Will a hotter planet lead to more armed conflict?

Climate change may be making warfare even harder to endure, but most experts say it is not a primary cause of armed conflict. But that doesn’t mean it can’t be in the future, as the planet continues to heat up.

Given some of the dire warnings about temperature rises, drought and erratic weather in places already wracked by conflict, you don’t have to be an author of dystopian science fiction to imagine a bleak future defined by new, brutal conflicts over dwindling access to water and arable land.



Such apocalyptic visions have already captured the public imagination as politicians and activists of nearly all political stripes seek to stir a greater sense of urgency about climate change, migration, infectious disease or global stability.

The debate is fuelled in part on the oft-repeated notion that climate change is already a leading and greatly under-estimated driver of conflict. However, among those who study conflict most closely (security experts and academic researchers) there is little conviction that climate change per se is a leading cause of modern warfare.

“The public and political dialogue often run far ahead of the scientific or academic dialogue on this issue,” says Tobias Ide, a researcher at the Georg Eckert Institute in Germany who is sceptical of the causal link between climate and conflict.

Hundreds of studies over the years have documented how tensions and even violent disputes have erupted over land or water, often between farming and herding communities. But it is only recently that researchers have linked climate change more broadly to patterns of violence, civil war or armed conflict between nations.

One of the most influential studies on the issue, by a group of researchers from Stanford University in the United States, found that “deviations from normal precipitation and mild temperatures systematically increase the risk of conflict, often substantially”.

The 2013 study compared climate and violence data from 60 conflict zones, before, during and after the fighting. “We find strong causal evidence linking climatic events to human conflict … across all major regions of the world,” the report concludes. “The magnitude of climate’s influence is substantial.”

The researchers went a step further, saying “amplified rates of human conflict” could be a result of “anthropogenic [originating in human activity] climate change in both low- and high-income countries”.

But not everyone is convinced. The problem with this and other similar studies, according to Ide, is that the literature and data the research is based on is too heavily concentrated on countries in Africa and (to a lesser degree) the Middle East that were already in conflict.

“Numerous countries in South-East Asia, including India, Nepal, Pakistan, Philippines and Sri Lanka, have suffered lot of violence in recent decades and they are super vulnerable to climate change,” says Ide. “Yet they are hardly studied.”

In addition, he said, very few studies have looked at places where climate change is having a heavy impact but there is no conflict (or climate-related tensions are being dealt with in a non-violent manner).

One area of intense debate is the role of climate change in the conflict in Syria. Some researchers credit a drought from 2006 to 2011, along with crop failures and a subsequent mass migration to Syria’s cities, with setting the stage for grievances to grow into protests and ultimately violence.

Others hotly contend that claim, saying the crop failures were as much due to land-use policies and overuse of water resources, not drought. Further, if climate was the main driver, why did prior droughts and waves of migration not cause the kind of unrest seen in 2011, when a host of other factors (including the so-called ‘Arab Spring’ spreading throughout the region) led to protests and ultimately to conflict?

For Hadil Almahdy, an Egyptian researcher concerned with intersection of peace building and climate, climate change is what she calls “a risk multiplier” not a direct cause. Other factors always come in to play, such as whether there are peaceful avenues for airing out grievances and seeking solutions.

Still, she argues that one should not underestimate the effects that climate can have, even if the climate events are far from the areas of turbulence. “For example, the Middle East imports a tremendous amount of wheat from China and Russia,” she points out. “Well, in 2010, however, China had a once-in-a-century drought.”

The drought caused crop failures and a shortage of global wheat supply, which in turn affected bread prices in Egypt, she says. When government subsidies were reduced, many in Egypt (which has a history of rioting over bread shortages) took to the streets in 2011.

Puntland region, 12 km southeast of Garowe town, Salaxlay village. Residents are affected by the drought.

“So climate change is not a direct factor,” says Almahdy, adding that other political, cultural and economic factors play important roles. “But food shortages can be a big motivator. Most people in Egypt (during the uprisings) did not care about politics or economics, they just wanted to eat.”

Other factors also fuel the debate. Some experts see a tendency among governments to use climate change and related food security crises as a kind of fig leaf to cover over other causes (poor resource management, inequitable distribution of services, the marginalization of certain populations or outright oppression) that may be even bigger triggers.

Still, there is plenty of anecdotal evidence that conflict can make it harder to cope with climate change — and vice versa. And that can lead or force people into situations that exacerbate or prolong tensions and violence.

In some part of the extremely arid Lake Chad region, conflict has rendered traditional dispute-resolution systems non-functional, while customary laws about who can fish or farm where and when have also been disrupted, according to Janani Vivekananda, a Berlin-based think tank commissioned by the European Union to study the insecurity risks associated with climate change. To survive the hard times, people sometimes cope by cutting down forests to make charcoal, provide sex for food or join armed groups, according to Adelphi’s research.

Climate change is also aggravating another standard feature of many armed conflicts: control over the natural resources. In many areas impacted by climate change and conflict, competition for arable land and water has been a common feature, with tensions sometimes rising to violence between those who need land and water to grow crops and those who need them to herd livestock. Such tensions are not only caused by climate patterns but also other dynamics such as displacement, the encroachment of warfare on traditional farming and grazing areas or other pressures.

In Yemen, disputes over water and land have been part of the political landscape for centuries and, with water becoming scarcer, those conflicts have risen in recent years.  Many of these local water fights are relatively small skirmishes (fights between villages over rights to spring water, for example) at the periphery of the larger conflict. Still, many experts see the country’s dwindling resources as fertile ground for escalation or future conflict.

But does that mean people should use the potential of conflict as a means to bring more attention to climate change? For some, the warnings sounded as early as the 1980s of future ‘water wars’ (mainly between countries who share large water supplies such as rivers across international borders) serve as a cautionary tale. Those long-predicted water wars have not come about.

This could be because other issues — ideology, religion, terrorism, control over territory or oil — have simply taken precedence. Some experts suggest that other coping mechanisms such as increased importation of food crops from water-rich countries has eased some of the immediate pressures.

Could such climate or water wars emerge when current conflicts subside? Will drought, heatwaves, desertification or even floods be the sparks that set off the next regional crisis?

“The water wars never materialized but that does not mean the climate-change factor is not still there,” says Michael Mason, director of the Middle East Centre of the London School of Economics and Political Science.

Off target

As academics and security experts take sides, some suggest that for humanitarians, the entire debate misses the mark. “There is not much value in proving how much of a casual factor climate change is, whether it’s the third most important factor or the tenth ,” says Adelphi’s Vivekananda. “The important thing is it’s part of the context and we have to understand how it contributes to making people more vulnerable and how it makes recovery more challenging.”

That understanding then could lead to better ways of supporting people, communities and local authorities to develop more resilient coping mechanisms. At the same time, Vivekenanda says, people should cannot dismiss climate change as a potential cause simply because it does not show up as a sudden event triggering bloodshed. “Climate change is something that happens over a period of time and adds stress [to situations] in which there’s already a deficit of governance that can create conditions ripe for conflict.”

Climate change could then act as a tipping point for existing or mounting social grievances and tensions.  But to some researchers, the narrative that climate change is a direct driver of conflict could masks other problems (such as the failing governance systems) that have fed those tensions in the first place.

There is also some danger that overstating the links between climate change and conflict could backfire by increasing the vulnerabilities or countries susceptible to climate change or instability.  to climate change are seen as places where conflict is inevitable?

“Will investors shy away from countries that desperately need their support, because there’s this idea out there that with climate change, conflict will be inevitable?” asks researcher Tobias Ide. “There’s already evidence that the climate-war argument is feeding fears that have led some countries to reinforce borders against potential future waves of migration.”

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