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Does climate change make conflict more likely?
Blog...Does climate change make conflict more likely?

Does climate change make conflict more likely?

Green News
What exactly is climate conflict? In what ways does climate change contribute to the escalation of tensions and conflicts? How can we effectively mitigate this looming threat?
Green News

As climate change continues to reshape our planet, its implications extend beyond the environment, directly impacting human societies. One significant aspect of this impact is the link between climate change and conflict - also referred to as climate conflict. 

This article explores the relationship between environmental changes due to climate change and the escalation of conflicts worldwide. From resource scarcity to forced migration, we explore how climate change acts as a catalyst for conflict, intensifying existing tensions and sparking new ones, making a compelling case for urgent action in both climate policy and conflict resolution.

👉 What exactly is climate conflict? In what ways does climate change contribute to the escalation of tensions and conflicts? How can we effectively mitigate this looming threat?

The climate conflict nexus

Climate conflict definition

Climate conflict refers to situations where environmental changes brought about by climate change play a significant role in triggering, exacerbating, or intensifying conflicts. It encompasses a wide variety of disputes, ranging from local conflicts to full-scale wars, often rooted in the increased competition for diminished natural resources such as water or farmable land. These conflicts are more likely to occur in regions where livelihoods are closely tied to climate-sensitive activities like agriculture and fishing. As climate change alters environmental conditions, it can intensify existing social and economic tensions, leading to various forms of conflict.

Does climate change make conflict more likely?

Central to understanding climate conflict is the recognition of climate change as a threat multiplier. This means that climate change intensifies existing risks and vulnerabilities in societies, making conflict more likely. For example, when regions experience severe droughts, floods, or other extreme weather events, the existing socio-economic and political tensions can be aggravated. The strain on natural resources – like water and arable land, which are critical for survival and economic stability – can turn these tensions into full-blown conflicts.

In regions where the livelihoods of communities heavily depend on climate-sensitive activities, such as agriculture or fishing, even minor shifts in climate patterns can have extreme impacts. For example, prolonged droughts or unpredictable rainfall can lead to crop failures, undermining the economic stability of entire communities. These pressures often force communities to compete for dwindling resources, leading to disputes and violence. Such situations are increasingly evident in various parts of the world, where communities that once coexisted peacefully are now finding themselves in conflict over access to water or fertile land. 

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Climate conflict risk factors

Competition for resources

Water scarcity

Water scarcity, exacerbated by climate change, often leads to conflicts over access to this vital resource. Take the Middle East for example - a region facing significant water stress as global temperatures rise - disputes over water rights have intensified tensions between communities and nations. The drying up of rivers and aquifers, accelerated by prolonged droughts, not only strains agricultural capacities but also heightens geopolitical tensions. Similar patterns are observed in parts of Africa, where disputes over water sources have led to conflicts among agricultural communities.

Land Resources

Climate change and urbanisation are leading to a decrease in farmable terrain, which in turn is leading to conflicts over land use and ownership. In regions like sub-Saharan Africa, where agriculture is rain-dependent, shifts in rainfall patterns have resulted in a deterioration in soil quality making farming increasingly difficult and resulting in decreased agricultural yields. This scarcity of fertile land fuels disputes among communities and can escalate into violent confrontations, as has been seen in countries like Nigeria, where farmers and herders clash over this diminishing resource.

Socio-economic impacts

Impact on livelihoods

Climate change significantly impacts livelihoods, particularly in sectors like agriculture and fishing. Changes in climate affect crop yields and fish populations, leading to economic instability for communities dependent on these resources. This economic stress can lead to societal tensions and conflicts, as seen in various parts of the world where livelihoods are directly tied to the health of natural ecosystems.

Forced migration

Climate-induced resource scarcity often leads to displacement and migration, as people are forced to leave their homes in search of more hospitable environments. This movement can create tensions in new areas, as incoming populations increase competition for resources. The influx of climate refugees has been observed in regions like the Sahel, where desertification has driven many to migrate, leading to tensions in areas with already strained resources.

Political and social strains

Government response and policies

In many cases, government responses to climate change are inadequate, exacerbating existing societal tensions. Failure to implement effective climate adaptation strategies or to equitably distribute resources can lead to increased conflict. In some regions, government inaction or mismanagement of climate crises has led to protests and unrest, reflecting the critical role of governance in mitigating climate conflict.

Social inequities

Climate change can exacerbate social inequalities, leading to unrest and conflict. Vulnerable populations, often the poorest, face the brunt of climate impacts but have the least resources to deal with the effects. This disparity can lead to social tensions, as disadvantaged groups may feel marginalised or unfairly burdened by the effects of climate change.

Environmental degradation and conflict

Ecosystem disruption

The disruption of ecosystems due to climate change affects communities that depend on these systems for their livelihoods. Deforestation, desertification, and loss of biodiversity can lead to conflicts as communities compete for the remaining resources. The degradation of ecosystems often triggers a struggle for survival, leading to conflicts within and between communities.

Resource exploitation

As natural resources diminish due to climate change, the competition for these resources intensifies, making conflict more likely. In areas where resources like minerals, timber, or fish are scarce, this competition can escalate into conflict, especially in regions where governance is weak, and resource exploitation is poorly regulated.

Climate change and ongoing conflict zones

Ongoing conflicts and climate change

Climate change introduces new challenges in regions with long-term conflicts. For example, in areas with a history of ethnic or border conflicts, climate change can make these tensions worse, leading to renewed or intensified confrontations. The changing climate acts as an additional stressor on what is often an already fragile situation.

Vulnerable populations

The most vulnerable populations are disproportionately affected by climate conflicts. These groups, often with limited resources and political power, face greater risks and hardships due to climate change. Their vulnerability not only exposes them to the immediate impacts of climate change but also to the increased risk of conflict as competition for dwindling resources grows more intense.

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Historical examples of the link between climate change and conflict

There are many examples of conflicts that have either been ignited or exacerbated by climate change and related stressors. The severity of these conflicts and the toll they take on human life highlights the severity of the threat, underscoring why climate change is often referred to as a 'threat multiplier.' The intensification of these conflicts due to climate-induced stressors underscores the urgent need to address climate change not just as an environmental issue, but as a critical factor in global peace and security. 

The Darfur Crisis

One of the most cited examples of climate conflict is the crisis in Darfur - labelled by some as “the first climate change war”. This region in Sudan became the centre of a devastating conflict in 2003. The roots of the Darfur crisis can be traced back to environmental changes. Prolonged droughts and desertification, attributed to climate change, led to a scarcity of arable land and water resources. This environmental degradation intensified competition and tension between nomadic herders and settled farmers, eventually escalating into violent conflict. The Darfur case highlights how changes in environmental conditions, exacerbated by climate change, can contribute to deep societal divisions and violence.

The 2011 Syrian Conflict

Another significant example of climate conflict is the Syrian civil war, which began in 2011. Prior to this, Syria experienced its worst drought on record. This drought, which endured from 2006 to 2011, was intensified by climate change and had devastating impacts on agriculture, leading to widespread crop failure and the mass migration of farming families to urban centres. This influx of people exacerbated existing economic and social tensions within the country, contributing to the unrest that spiralled into a full-blown civil war. The Syrian conflict is an example of how climate-induced resource scarcity can act as a catalyst in an already politically and socially fragile environment, igniting conflict.

It’s essential that we integrate climate considerations into conflict analysis. Understanding how environmental changes contribute to societal tensions and conflicts helps develop strategies to prevent future climate conflicts. The lessons from Darfur, Syria, and other regions experiencing similar issues are clear: environmental changes due to climate change can significantly influence the likelihood and intensity of conflicts. As the planet continues to warm, we must recognise and address the role of climate change in exacerbating conflict situations.
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Climate conflict - what does the research say?

In recent years we’ve witnessed a surge in research focusing on the nexus between climate change and conflict, providing invaluable insights into the evolving nature of climate conflict. This growing body of work highlights a clear trend: as the Earth's temperatures rise, so does the likelihood of conflicts.

Evidence of the climate-conflict link

Various studies have established a link between climate change and conflict rates. One study, titled ‘Quantifying the Influence of Climate on Human Conflict’, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in 2013 found that for every standard deviation in climate change (in terms of increased temperature or extreme weather events), there is a corresponding increase in the rate of conflict between groups by 14%. This finding was supported by data analysis across all major regions of the world, highlighting the global relevance of climate-driven conflicts.

Another 2015 study from the University of California, Berkeley, titled ‘Climate and Conflict’, aggregated data from 55 detailed studies and found that for every one-degree Celsius increase in temperature, the likelihood of interpersonal conflicts, such as domestic violence and assault, rises by 2.4%, and intergroup conflicts - like civil wars - rise by 11.3%. These statistics paint a stark picture of the escalating risk of conflict in a warming world.

Climate change and conflict intensity

Recent research also showcases how climate change not only increases the likelihood of conflict but also its intensity. Research by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) found that countries classified as fragile and conflict-affected states (FCS) are particularly vulnerable. These countries, already burdened by social and economic challenges, face compounded hardships due to climate change. 

The IMF study revealed that in FCS, the economic impact of extreme weather events is significantly more severe compared to other countries. For example, GDP losses in FCS can reach about 4% after three years of a disruptive weather event, compared to only 1% in other nations.

The road ahead in climate conflict research

The relationship between increasing temperatures and conflict rates is an area of growing concern and research. As the planet continues to experience unprecedented climate changes, understanding and addressing the implications for global peace and security becomes increasingly important. The research highlights a need for policies and interventions that can mitigate the risks of climate conflict, particularly in the most vulnerable regions of the world.

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Climate change and vulnerable regions

When it comes to climate conflict, states deemed to be ‘fragile and conflict-affected states’ (FCS) are the most vulnerable. These regions, characterised by weak institutional capacities and governance challenges, are the most susceptible to climate-induced conflicts. The link between fragility and environmental stressors in these areas highlights how climate change can ignite conflict.

The heightened vulnerability of FCS to Climate Conflict

FCS are often situated in regions inherently vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, such as sub-Saharan Africa, parts of Asia, and the Middle East. These regions are facing increasingly severe and frequent climate crises, such as droughts, floods, and extreme weather events. A recent report by the World Bank highlighted that FCS are more likely to suffer from climate change due to their geographical situation and reliance on climate-dependent sectors like agriculture.

In these areas, the dual effects of environmental degradation and socio-economic instability create an increased potential for conflict. Climate change acts as a catalyst, exacerbating existing tensions over resources, and leading to disputes and violence.

Fragility as a multiplier of climate conflict

The fragility of these regions amplifies environmental challenges. In FCS, limited capacity to respond to environmental changes, poor infrastructure, and inadequate governance systems mean that even small climate shocks can have disproportionately large impacts. This aligns with the findings of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), which noted that FCS face more significant challenges in recovering from climate-related shocks, with their GDP taking longer to rebound compared to more stable states.

Even more concerning is that the effects of climate change in these fragile regions are often not limited to their borders. They have global implications, including mass migration and refugee crises, which can stress international relations and lead to broader regional instabilities. Large-scale displacement due to environmental factors in FCS can have ripple effects, contributing to political and social tensions in neighbouring countries and regions.

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Migration and climate conflict

Climate change is a significant driver of migration, forcing people to leave their homes in search of more habitable environments. This migration, often triggered by extreme weather events such as droughts, floods, and rising sea levels, can lead to large-scale displacement. This displacement not only affects internal populations but often crosses borders too, leading to international migration and refugee crises.

A real-life example of cross-border conflict linked to climate migration can be found in the Lake Chad Basin in Africa. This region, which includes parts of Nigeria, Niger, Chad, and Cameroon, has witnessed significant environmental changes due to global warming, notably the dramatic shrinking of Lake Chad. This environmental degradation has led to economic hardship, food insecurity, and water scarcity, forcing many to migrate. The influx of these climate migrants into new areas has intensified competition over scarce resources like land and water, exacerbating existing tensions and conflicts, especially between farmers and herders. The presence of armed groups like Boko Haram, exploiting the region's vulnerabilities, adds another layer of complexity to the conflict, illustrating the multifaceted nature of climate-induced cross-border conflicts.

The movement of climate refugees poses challenges to national and international policies, stretching the capabilities of humanitarian aid and immigration systems. As climate change continues to impact more regions globally, the scale of migration and its associated challenges are expected to increase, calling for a coordinated global response. 

👉 Learn more about climate migration in our article on climate visas.

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Global response to climate conflict

Tackling climate change

Addressing and mitigating climate change is one of the most significant actions the global community can undertake to prevent future conflicts. The rationale behind this is straightforward: climate change acts as a "threat multiplier," exacerbating existing vulnerabilities such as resource scarcity, displacement, and social tensions. By actively working to halt global warming, we not only protect the environment but also lay the groundwork for a more stable and peaceful world.

A key step forward by the international community to halt global warming is the Paris Agreement, adopted in 2015. This agreement sets an ambitious target to limit global warming to below 2 degrees Celsius (and ideally below 1.5 ℃). 

The Paris Agreement's implementation is crucial to reducing the risk of climate-induced conflicts, especially in regions that are most vulnerable to the adverse effects of climate change. It focuses on enhancing adaptive capacities, strengthening resilience, and reducing vulnerability to climate-related hazards and natural disasters. This approach is central to fostering a sustainable and peaceful global environment, where the likelihood of conflicts over dwindling resources is significantly reduced.

👉 Learn more about the Paris Agreement in our article

The role of international organisations

Organisations like the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the United Nations (UN) are actively involved in addressing climate conflicts. The IMF for example, through its financial and advisory support, assists countries in developing strategies to cope with economic challenges posed by climate change, thereby reducing the potential for conflict. The UN, through various agencies and programs, focuses on peacekeeping, humanitarian aid, and development assistance in regions at risk of climate conflict. The UN's emphasis on sustainable development goals (SDGs) also contributes to mitigating climate conflict by promoting social and economic stability.

These global initiatives show a growing recognition of the need for coordinated efforts to address the risks of climate conflict. By focusing on both mitigation and adaptation strategies, these international agreements and organisations lay a foundation for a more resilient and stable global community in the face of climate change.

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The future of climate conflict

As we look towards the future, understanding and preparing for the potential escalation of climate conflict becomes increasingly crucial. Predictions and models indicate that without significant intervention, the frequency and intensity of conflicts exacerbated by climate change are likely to increase. This underscores the need for comprehensive and proactive strategies to prevent and mitigate climate-induced conflicts.

Projected increase in climate conflicts

Climate models and studies, such as those from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), predict a continued rise in global temperatures and more extreme weather events in the coming decades. This escalation in climate change is expected to intensify the stress on natural resources in vulnerable regions, potentially leading to an increase in the frequency and severity of climate conflicts. 

Strategies for reducing the likelihood of climate-induced conflicts

To counteract the projected rise in climate conflicts, a multi-pronged approach is needed. Key strategies include:

  • Strengthening climate resilience - Investing in climate resilience, especially in fragile states, is important. This involves building robust infrastructure, diversifying economies away from climate-dependent sectors, and enhancing agricultural practices to withstand climate variability.
  • Enhancing adaptive capacity - Developing and deploying adaptive strategies for communities at risk can reduce vulnerability to climate stressors. This includes ensuring access to sustainable water sources and promoting sustainable land management practices.
  • Promoting stability - Addressing the root causes of conflicts, such as political instability, economic disparities, and social injustice, can reduce the likelihood of climate-induced conflicts. International cooperation and aid are vital in supporting peacebuilding efforts in vulnerable regions.
  • Improving governance and resource management - Effective governance systems are key to equitable resource distribution and conflict resolution. Implementing transparent and fair resource management policies can reduce competition over scarce resources.
  • Enhancing international cooperation - Strengthening international cooperation for climate action, including adherence to agreements like the Paris Agreement, is vital for addressing the underlying causes of climate conflict.
  • Investing in research and early warning systems - Continued research into the nexus of climate change and conflict, along with the development of early warning systems, can help in forecasting and preventing potential conflicts.

Looking ahead

The future of climate conflict hinges on the actions taken today to address both climate change and its potential to fuel conflicts. By investing in resilience, peace, and sustainable development, the likelihood of climate-induced conflicts can be significantly reduced, paving the way for a more stable and secure world.

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