4 climate change factors that might contribute to existing or future conflicts

UN CC:Learn
Apr 10 · 6 min read

By Loic Tchinda | French version

How climate change will be a seed for violence?

Let’s begin with a fact.

Armed conflicts are yet to find their direct causes from climate change

According to the SIDA report (2017), climate change might not have a clear and linear relationship with violent conflict but under certain circumstances, climate-related change can influence factors that lead to or exacerbate conflict. This relationship is complex, country-specific and localized within nations.

Historically, the main reason for violent conflict has been political and/or ideological differences which surface justification for violence. However, the literature suggests that ‘climate change is expected to be the great multiplier of environmental deterioration, demographic displacements, and conflict threats’ (Messer, 2010).

That said, it is inarguably fair to posit that the intertwining effects of floods, droughts, food insecurity, reduced access to water and extreme weather events can lead to local competitiveness which cannot be managed in a context where strong political institutions are absent. The lack of government measures to avoid inequalities; where growing natural scarcity is already a fact, are clear ingredients of an imminent brutal conflict.

Most researchers have cited Kenya, Syria, Sudan, Egypt, India, Iraq, Israel, Palestine, Nigeria as examples of countries where the effects of global warming on the world’s physical landscape have led to geopolitical changes that have threatened to destabilize already vulnerable regions. The Syrian Civil war has killed around half a million people and displaced around 11 million others. It has utterly destroyed the country’s infrastructure and seems to have no endpoint. Before the war began, an extraordinary drought caused 75% of Syria’s farms to fail and 85% of livestock to die between 2006 and 2011, according to the United Nations. That drought also triggered a wave of migrants searching for jobs in urban areas, spreading instability throughout the country. The stresses on natural resources undermine the capacity of states to govern themselves and increase the chances of conflicts.

The October 2018 report published by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warns that in the Sahel (for example), the risks associated with global warming — including food shortages — would be lower if the rise in temperatures compared with pre-industrial levels was contained to 1.5°C, as opposed to 2°C. The report makes clear that climate change projections will contribute to human displacement, migration, and conflict. Extreme weather events already displace upwards of 20 million people per year on average. The report forecasts more extreme precipitation and higher levels of sea level rise and finds with “high confidence” that increased drought will drive forced migration and sustained conflict in certain regions.

But how will climate change cause and/or catalyse existing and/or future conflicts? There are at least 4 dynamics that can be brought forward to answer this question.

Let’s dig in.

1) Climate change will have an incidence of livelihoods and food prices

Climate change will have a negative impact on people’s livelihoods and cause a reduction in product yields. Fluctuations in rainfall and sea-level rise can/will hit agriculture and fishing. Climate change could further decrease local agricultural productivity and make global food prices increasingly volatile, further politicizing the issue of food security. As populations and demand for food grow, domestic pressure will build on governments especially in developing states. When we consider that nearly half of the world’s population live in developing countries –over 2.5 billion people; many of them depend on agriculture to make a living, which means that climate change will have a huge impact on livelihoods.

See the conflict in Darfur, western Sudan, where rainfall had declined by 30% and agricultural production had fallen by 70%, while the average annual temperature rose by 1.5 degrees, contributing to conflict between pastoral and agricultural tribes over the use of land for grazing livestock or growing crops

2) Climate change will hinder economic growth, thereby worsening poverty and social instability

The combination of higher unemployment, higher taxes, reduced government revenue and increased prices of oil, as an indirect result of climate change, could weaken governments’ ability to provide services and create jobs, and in turn, potentially creating the conditions for extremism of all kinds, increased crime and social breakdown.

Many studies have pointed to the link between climate change and the outbreak of the Arab revolutions. “The Arab Spring and Climate Change” published in 2013 by the Centre for Climate and Security in Washington, says it was the failure of governments to meet their citizens’ basic needs, address climatic issues like droughts, desertification, and power shortages that led many people to take part in the political protests of the Arab Spring. This case situation provides a textbook example of what analysts mean when they talk of complex causality and the role of climate change as a “threat multiplier.”

3) Climate change may lead to tremendous migration crises

Climate change can and will increase refugee situations. Shifting rainfall patterns, spreading desertification and falling agricultural productivity are likely to undermine rural livelihoods, worsen job prospects in rural areas and accelerate the migration to urban areas. This could strain services in cities and lead to increased resentment of existing refugee populations.

Large-scale migrations will increase tensions locally, such as by intensifying the struggle for livelihoods and altering political power configurations. South Sudan is an unfortunate illustration. That’s because famine has swept across the country, bringing food insecurity to millions of people.

The famine was predominantly the result of mismanagement stemming from the lasting effects of the 2013 civil war, but it was abetted by below average rainfall that dried up parts of the country’s agricultural areas. This instability, meanwhile, fanned conflict as a mass exodus unfolds, putting rival ethnic groups in close proximity to one another.

4) Perceptions of resources shrinking as a result of climate change could increase the militarization of strategic natural resources

The allocations of resources falling in absolute terms as a result of climate change and in relative terms as a result of population growth and increased demand could become increasingly tense. Control over them may become perceived as an increasingly key dimension of national security, and resource scarcity could be a pretext for their greater militarization. For instance, King (2017) points out that in 2011, Somalia was hit by regional droughts that have been linked to climate change. During this time, as King notes, jihadist fundamentalist group “Al-Shabaab changed its traditional guerilla tactics and started to cut off liberated cities from their water sources so that they could demonstrate at least some kind of power and presence.

Seen in this light, adaptation to the effects of climate change can be a part of peacebuilding and peacebuilding is a way of increasing adaptive capacity. But between predicting (the effects of climate change) and preparing, there is still a long way to go. Strong international efforts in reducing the effects of climate change therefore, is undoubtedly a means of promoting global peace and sustainable development.

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