Why International Geneva’s ‘human dimension’ bodes well for environmental peacebuilding

An artwork by Lynn Finnegan, one of nine artists and illustrators from around the world whose work accompanies the themes of the White Paper and Compendium, helping bring to life the opportunities, challenges, pain and beauty of Environmental Peacebuilding. (Credit: Lynn Finnegan)

It’s a compound problem: areas with dwindling natural resources, harsh climate change impacts and biodiversity loss also tend to be those experiencing violent conflict. But it’s these countries that are hit the hardest that tend to receive little to no climate funding or support. Geneva and its long history of humanitarian, human rights and development work, is well placed to not only provide expertise, but also to support the delivery of funding and policy support to high-risk communities. While climate change adaptation finance is on the rise, we cannot leave conflict contexts behind. 

 For over 150 years, Geneva has stood for the human dimension in international affairs. This is embodied in the humanitarian diplomacy, human rights and people-centred security efforts at work in the city. It is home to the United Nations Human Rights Council, a major hub for the world’s top humanitarian institutions, and the site of numerous historic peace talks.This legacy has nurtured the know-how and expertise embedded in Geneva’s community of professionals. In an era where multilateral discourse surrounding climate security tends to be dominated by hard security or counter-terror policies, Geneva can add value by emphasising people-centred approaches that build on the use of dialogue, negotiation and partnerships to resolve conflict and to create more inclusive societies. Securitisation, on its own, risks addressing the symptoms (concerns of “climate-induced” terrorism) while missing both the root causes of conflicts and the well-being of communities experiencing it. The role of Geneva should not be to supersede climate security efforts in New York, but rather to complement them with an emphasis on justice and peace.

Interdisciplinarity is a crucial step towards realising this contribution. Geneva has long-discussed the so-called triple nexus of humanitarian-development-peacebuilding expertise and practice. Might environmental peacebuilding be an opportunity to realise our interdisciplinary potential?

Environmental peacebuilding or climate security?

 Over the past two years, I’ve convened more than twenty online briefings and facilitated discussions for Geneva professionals on topics around environment, climate, conflict, and peace through a series we call the Geneva Dialogue.

It’s clear that in Geneva parlance, there is no one, uniform label for the interconnections between natural resources, insecurity and the opportunities for sustainable peace. Many researchers refer to their work as “environmental peacebuilding” while in general, policy-makers tend to use “climate security” terminology. Some perceive “climate security” as referring to the risk of a military response, while others see “environmental peacebuilding” as a “soft” or “abstract” field of academic thought.

Rather than debate the merits of these different terminologies, Geneva’s multiplicity of voices can be leveraged as an opportunity to shape the future of the field. As the White Paper on the Future of Environmental Peacebuilding, launched this week, articulates: “Just as a diversity of species is needed in a landscape to ensure resilience and health, so too a diversity of voices and experience is essential if we are to build a resilient, dynamic ‘ecosystem’ for peace.”

The intersecting challenges of conflict, climate and environmental change cannot be faced alone. The white paper, which amplifies the visions of more than 150 experts, practitioners and policy-makers, is a prime example of how Geneva can help bring together different perspectives. The 32-page document is the product of an 18-month process of research and consultation and aims to deliver a strong, cogent message about the relevance, evidence, and promise of environmental peacebuilding to the Stockholm+50 forum in June 2022. The project was developed not only to advance a policy agenda, but also to foster inter-institutional collaboration and shared innovation for the field.

After all, the relationships between the environment, natural resources, biodiversity, climate change, conflict dynamics, mediation, security and peacebuilding are multidirectional and complex, and attempts at oversimplification should be avoided. 

Building networks for peace in Geneva

In Geneva, work at the crossroads of environment, climate, conservation, conflict, peace and sustainable development is not dominated by any single institution or actor. 

The future of addressing climate security issues will be via a network approach, in which various actors combine their respective strengths for a greater collective impact. Actors and institutions drill down and develop specific subsets of expertise, but meet and exchange regularly, together with practitioners, policymakers and funders to realise the potential of the field and to establish connectivity with New York. Geneva is structured to support this work across 18 platforms, including the Geneva Environment Network, the Geneva Water Hub, and my own organisation, the Geneva Peacebuilding Platform.

This network can support countries working together to sustainably manage shared water resources, or champion the protection of environmental defenders in marginalised communities. We can even develop stronger legal frameworks that promote environmental protection among corporations and the private sector. 

In a moment where the international policy community needs a more common language or coordinated approach towards building peace in the face of climate change and environmental degradation, strengthening Geneva’s ecosystem for peace can show the way forward for future collaborative action.