At the 2023 United Nations Climate Change Conference (28th Conference of the Parties, COP28) in Dubai last December, 74 countries, organizations, and multinational development banks officially linked climate change and conflict for the first time in the conference’s history by signing the Declaration on Relief, Recovery, and Peace. Although not legally binding, this declaration recognizes that countries affected by conflict and fragility are significantly more vulnerable to the effects of climate change and calls for the scaling up of climate finance to help them better prepare for and respond to climate impacts. In recent years the link between conflict and climate change has been established through a growing body of literature as well as reports from actors on the ground. Experts have found that 70% of the countries that are most vulnerable to climate change are also the most fragile. Nevertheless, climate funding for countries at risk of or facing conflict is severely lacking: Those affected both by climate change and conflict receive, on average, just one-fifth of the money for climate finance that conflict-free countries do on a per capita basis. The UN’s Climate Security Mechanism even noted that the more fragile a country is, the less climate finance it tends to receive.

This is hugely problematic considering that those living in conflict contexts are the most vulnerable to climate shocks. Conflict often disrupts basic services, such as electricity, water, and health, and destroys both economic opportunities and critical infrastructure, making populations less able to respond. Climate change contributes to such shocks in different ways — with climate extremes such as recurrent fires, floods, and droughts among the most striking examples — leaving populations facing conflict without the means to bounce back. This is particularly true for those who are often already marginalized in society, such as displaced populations, women, young people, and persons with disabilities.

As one of the regions most vulnerable to climate change and a hotspot for local and geopolitical conflict, this dynamic is especially true in the Middle East and North Africa. According to the 2023 Fragile States Index, 14 of the 19 countries in the region are at least at the “warning” level for conflict fragility. MENA is the most water-scarce region in the world, and faces some of the world’s highest climate-induced temperature extremes. The combination of climate and conflict factors is putting increasing pressure on maintaining population-wide health and ensuring sustainable access to water and food. The devastating consequences of this, such as increased tensions, conflict, and inequalities, are complex to deal with and recover from. Iraq and Syria, for example, have struggled to bounce back after years of recent and ongoing conflict that has gutted their governance systems and made them more vulnerable to increasing instances of droughts, extreme heat events, and sandstorms.

Distribution patterns: Climate finance in the face of conflict

It is not surprising why the lion’s share of international climate finance goes to more politically and economically stable countries. More than 50% are private sector investments (with the rest typically coming from individual states and multinational development banks) and over 90% is allocated to climate mitigation, mostly in the form of loans. Both generally rely on projects that promise a return on investment, and therefore typically function in contexts that can provide long-term assurances and stable investment environments. Volatile and unpredictable conflict contexts, such as Syria, Libya, and Yemen, simply cannot offer this. These requirements for long-term investments and minimal risk are not unique to the private sector, however. States and multinational development banks also tend to be risk averse since they work with public money and are thus accountable to the public. In addition, populations in fragile and conflict-affected countries typically require more climate adaptation funding (as opposed to mitigation), which can support them in better anticipating and responding to climate shocks, and as a result a large part of climate finance is simply not geared toward them.

Another reason why countries in conflict often miss out on funding is a matter of procedure. As climate finance is generally development-oriented money, it is typically channeled through national and local government actors in the destination country. Lengthy funding processes make it difficult for these governments to meet donors’ bureaucratic and technical requirements over multiple years. Even worse, a government can itself be a party to the conflict, raising questions about integrity and whether the funds will reach all population groups in an inclusive and equitable manner. Other challenges that discourage funders from investing in conflict contexts include difficulties reaching certain geographical locations, a lack of reliable data and information, and both real and perceived security risks to staff. In Yemen, reaching certain remote locations, where many vulnerable people reside, is difficult as conflict actors impede access, exacerbating the population’s exclusion. In short, the way climate finance currently functions requires long-term follow-up, predictability, and limited risk, none of which a conflict-ridden context can guarantee.

The consequence is that finance institutions and other international donors have generally been reluctant to provide climate finance for fragile and conflict-affected countries. Hence the enthusiasm for a peace declaration at COP28 and its promise for political momentum that would translate into increased funding. Some signatories are hoping to implement the declaration through the recently adopted Loss and Damage Fund. This widely acclaimed fund, which is the culmination of years of negotiations by countries of the so-called Global South and is in the process of being operationalized, aims to provide financial assistance to countries most affected by climate change. Given the climate-conflict correlation, this should mean that the fund will overwhelmingly support countries affected by conflict.

There is a problem, however. If the fund is set up in the same, traditional way as other international climate funding mechanisms (like the Green Climate Fund), conflict-affected countries will still find themselves at the bottom of the priority list due to funders’ risk aversion as well as complex and bureaucratic processes. With a multitude of climate-affected countries interested in claiming financial support from the Loss and Damage Fund — which is itself underfunded and at risk of being largely filled with reallocated instead of “new” money — it would require thorough earmarking for conflict contexts to be of any support to vulnerable countries.

Such a possibility does not seem to be under serious consideration for the moment. While the Loss and Damage Fund is groundbreaking for the most climate change-affected countries, it does not yet provide any promises when it comes to rebalancing funding in an equitable manner among the countries vulnerable to climate change. Moreover, it promises neither more flexible nor more risk-tolerant approaches and fails to make a commitment to supporting conflict-affected countries.


Simply put, the challenge for fragile and conflict-affected countries is that the current international climate funding mechanisms, including the upcoming Loss and Damage Fund, are not set up to support them sufficiently. Even with the welcome development of more funding for climate finance, additional corrective action is needed to change the nature of the existing funding streams. The ad hoc pledges made by some signatories in the context of the Relief, Recovery, and Peace Declaration are a positive development, but by themselves they are not enough to bring about real structural change in the climate finance landscape.

That is not to say that this is not a constructive first step. While the declaration at this point is mostly symbolic, its launch did spark a broader conversation about peace and climate, and could provide a starting point for civil society actors to hold its signatories to account. This is particularly interesting as one of the signatories, Azerbaijan, will host COP29 in 2024. This push and the drive for accountability should not simply be for more pledges within the framework of existing mechanisms. Ideally, it should also include a different approach to funding altogether, by advocating for a dedicated funding mechanism (or for earmarked money within the Loss and Damage Fund) for fragile and conflict-affected countries. NGOs, which have been instrumental in pushing the climate and peace agenda, should work to ensure the topic remains on the agenda for the next COPs in Azerbaijan and Brazil, to facilitate further operationalization.

In parallel, these same actors should continue to promote integration between the climate, peacebuilding, development, and humanitarian fields. This could be achieved through funder advocacy, collaborative research on the links between climate and conflict, and joint projects on the ground in conflict contexts. Real-life examples and evidence of the need to support countries facing both conflict and climate pressures will strengthen the argument that dedicated finance should go to the countries and people that need it most.


Megan Ferrando is a Non-Resident Scholar with the Climate and Water Program at the Middle East Institute.

Photo by KHALED ZIAD/AFP via Getty Images

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