The Future of Climate Change and Peace

The approach to the issues of Climate Change should not only center the people who suffer at the hands of it, but should foster peace and community within them as well.


This column is part of an opinion piece written by the co-founders of the Institute for Climate and Peace, previously published by the New Security Beat of the Environmental Change and Security Program at the Wilson Center, available here.

As fires rage in Australia and in the Amazon, hurricanes ravage the Caribbean year after year, and glacial melt threatens entire communities in the high mountains of Asia and Europe, peace and climate activists might be forgiven for experiencing a growing sense of dread. Environmental events of this magnitude have the potential to simultaneously trigger new ecological disasters and strain social and political systems. The unprecedented challenges borne of the climate crisis will be far-reaching, from large-scale involuntary migration and food and water shortages, to biodiversity and ecosystem loss. These challenges require responses that build social cohesion rather than fuel conflict — responses that are collaborative, just, and climate-resilient.

While climate-related disputes can turn violent or become entrenched, they also contain powerful opportunities for community building and positive transformation. Research from the Institute for Economics and Peace (IEP) demonstrates that more peaceful societies — those with free flow of information, acceptance of the rights of others, and good neighbor relations — suffer significantly reduced casualties and recover more quickly from natural disasters compared to their less peaceful counterparts. In this way, Positive Peacebuilding — the community-based work that advances the attitudes and systems that make peace possible — serves to both protect populations from climate-related destabilization and provide a pathway of resilience after destabilization. It is distinct from negative peace, which is simply the absence of conflict, and is instead defined by IEP as the presence of specific “pillars” — which include those those listed above, as well as a well-functioning government, a sound business environment, an equitable distribution of resources, a high level of human capital, and low levels of corruption. Positive Peace also provides us with a new lens for contextualizing and directly addressing the impacts of the climate crisis.

Applying Positive Peacebuilding to Climate Responses

In 2018, we launched the Institute for Climate and Peace with a mission to partner with communities to build peaceful and climate-resilient futures. As educators of environmental law and peace studies, we recognized a need to integrate our respective disciplines into a collaborative effort to build climate-resilient futures. Our home islands of Hawai’i sit at the center of the world’s climate crossroads and have long fostered productive, place-based, interdisciplinary, and Indigenous climate policy endeavors that advance peaceful outcomes. Hawaiʻi also provides us with unique access to the Pacific-Asia region’s dense concentration of experts and leaders in these two fields. By integrating our specialties and leveraging the diverse experiences and deep expertise of our part of the world, we believe ICP is well positioned to advance positive peacebuilding and climate resilience.

Here’s what we learned in our first year:

Engage and Enable Emerging Leaders

Young people today are hyper-aware of global issues and how they connect to the well-being of communities. They are also critical to peacebuilding and climate resilience movements. While they may lack the professional networks and years of experience of their older peers, young people are uniquely innovative, creative, and motivated in envisioning better futures. At ICP, we connect information and topical expertise to young leaders through workshops and practical skills training in areas like conflict transformation, arts advocacy, peace-focused communications and media creation, and climate and peace action plan development. These efforts demonstrate what happens when communities are equipped with data and strategies to build peace in the face of environmental uncertainty.

Last year, ICP hosted futures-inspired sessions with emerging leaders from the University of Canterbury and the Student Volunteer Army in Christchurch, New Zealand. There, participants learned about near- and long-term efforts for peacebuilding and climate change, envisioned and designed the futures they want to live in, and explored how to pursue both climate resilience and peacebuilding for optimally effective leadership. We also collaborated with the Professional Development Center at Hanahau‘oli School in Honolulu to develop an educator-focused curriculum on how to teach climate change science and impacts to students in alignment with progressive education tenets. We partnered with East-West Center on a unique intensive program for cohort of 22 young leaders from the region and we held two workshop series with Obama Leaders: Asia-Pacific, empowering 200 leaders from the region to examine emerging and urgent trends in their home communities to forge tools for climate resilient, peace-oriented leadership.

We’ve quickly seen the fruits of these projects in the communities of the participants. Three fellows from the East-West Center, for instance, launched their climate and peace action plans last year in communities throughout Asia. One fellow, Sumita Sarma, took her findings home and developed an initiative for Indian factory workers in the garment industry through a campaign to minimize health and environmental impacts for workers. Another fellow, Naveed Anwar, leveraged his experience into a project in Pakistan to cultivate new connections and discussions in the agriculture industry between policy-makers, victims, and change agents.

“Hold the Space”

A key element of peacebuilding is active collaboration and facilitation of dialogue between affected communities. Effective collaboration involves “holding the space” and facilitating dialogue for even the most difficult conversations among communities, including those facing The Future of Climate Change and Peace disproportionate climate threats. Last year, we launched a series of “talk story” events in partnership with a cohort of Hawaii-based organizations on the critical need for peacebuilding between Pacific Islands in the face of dire climate forecasts. These events incorporated difficult discussions on stereotypes and relationships between Hawai’i residents, including indigenous and Micronesian communities, in preparation for projected increases in climate migration. While social and cultural healing and progress takes time and commitment, these events establish new and necessary opportunities for that progress to occur.

Encourage Transformational Policies

Developing inclusive, just, and climate-resilient policies in the 21st century is an incredibly complex undertaking. We live in an era of unprecedented diversity of interests, perspectives, and practices. But the history of peacebuilding demonstrates that collective organized action can deliver transformative change, even in the midst of such diverse interests. To transform the climate crisis, we need to re-brand peace work so that “peace” is understood and accepted as a necessary outcome and metric for climate policies. Climate policies should prioritize the pillars of positive peace, and they must encourage and incorporate youth leadership. We need to transform the too-often reactive framework of climate and security to a proactive framework centered instead on climate and peace.

How we tell this story matters. The issues and appropriate responses must be grounded in cutting-edge research that is contextualized with the demonstrated history of peace movements. Whether we’re engaging the media, policymakers, or community members, transitioning to more just and effective climate and peace policymaking requires involving all stakeholders and ensuring that they are informed.

The Path to Climate-Resilient Peace

At the Institute for Climate and Peace, our theory of change is that if peacebuilding and problem-solving methods are paired with rigorous research on the changing climate, then decision makers at all scales are better equipped to respond to climate crises, reduce friction, and build social cohesion. By addressing climate change with systems and processes that encourage a just and sustainable peace, climate work becomes peace work, and brighter futures open up for communities throughout the globe.

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Maxine Burkett is Co-Founder of the Institute for Climateand Peace in Hawai‘i and a Global Fellow with the Wilson Center’s Environmental Change & Security Program. An expert in the law and policy of climate change, she has written extensively in diverse areas of climate change law with a particular focus on climate justice — exploring policy responses to climate change’s impacts on vulnerable communities in the United States and globally.

Maya Soetoro is Co-Founder of the Institute for Climate and Peace, where she also serves as Chairperson. An award-winning educator in peace and international studies, she serves as a faculty specialist at the Matsunaga Institute for Peace & Conflict Resolution University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa’s College of Social Sciences. Maya previously founded the community non-profit organizations Ceeds of Peace and The Peace Studio and consults with the Obama Foundation’s Asia-Pacific Leaders Program.

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ICP Website

APLP Partner Features by The Institute for Climate and Peace

When Climate Change Meets Positive Peace.” by Marisa O. Ensor. Featured on New Security Beat, 17 July 2019

IEP’s Peace Research, Presentations And Resources on Vision of Humanity

Youth Leadership Needed in Time of Climate Uncertainty.” by Maya Soetoro and Maxine Burkett. Featured on Honolulu Civil Beat, 15 Mar. 2019

The Peace Movement Needs a Rebrand.” by Maya Soetoro. Featured on Quartz, 11 Sept. 2018

Photo Credit: Courtesy of the Institute for Climate and Peace, All Rights Reserved.