Grantee/Partner News

Peace and Security Philanthropy Isn’t Just About Conflict; It’s Also Key to Curbing Climate Change

February 14, 2019

Grantee News From: Peace and Security Funders Group

Iconic images of World War II Europe and Japan, of Vietnam after Operation Ranch Hand, and of post-ISIS Mosul show total destruction of lives, communities, and ecosystems. They are also a reminder to philanthropists that investing in peace and security requires a focus on the environment.

Humans are inextricably linked to our environment, and we depend on clean air, water, and soil to survive. Delicate ecosystems support food chains that humans need, so it matters if certain species of plants and animals are depleted in the course of a conflict. In fact, every November, the United Nations recognizes an “International Day for Preventing the Exploitation of the Environment in War and Armed Conflict,” deliberately linking the two.

As former U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon described it, “the environment has long been a silent casualty of war and armed conflict.” There have even been calls by some to declare “ecocide” — the mass destruction of ecosystems — an international crime, alongside genocide and crimes against humanity.

Yet foundation funding for climate security — examining the relationship between climate, natural-resource management, and conflict — was just 5 percent of all peace and security funding in most recent calculations. Philanthropy focused on promoting peace, security, and human rights must take stock of how conflict plays out in the natural environment. And it must consider how our changing climate will affect each and every grant-making area — nuclear security, refugee resettlement, women’s rights, and more — in the coming years. Here are three considerations for philanthropy:

Environmental destruction is exacerbated by conflict.

Stress on ecosystems and natural resources can be caused by population flows and refugee camps established in places without the necessary infrastructure. Last year, the U.N. and Bangladesh’s Ministry of Environment and Forests studied the impact of refugees in makeshift camps after 700,000 Rohingya fled from sectarian violence in Myanmar to Bangladesh. The study concluded that there is major environmental impact, such as ground-water depletion, contamination from latrines, and deforestation because of firewood extraction.

In addition, environmental degradation as a result of militarism exposes an unequal view of human value. Take, for example, uranium mining, nuclear fallout, and radioactive contamination from atmos­pheric and underground nuclear testing. These practices disproportionately affect those who had no say in nuclear policy, such as the indigenous residents of the Marshall Islands, Australia, and the American West, especially on Native American land.

Environmental damage isn’t simply collateral.

The United Nations Environment Program has indicated that in the last 60 years, at least 40 percent of all intrastate conflicts have a link to natural resources and that this link doubles the risk of a conflict relapse in the first five years after the end of a conflict.

In other words, conflict and environmental exploitation are a feedback loop. Armed groups exploit the environment to gather resources for their wars, including through deforestation, diverting water (or forcing flooding to create blockades), “scorched earth” tactics of setting fire to oil fields, and toxic and exploitive methods for mineral extraction. In turn, scarcity of resources creates unstable environments of competition and can cause mass migration, further fueling instability.

Deliberate destruction of the environment is a tool of war. Although destroying the environment of one’s enemies is as old as warfare itself, this tactic pricked the public conscience when the U.S. military used Agent Orange and other herbicides to deliberately destroy hardwood forests and mangroves in the Vietnam War. This damaged the Vietnamese ecosystem and communities that depended on it for years afterward, to say nothing of the destructive health effects on humans, including military service members. Foundations like Chino Cienega have supported reforestation programs that not only helped restore the local ecosystem but also provided residents a source of income and a “green fence” to keep livestock and villagers away from highly toxic “hot spots” created by leftover military ordnance.

Climate change can accelerate environmental instability and resource scarcity, leading to greater conflict.

Beyond environmental degradation, climate change is a threat multiplier, says the U.N. The Pentagon agrees. As former U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel stated in 2014, “The loss of glaciers will strain water supplies in several areas of our hemisphere. Destruction and devastation from hurricanes can sow the seeds for instability. Droughts and crop failures can leave millions of people without any lifeline and trigger waves of mass migration.” Ignoring this warning is to bury our heads in the sand and hope that the storms and wars don’t come for us. Foundations like the David Rockefeller Fund and the Stanley Foundation have been working to move climate security beyond politics and instead promote collective solutions to this very real global problem.

Foundations and philanthropists can help stop these trends, but only if they act now, and act differently.

First, philanthropists should adopt an “environment-sensitive” approach when crafting strategies, especially as they seek to invest in peace, security, and human rights. Taking an environment-sensitive approach means taking stock of how natural resources are used to fuel conflicts or how communities depend on natural resources to live securely. Philanthropists can also assess how investment in ecological infrastructure — such as replanting trees and promoting alternative, community-managed energy infrastructure, such as solar power — will multiply the work of locally led efforts to build peace.

Second, foundations can look at and restructure their endowments. Caitlin Stanton, former director of partnerships at Urgent Action Fund for Women’s Human Rights, suggests “divesting from drivers of climate change and reinvesting in greener energy solutions and green jobs. After all, if, say, a funder is giving grants for children but has their endowment all tied up in fossil fuels, they may be doing more to hazard the future of those children than they are doing to support them.”

The movement for Divest/Invest Philanthropy began a few years ago with an assessment of the harm of fossil-fuel investments in endowment portfolios, both for the planet and for people. As Ellen Friedman, executive director of the Compton Foundation, has noted, not only do endowments without fossil-fuel holdings perform the same as (if not better than) traditional asset mixes, but they allow foundations to go all-in with grant making and investments to make breakthroughs we need on issues of peace, security, human rights, and justice.

Environmental destruction is a collective crisis, made exponentially worse by conflict. Foundations and philanthropists who want to see progress on peace, security, justice, and human rights must take stock of how this destruction will continue to affect humans — soldiers and civilians alike — long after the bullets have stopped.

By Cath Thompson 

Cath Thompson is a program director at the Peace and Security Funders Group.

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