In light of Pax et Bellum’s theme week, we thought we would discuss the topic of the Environment, Peace and Security by examining the research that has been conducted regarding climate change and the onset of conflict. An assumed connection between climate change and human conflict has existed for some time: former UN Secretary Ban Ki-moon coined the term ‘climate wars’ to describe the conflict in Darfur (Maslin, 2018). However, in academic research, there is no clear consensus about the robustness of the connection between climate change and the onset of conflict.
Lack of Consensus
In 2015, a leading scholar researching the connection between climate change and conflict, Halvard Buhaug (2015: 269), stated that “ten years of generalizable quantitative research on climate change and armed conflict appears to have produced more confusion than knowledge”. While the standard of the research into the nexus between climate change and conflict has become increasingly sophisticated, it has produced seemingly incompatible, even contradicting, findings and patterns (Buhaug, 2015). For example, a study published in 2011 claimed to have found a direct link between climate change and global patterns of civil conflict (Cane et al., 2011). On the other hand, a publication in 2016 challenges this assumption by showing that the occurrence of drought only had ‘limited’ impact on the outbreak of conflict and that other factors, such as political exclusion, pre-existing historic violence and country-specific factors had a more significant impact (von Uexkull et al., 2016). Overall, the connection between climate change and conflict remains a contested one: climate change has not always led to conflict; however, it is linked to causing an increase in stressors and exacerbating factors that have an established link to the onset of conflict.
Issue of Causal Mechanism
Another issue that further complicates research regarding climate and conflict is the difficulty of examining a causal mechanism: the connection between climate and conflict is neither simple nor direct. In many ways, climate change must be viewed as the foundation or the first domino in the chain of inter-linked causes that lead to conflict: climate change may
lead to resource scarcity which may, in turn, lead to political instability which may then turn into violence. Establishing the relationship between climate change and conflict is especially complex since other factors are often in play that could explain the occurrence of conflict (Koubi, 2019). This can, for example, be seen when correlating drought with conflict, although a significant relationship can be found, confounding factors such as pre-existing tensions are present, making it difficult to establish a causal relationship (Koubi, 2019).
Within the literature on conflict and climate change, a distinction is made between direct, indirect, and contextual effects (see e.g. Koubi, 2019). The direct pathway deals with the physiological and/or psychological factors as well as resource scarcity. Anderson and Bushman (2002) argue that shifts in temperatures can elevate levels of discomfort and can lead to aggressiveness, hostility and violence; they label this the temperature-aggression nexus. In addition scholars, such as Gleditsch et al. (2006) and Homer-Dixon (2001), have argued that due to resource scarcity the level of competition increases; this can be seen in e.g. places where the level of rainfall has significantly decreased, leading to water becoming a precious commodity. At a national level this influences herders, fuels urban unrest, and increases the likelihood of the occurrence of civil violence (Koubi, 2019).
The indirect pathway focuses on economic output and migration. Adverse climatic conditions can induce climate-depressed economic output; this is detrimental for the stability of peace as individuals will be incentivized to join rebel groups in search for economic opportunity. The loss of agricultural income caused by the changing climate conditions can increase the likelihood of conflict and is thus associated with affecting the duration and intensity of a conflict (Koubi, 2019). During conflict, governments are less resilient to economic shock and less able to respond to emerging challenges (Koubi, 2019). In addition, the scarcity of food increases the food prices potentially incentivizing civil movements such demonstrations, protests, and riots, especially in urban areas as the urban population (Chassang & Padro i Miquel, 2009).
Lastly, contextual factors such as economic development and political institutions are important to consider. Countries that already have pre-existing challenges, such as high levels of poverty and a high dependence on agriculture, are more likely to be severely affected by climate change (Koubi, 2019). Furthermore, countries with higher administrative capacity are more likely to be able to provide economic support and alleviate climatic hardship (Koubi, 2019).
Connections between climate change and the world we live in are undeniable – but whether these changes will lead to the outbreak of conflict remains uncertain.
Climate Change as a Destabilizing Factor – Sudan
Indisputably, climate change can act as a destabilizing factor: it may lead to the loss of livelihood, lack of access to resources and mass migration. In many ways “[…] climate change acts as a threat multiplier, exacerbating threats in already unstable regions of the world” (Powers, 2015; Time). Climate change contributes to existing ‘stressors,’ thus, increasing the risk of conflict (Schultz, 2019). The UN has long argued that the conflict in Sudan is, at least in part, linked and caused by an ecological crisis that arose in part due to climate change (Ki-moon, 2007). The UN stipulates that it is no accident that violence in Sudan, Darfur especially, erupted during a severe drought (UNEP, 2017). In Sudan, climate change “[…] has increased the unpredictability of the rain, the incidence of extreme events such as drought and flood, and the frequency of low-rainfall years” (UNEP, 2017). In countries like Sudan, climate change has led to an increase in instability as previously social and economic patterns become increasingly stressed, exacerbating divisions and grievances – all factors that have established links to the onset of conflict.
Perhaps the only thing researchers can agree on is that conflict is never caused by a singular factor: a myriad of factors lead to the onset of a violent conflict, climate change may simply be one of many. However, climate change is and will continue to be a destabilizing factor: from droughts, to floods, forest fires to melting ice caps, climate change will continue to influence the social, geographic, economic and political reality we live in.
Anderson C.A., Bushman B.J. (2002). Human aggression. Annu. Rev. Psychol. 53, pp. 27–15
Buhaug, H. (2015). Climate–conflict research: some reflections on the way forward. WIREs Climate Change, 6, pp. 269–275.
Chassang S, Padró i Miquel G. (2009). Economic shocks and civil war. Q. J. Political Sci. 4, pp. 211–228.
Gleditsch NP, Furlong K, Hegre H, Lacina BA, Owen T. (2006). Conflicts over shared rivers: resource scarcity or fuzzy boundaries? Political Geogr. 25, pp. 361–382
Homer-Dixon TF. (2001). Environment, Scarcity, and Violence. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press
Cane, M., Hsiang, S., Meng, K. (2011). Civil conflicts are associated with the global climate. Nature, 476, pp. 438–441.
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Koubi, V. (2019). Climate Change and Conflict. Annual Review of Political Science.
Maslin, M., (2018). Online. Climate change is not a key cause of conflict, finds new study. Available from: https://theconversation.com/climate-change-is-not-a-key-cause-of-conflict-finds-new-study-94331 [Accessed 29 February 2020].
Powers, J. (2015). Online. Climate Change Is the ‘Mother of All Risks’ to National Security. Available from: https://time.com/4101903/climate-change-national-security/ [Accessed 29 February 2020].
Schultz, K., (2019). Online. Does climate cause conflict? Available from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oplS87scw50 [Accessed 29 February 2020].
UNEP. (2017). Online. Reversing the cycle of conflict over resources in North Darfur. Available from: https://www.unenvironment.org/news-and-stories/story/reversing-cycle-conflict-over-resources-north-darfur-0 [Accessed 29 February 2020].
von Uexkull, N., Croicu, M., Fjelde, H., Buhaug., H. (2016). Civil Conflict sensitivity to growing-season drought. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 113(44), pp. 1-6.