“A successful climate transition could help create a more peaceful world”

Nina von Uexkull standing beside a glass window at Gamla torget.

Peace and conflict researcher Nina von Uexkull has spent the last decade studying the connections between climate change and conflict. Photo: Mikael Wallerstedt

Russia's war in Ukraine should be a reminder that we cannot continue to consume oil to the extent we do today. Nina von Uexkull is a peace and conflict researcher who sees many benefits in the climate transition – both for the environment and for people in exposed areas.

The war that Russia is currently waging in Ukraine is costing enormous amounts. In a opinion piece in Dagens Nyheter, von Uexkull and colleagues highlight the fact that Russia can afford it in large part thanks to the income they get from fossil fuels. During the first hundred days of the war, Russia earned SEK 990 billion from the sale of oil, coal and gas.

“Authoritarian states that have oil tend to have more aggressive foreign and domestic policies. The fact that they export oil also means that other countries are more dependent on them and are less likely to sanction such policies,” notes von Uexkull, Associate Professor at the Department of Peace and Conflict Research.

Russia is not unique. Several other authoritarian oil states can afford to act undemocratically. Since they receive income from fossil fuels, there is no incentive to invest in their own population. Von Uexkull believes that our dependence on oil is not only harmful to the environment, but that it also contributes to the sustained power of authoritarian states.

“These are governments that do not act in the best interest of their people. Through our consumption of oil, we continue to provide income and support these systems.”

However, replacing fossil fuels cannot be achieved in the blink of an eye – nor is it something everyone wants. Von Uexkull is currently leading a research project investigating which conflicts could arise as an effect of climate change mitigation policies in the short term. Even in recent times, for example, we have seen a number of protests linked to increased fuel prices in several parts of the world. As part of the research project, they will study these uprisings to assess under which circumstances there is an increased risk of violent protest as a result of increased fuel prices.

Although climate change mitigation policies may lead to social unrest in the short term, von Uexkull points out that we must look further ahead and talk about the benefits of reduced dependence on oil.

“People are naturally concerned about the increased price of petrol, but in this debate we must also highlight the benefits of starting to use more diversified energy sources and the big gains linked to limiting climate change and its many catastrophic effects including conflicts that can, for example exacerbated by droughts and floods."

Although more research is needed on the subject, there is little to indicate that natural resources needed to manufacture batteries and solar panels, for example, will lead to the same types of conflict that we have seen related to fossil fuels.

“A successful climate transition could help create a more peaceful world.”

Portrait of Nina.

Nina von Uexkull is happy that her work is interdisciplinary in nature and that she can link different disciplines together. Among many others, she has collaborated with meteorologists, economists and energy researchers.Photo: Mikael Wallerstedt

Von Uexkull is originally from Hamburg and discovered Uppsala during an exchange semester. She liked it so much that she decided to return here when it was time to study for a Master's degree. At the Department of Peace and Conflict Studies, she started working with the Uppsala Conflict Data Program (UCDP) – a database that makes it possible to see exactly when and where in the world people died in armed conflicts. She soon realised that this data could be combined with her interest in climate issues.

“This unique data source that has contributed to my success. Thanks to this, I have been able to study the connection between climate change, natural disasters and conflict.”

For example, her research has been able to show that people exposed to drought become more likely to support violence under certain circumstances. She has also been able to map similar effects linked to flooding.

“It is important to emphasise that the connections are not that strong – it is not the case that drought automatically leads people to start fighting. We also need to take into account the political conditions and sources of vulnerability, for example how dependent the population is on income from agriculture. We are talking about areas that are often already affected by armed conflict.”

With a changing climate, we will see more natural disasters and extreme weather. Von Uexkull hopes that her research can help predict and prevent the risk of this leading to violent confrontations between people.

“Climate change is one of our biggest challenges. We need to know what effects it can be assumed to have on conflicts. A better understanding can help decision-makers see where in the world the biggest problems may arise.”

Nina standing outside Gamla Torget. 

Climate change will affect already exposed areas, but could also lead to conflicts in new places, for example in an ice-free Arctic, where in the future it will be possible to both navigate and extract natural resources. "There is a concern that we will see geopolitical tensions there with Russia," notes von Uexkull. Photo: Mikael Wallerstedt

It is important for the research to reach people outside academia, something she has succeeded in doing so far. Even during her doctoral studies, several of her articles were published showing that drought can have an effect on conflicts. The studies had a major impact and were cited in several policy documents and the report of the international climate panel IPCC. Von Uexkull has also been recognised internally for her work – in June she was selected for the Oscar Prize awarded to young researchers. The jury’s citation highlighted that her research has had a major impact and that her studies have been published in renowned journals.

Von Uexkull is proud of these successes but also notes that they are largely due to having access to the Conflict Data Program and the unique environment that exists here in Uppsala.

“This is a fantastic department. In many universities, conflict research is a small area with only a few employees, but here we are a whole department. It’s very stimulating to be part of this environment.”

Sandra Gunnarsson

Nina von Uexkull

Position: Senior Lecturer at the Department of Peace and Conflict Research and Director of the Uppsala Rotary Peace Center, which offers a Master's programme in Uppsala to people who have worked on peace issues in various parts of the world.

Age: 39.

Family: Husband and two daughters.

Education: Bachelor's degree in International Relations from Dresden, Master's and doctoral degrees in peace and conflict studies at Uppsala University.

If I were not a researcher: I would have liked to work in a practical way on these issues within the UN.

Most enjoyable part of my job: Working on important issues, getting to learn new things and linking different disciplines together.

Hobbies: Running and being out in nature.

Most proud of: The multi-author article published in PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America), "Civil conflict sensitivity to growing-season drought". It deals with the circumstances under which drought can affect conflicts. It was published in connection with my dissertation and set many balls in motion.

Awards: Awarded the Oscar Prize for young researchers in 2022.

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