16 March 2023

Climate change action in conflict-affected contexts: Insights from Myanmar after the military coup

Violent conflict and state oppression in Myanmar demonstrates the importance of placing conflict analysis and people-centred approaches at the centre of international programming on climate change and environmental protection.

In 2021, the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warned that the impacts of the climate crisis will be particularly pronounced in poor and conflict-affected countries. Research also identifies climate change as a ‘threat multiplier’ that, in combination with socio-political factors like poverty, state incapacity and inequality, can intensify violent conflict. However, gaps remain in how to address the increase in climate change vulnerabilities in contexts with violent conflict and state oppression. This is evident in Myanmar, where a historically repressive military regime is threatening to cause longer-term ‘climate collapse’.

Since a military coup in February 2021, extractive activities and war economies are destroying the natural environment and placing communities at further risk of displacement, violent persecution and food shortages. These effects of conflict are reducing local people’s capacity to adapt to climate change and threatening civil society’s efforts to protect the environment. Under such conditions, climate change programming needs to place conflict analysis at its centre stage and substitute state-centric and purely technical approaches with people-centred ones, in alignment with the localisation of aid agenda.

Since the February 2021 coup, many international donors have withdrawn their state-to-state aid, including for climate change, so as not to legitimise and finance the military regime. Many of the CSO partners of international NGOs have moved their environmental and climate change work underground. Under these conditions, and with the gaps in pre-coup climate change policies, there is an urgent need to adopt more conflict-sensitive, flexible and adaptive programming:

1. Conflict analysis should be integrated into the design of climate change programmes, with a focus on mapping the power relations, political contestations and pluralism of actors that are implicated both in environmental protection and in natural resource management and extraction. The analysis should be based on in-depth contextual and historically grounded understanding that climate-related challenges are deeply embedded in longer-term ethno-nationalist conflicts and the co-existence of state and non-state legal-institutional arrangements (e.g. for the manangement of land, forests and other natural resources). Particular attention should be paid to EROs like the Karen National Union, which for decades have engaged in natural resource governance in their areas of non-state control.

2. Localisation of programme implementation is important to ensure that support benefits and reflects the needs of local populations. This requires a shift in programme implementation from top-down, state centric technical solutions towards climate change actions that are people-centred and work from the ground up. Flexible funding and reporting requirements that are adjustable to a volatile and insecure context is important to this approach. Entry points for support could include: a) core costs to secure the continued activities of existing environmental CSOs and indigenous-led networks, and their research and policy advocacy for inclusive and community-led climate change mitigation and adaptation programmes and policies; b) funding for the ongoing documentation of indigenous and customary natural resource management and ecological knowledge systems as a basis for sustainable development; c) support for the documentation of environmentally harmful extractive projects; and d) integration of climate adaptation and environmental protection into humanitarian support to internally displaced people and the communities that host them (e.g. in terms of forestry, green energy and waste management).

3. Policy-related support to pro-democratic movements in developing climate change policies and initiatives that support sustainable environmental protection and equitable natural resource sharing, land rights and locally embedded solutions. The ongoing drafting process of a federal democratic charter by the National Unity Government (NUG), in collaboration with the National Unity Consultative Council (NUCC) and allied EROs, presents an opportunity to provide technical support within the area of climate change. Informed policy advice should support the inclusion of CSOs that have an existing track record for working with climate change and in-depth experiences with environmental protection and familiarity with indigenous ecological knowledge systems. Funds and technical advice should also be targeted to support these groups to engage in international climate-related forums such as the UN’s Conference of the Parties (COP) to assess progress and add to global conversations on climate-related programming in conflict affected areas.


The policy brief is originally published by the Danish Institute for International Studies and was authored by Helene Maria Kyed and Justine Chambers. The policy brief can be find here.

Photo credit: Flickr/Andrea Kirby