made stronger by the climate crisis.


Climate action is a deeply politicized process, an acknowledgement that should not be taboo. Tackling the political underpinnings of the climate crisis is not the same as advocating for the integration of humanitarian efforts into political action. To identify strategic opportunities for anticipating risks and planning climate action as well as properly supporting those affected by the climate crisis in conflict settings, humanitarian response needs to be informed by the influence of power distribution and political relationships on people’s situation.

To stave off massive disruptions associated with climate crises compounded by conflict and violence, technological and technical solutions need to be complemented with rigorous political analyses. Operationalizing these understandings and analyses is equally important. Climate action that combines activities to protect and assist people can provide methods for broadening the way the humanitarian community, along with other actors, addresses vulnerability. Adaptation efforts, particularly resilience-building approaches, are shaped by the degree of influence exercised by authorities and arms-bearers within the space in which they are carried out. As such, continuous and long-term engagement with duty bearers – including non-State actors – aimed at ensuring fulfillment of obligations proves to be central to any adequate humanitarian response to the climate crisis. This would allow maximizing efficacy and equitable distribution of the benefits of ongoing and planned mitigation and adaptation efforts, while ensuring that existing inequalities are not further entrenched.

Editor’s note: the views expressed in this blog post are those of the author alone. They do not represent the position of any organization that the author may be affiliated with.

[1] Weisser, Florian, Michael Bollig, Martin Doevenspeck, and Detlef Müller-Mahn. 2014. “Translating the ‘adaptation to climate change’ paradigm: the politics of a travelling idea in Africa.” The Geographic Journal, June: 111-119. See also Strauss, Sarah, and Benjamin S. Orlove. 2003. Weather, Climate and Culture. Routledge.

[2] Sovacool, Benjamin K., and Björn-Ola Linnér. 2016. The Political Economy of Climate Change Adaptation. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

[3] Hopkins, Raymond F. 2000. “Political economy of foreign aid.” In Foreign Aid and Development: Lessons Learnt and Directions for the Future, by Finn Tarp, 329-348. London: Routledge.

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