After a record-breaking 2023, consolidated climate change science clearly shows that the earth’s temperature over the last 12 months was more than to 1.6oC above the pre-industrial average. This makes the most ambitious temperature goal of the Paris Agreement — holding the increase in global temperature below 2°C above pre-industrial levels — no longer scientifically feasible. Most estimates suggest that the increase will be 2.9oC or more by 2100. Meanwhile, international action under the Paris Agreement is faltering. “We are on a highway to climate hell with our foot still on the accelerator,” U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres said two years ago.

A coal plant in China’s Shandong province, Jan. 7, 2018. Climate change is likely to be a major driver of future conflict, but international action is not doing enough to offset these risks. (Giulia Marchi/The New York Times)
A coal plant in China’s Shandong province, Jan. 7, 2018. Climate change is likely to be a major driver of future conflict, but international action is not doing enough to offset these risks. (Giulia Marchi/The New York Times)

Among its many devastating impacts, climate change is likely to be a major driver of future conflict, from the very local to even global scales. Parties to the Paris Agreement are failing to deliver enough action around climate change to offset the significant risks climate changes poses to violent conflict and political instability.

In 2023, the Parties to the Paris Agreement finalized the first Global Stock Take, assessing collective progress toward achieving the agreement’s purpose and long-term goals. No radical changes came out of the meeting. While countries are under pressure this year to develop updated Nationally Determined Contributions (NDC) — each country’s statement about how it intends to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions — these plans are not likely to result in change rapid and impactful enough to alter the world’s trajectory for the next few years or decades.

The Paris Agreement’s reliance on peer pressure among member countries to increase ambition is vulnerable to dilution by other compelling problems — whether that’s domestic issues or global crises like the wars in Ukraine and the Middle East. In addition, the agreement’s focus on the ambition of targets and global pressure on countries to announce a date for achieving “net zero” emissions has outstripped countries’ realistic pathways to achieve those targets, which will require significant economic and social change to deliver. The risks of conflict and political instability inherent in such major transitions are poorly understood, much less how to plot a path forward for change that minimizes such risks.

In light of the increasingly urgent call of climate science, it is critical for climate action to go much further, much faster. But what will spur complex human systems to action? What levers exist or could be created to catalyze further, far-reaching climate action in the near term?

Action within the Paris Agreement

In the short term, there may be opportunities to strengthen action in the context of the Paris Agreement. These opportunities could include:

1. Focus on the “how” and not just the “what.”

Moving the focus from targets to pathways would allow the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) parties to respond to the risks of conflict more aggressively. For example: considering ways to address potential conflict in the energy transition that acknowledge points of friction and balance strong demands for energy access with expanding green energy. USIP has offered some specific examples related to green minerals, land and rapid decarbonization. UNFCCC parties also need to focus on the continuing problems of fossil fuel subsidies and the constraints they pose for the energy transition.

2. Approach adaptation and mitigation in tandem.

Other tensions within the UNFCCC are created by the disconnect between interests of developing and developed countries. For many of the 195 parties, the vast majority of them developing countries, adapting to the ongoing, increasingly severe impacts of climate change is far more urgent than reducing greenhouse gas emissions. They also point to the greater historic contribution of developed countries to current atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases.

In addition, developed countries have yet to meet the financial goal of $100 billion annually by 2020 promised in Copenhagen in 2009, contributing further to distrust and acrimony. While the Green Climate Fund already allocates 50 percent of its resources to climate adaptation, calls for emerging priorities — like loss and damage — put additional strain on available finance. Developing countries scored a win two years ago at COP-27 in Sharm El-Sheikh with the decision to establish a Loss and Damage Fund, but it is unclear if the expected funding levels will ever materialize. 

This is a clear disconnect that undermines the overall negotiations, with countries not receiving adequate funding for adaptation having even less incentive to implement further, far-reaching climate mitigation domestically — or advocating for some of the available funding for mitigation to be repurposed to support adaptation, reducing funding available to cut greenhouse gas emissions. Further progress on climate mitigation thus likely cannot proceed unless in tandem with further progress on climate adaptation. Although funds and political will to address both are in short supply, a breakthrough here could significantly impact the UNFCCC’s ability to make additional progress.

3. Better integrate conflict-affected countries.

UNFCCC parties also have an opportunity to recognize and to build on the Declaration on Climate, Relief, Recovery, and Peace adopted at COP-28 by some 74 countries and multiple international organizations. Highlighting the needs of fragile and conflict-affected countries, as well as those facing severe humanitarian needs, the declaration commits signatories to action on better addressing climate impacts in countries affected by these challenges, as well as ensuring that climate action does not exacerbate conflict. These goals are ambitious and will require changes in how funding is allocated and administered, as well as changes in humanitarian and development investments, to achieve.

4. Look for other opportunities.

In addition, UNFCCC parties could identify additional opportunities to reduce conflict, for example, by focusing on loss and damage; by clarifying the goals, metrics and process for achieving the Global Goal on Adaptation; and by enhancing the role of women, indigenous populations, youth and other traditionally excluded populations and other means.

Action Outside the Paris Agreement

Outside of the Paris Agreement, there are many other levers that could be used more aggressively and rapidly to influence climate action. There have been numerous examples since the UNFCCC entered into force in 1994 of efforts undertaken outside the convention that ultimately gain acceptance and influence action under the convention. With formal negotiations covering many complex topics and generally limited to two weeks twice a year, combined with internal pressure to maintain a similar pace of progress for the many different pillars of discussions under the UNFCCC, it is not logistically possible to address every issue effectively and to integrate new issues easily. This explains why innovative leadership from outside the UNFCCC is so critical to progress within the negotiations.

Such innovations have included the push to integrate market mechanisms, the focus on NDCs and efforts to elevate adaptation to the same level of concern as mitigation. They also include efforts within entities not under the UNFCCC, including the Cartegena Dialogue, the Major Economies Forum and the High Ambition Coalition.

Some potential levers to reduce greenhouse gas emissions are obvious, particularly in the realms of economic incentives and trade: attaching value to carbon, whether through a tax or a cap-and-trade regime, or constraining trade in carbon through border taxes or other schemes. While these measures could go far to spur needed action, each has a tortured history and no global consensus has yet emerged to adopt them.

Where they do exist — at the subnational level (e.g., British Columbia’s carbon tax), at the national level (e.g., Norway’s tax on oil and gas), or at the regional level (e.g. the EU’s Emissions Trading System or its proposed Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism) — they have been useful but not game-changing. Moreover, they are often seen as penalties, which may limit enthusiasm for pursuing them. Recent progress in the United States through the Infrastructure and Jobs Act and the Inflation Reduction Act suggests that political will to act on climate change may more readily be summoned through incentives and potentially by appeals to motivations other than climate change.

Coming to terms with the lack of political will for the level of finance expected by developing countries could also motivate additional creativity in how to support countries and regions facing enormous issues.  Formal reconciliation approaches could be one way to help countries step away from intractable negotiation positions to open space for innovative action and partnerships that developed countries can more easily support.

In addition, many of the problems these countries face, such as food and water insecurity driving recruitment to armed extremist groups, are shared problems not limited by borders. There should be ways that regions could work more effectively on such shared problems. And developed countries should support regional change agendas that unlock other collaborations on climate change.

Another potential area of focus is the same as a potential area for improving the Paris Agreement:  looking for opportunities both to increase mitigation ambition while meeting concerns about climate impacts, including adaptation, resilience and loss and damage. Innovative approaches to foreign trade could offer opportunities thus far not fully plumbed. Funding for adaptation might somehow piggy-back on mitigation to grow the pie. If opposition to “penalties” taken alone domestically are too great, there may be opportunities to shoulder them jointly through collective action.

The Need for Fresh Thinking

The question is whether existing forums and scheduled events inject both the urgency and creativity needed to surmount the daunting obstacles ahead — obstacles already encountered and which already have slowed progress to a crawl.

Or is it time to bring together a small group of innovative thinkers, outside of existing institutions with established points of view, to tackle this knotty but critical subject? Such a group should likely come from diverse backgrounds and have perspectives that are at once broad and complementary — not so senior that they are too steeped in long-held positions, and not so junior as to underestimate the complexity of the current landscape of climate action. They will need opportunities to come together around specific issues to study the range of approaches that have been tried and research creative policy options that have proposed new avenues, with the goal of identifying and shaping realistic opportunities to push innovation. They will need time to work, but the process should also be undertaken with a sense of urgency.

The need for innovation in the climate space is not just about technological development. It is about everything that pushes forward action: technology, yes, but also new collaborations that unlock finance or allow for the uptake of new technologies and new approaches; new ways for new partners to relate that allow for innovative collaborations to emerge; and expansive approaches to integrating the diversity of people and human innovation into effective action.

As U.N. Climate Change Executive Secretary Simon Stiell noted at COP-28, the international community needs the “highest ambition, not point-scoring or lowest common denominator politics. Good intentions won’t halve emissions this decade or save lives right now.”

Dan Reifsnyder is a senior advisor for USIP’s Climate, Environment and Conflict program.

PHOTO: A coal plant in China’s Shandong province, Jan. 7, 2018. Climate change is likely to be a major driver of future conflict, but international action is not doing enough to offset these risks. (Giulia Marchi/The New York Times)

The views expressed in this publication are those of the author(s).