A Violently Hot Topic: Climate Change and Conflict

climate change and conflict on the table

There is no doubt the topic of climate change can lead to heated debate. Throw in the notion that climate change and its impacts are a proximate cause of violent conflict and the conversation boils over. A potential 54% increase in the incidence of conflict in sub-Saharan Africa by 2030, based on global temperature rise of 2° Fahrenheit, foretells a future where the current downward trend in violent conflict could be completely reversed.

But skepticism and debate on the topic of climate change and conflict abounds. With the most hard-talking IPCC climate change report released to date, we delved further into these issues, consulting a variety of academic articles, publications and colleagues to help frame the debate. We also interviewed Marshall Burke, professor at Stanford University as well as Margaret Arnold, Climate Change and Resilience Team Leader at the World Bank. We summarize the major issues; probe the link between conflict and climate change; and discuss what is currently being done as well as what more needs to be done to mitigate climate change impacts on conflict.

 What does the Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) say about climate change and conflict?
First, let’s be clear about the main message of the 5th report of the Nobel Peace Prize-winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, released earlier this year—we feel it cannot be over-stated.  The report states that an upward trend in temperature is undeniable. And this is not a “who dunnit” scenario. Current warming is clearly linked to anthropogenic activities. The newly released IPCC report warns that climate change is “severe, pervasive, detrimental and irreversible”. Bottom line- if we don’t cut emissions and undertake other mitigation measures, we face more devastating consequences.

To date, one of the less-reported impacts of temperature changes, alterations to climatic cycles, and rising sea-levels is that such changes can add to or influence the dynamics that often result in wars, civil conflict and even to some forms of inter-personal violence. The 2014 report of Working Group II of the IPCC looked, among other impacts, on human well-being and how climate change will affect conflict. It found that there is a real risk of climate change indirectly igniting and exacerbating conflict “by amplifying well-documented drivers of these conflicts such as poverty and economic shocks.”

An increase in violent conflict is a likely impact of climate change.
This is not a new message. In 2006 the Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change was one of the first to point at the nexus between climate change and its implications for national security. While the Review didn’t mention conflict explicitly, the projection of the global economic shrinking, changes in food production, reduced access to water resources, and species extinction did more than just hint at the tensions that competition for shifting and dwindling resources would create.

Recent studies have been more explicit about the link, or have, at least, pursued it as a research question. In 2009, Marshal Burke and scholars from Berkley, Harvard, Stanford and New York universities published findings based on historical data of climate events and incidences of conflict, and they found a significant correlation between temperature increases and violent conflict in sub-Saharan Africa. The study suggests that a 1% increase in temperature could result in a 4.5% increase in civil war in the same year and 0.9% increase in the following year. By 2030, it gets worse. Combining climate model projections of future temperature increases with past linkages between civil unrest and temperature, the authors forecast the potential for a 54% increase in potential conflict in sub-Saharan Africa by the year 2030.

A meta-study of other quantitative studies looking at a possible link between climate change and conflict also found that each independent study came to the same conclusion – that there is a strong correlation between climate change and conflict, and there’s only a 1 in 1 million chance that the link could be random.  

 Why are these studies contested and what are some of the ongoing research questions that still need to be answered?
It’s safe to say there’s a fair bit of contention concerning studies that posit a link between climate change and conflict. For one, the scientific community likes to disagree—it’s healthy to do so and can lead to more rigorous or targeted research. Much criticism, however, has come from social and political scientists who say the econometric models used can’t explain the relationship between the data and the variations that are likely in different parts of the world. There’s little doubt though that studies quantitatively establish a link between conflict and climate change. As Burke explained, such research has created “a stylized fact.” It’s now up to political scientists and others to work out, based on what we know about management of shared resources, broader social relationships and governance systems, and so on, whether and how the quantitative link makes sense in a given context.

It’s not that generalized explanations of the nexus between violent conflict and climate change don’t exist. The Report of the IPCC Working Group II, for example, notes that “[…]in many regions, changing precipitation or melting snow and ice are altering hydrological systems, affecting water resources in terms of quantity and quality.” The Working Group II report and latest IPCC Report for policy makers also note that studies covering a wide range of regions and crops find that negative impacts of climate change on agricultural production have been more common than positive impacts. People who are socially, economically, culturally, politically, institutionally, or otherwise marginalized (in countries all over the world), they note, are especially vulnerable to climate change. Governments in climate insecure countries will face particular risks from these changes and resultant impacts on human security.

These are not messages that the IPCC, a heavily self-censored, highly cautious, inter-governmental, body took lightly in deciding to include in the report.

That being said, detailed studies on the destabilizing role climate change can have from a social, economic, and political perspective in high-risk areas remain a gap. There have so far been few mixed-method or qualitative studies that have been able to illustrate the specific climate change related impacts, processes, actors and other factors that contribute to conflict in a particular context, and the forms that conflict will take. Here is an excellent one, and here is a decent one. A conceptual framework and rich qualitative work in a number of high-risk regions that teases out the relationships between all the factors involved would allow us to better understand the degree of risk and how to manage the specific climate-change related factors. The G8 Secretariat thinks this area of enquiry is important enough to have commissioned a study looking at climate-change related conflict in various parts of the world, ahead of the next summit.

While predictions such as Burke et al.’s are based on large, historical data sets, the past is not always a good guide to the future.  That’s another reason why some skeptics argue that changes in socioeconomic pathways, mitigation and adaptation, and ostensibly increased understanding on the part of the international community on how to address and prevent conflict, could change the course of this potential impact. Their quip is not that they don’t believe that there is a relationship between climate change and conflict, but that the historical data doesn’t reflect the still-unfolding story of modern-day climate change.

While the ‘human adaptation’ position has some merit, sticking our heads in the sand has not proven an effective management approach, on any issue. Preventing climate change- related violent conflict is not something that can be done if we lack an understanding of the dynamics related to it, including the economic and political conditions that determine adaptation capacity and the potential ways in which households, communities and governance systems can effectively manage emergent conflict.

 Why is climate change-related conflict important to the U.S.? Doesn’t it affect other countries?
The U.S. will be significantly and directly impacted by climate change-related conflict. There is already a body of data from U.S. cities that finds that temperature increases correlate with increases in inter-personal violence. And, while other Americans may profess that they wouldn’t miss Florida too much if large parts of it disappear underwater (sorry Stephanie!), they may not be too happy  if large numbers of homeless, jobless Floridians turn up in their neighborhoods. Mass migration from particularly affected states can change the economic and social landscape of the U.S. An increase in disasters by extreme weather events will also demand more from the U.S. in terms of the provision of humanitarian assistance, both at home and internationally. As our recent experience of Hurricane Katrina shows us, increased vulnerability to extreme weather patterns can constitute a threat to national security when conflict and violence become more common in the aftermath of natural disasters.

The U.S. though is just one part of the world that is likely to experience climate change related conflict. Projections indicate that sub-Saharan Africa will be disproportionately affected, as will South Asia and East Asia and the Pacific Nations. Already suffering from fragile economies, weak governments, and sometimes profound political and ethnic tensions, many of these countries are particularly susceptible to the catastrophic impacts of climate change. Rising temperatures are projected to result in food insecurity, severe water shortages, and increased risk of extreme weather events. Such impacts will most certainly continue to have spillover effects on the U.S. The U.S. military, for example, considers the militarized Asia-Pacific region ‘highly sensitive to climate change related conflict,’ and foresees the U.S. playing a critical role in helping mitigate the risks in a highly volatile region that is home to at least 5 nuclear powers.

Changes in climate including prolonged periods of drought, some analysts suggest, have already contributed to conflict. The current civil war in Syria has been traced back by some analysts to being the result of a complex set of dynamics that include drought, lowered agricultural yields, changes to agricultural systems and growing food insecurity and resultant forced migration within the country. This part of the world, analysts agree is one amongst those that has been most affected to date by climate change.

Is the United States Government taking the issue seriously?
Despite questions about some of the findings establishing a relationship between conflict and climate change, the U.S. Government—at least the Executive branch—recognizes that climate change poses a real threat to national security. A report by the Military Advisory Body already found a compelling link between climate change and threats to U.S. national security back in 2007, which are further substantiated in its more recent reports.

The U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) established a panel to review the nexus between climate change and security and is taking the issue as it deserves to be, as a threat to human existence as we see it today. In its 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review, DoD refers to climate change as a “threat multiplier,” in that it will increase and change patterns of poverty through extreme events, food shortages, refugee and IDP movements and as such contribute to political instability and social tensions—“conditions that can enable terrorist activity and other forms of violence.” U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry signaled that the Military Advisory Board’s findings will necessarily influence American foreign policy, and Defense Secretary Hagel brought the issue to the forefront of discussions with ASEAN leaders in the spring of this year, in what critics call a ‘securitization of the climate-change and conflict agenda.’

But while the defense and security community within the U.S. Government take the issue seriously, a problem remains with party politicization of the issue. Despite a slowly agreed position within the Obama-led administration regarding the relationship between conflict and climate change, U.S. Congress continues to try to thwart the executive branch’s efforts to address the crisis at home and abroad. Spinning climate change as environmental hysteria or opportunistic on the part of scientists and universities in a bid to secure funding, conservatives across Congress continue to deny the possibility that climate change is real and certainly negate any link between climate change and conflict. In fact, a recent 2014 amendment of the National Defense Reauthorization Act, approved by the U.S. House of Representatives includes the following prohibition:

“None of the funds authorized to be appropriated or otherwise made available by this Act may be used to implement the U.S. Global Change Research Program National Climate Assessment, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Fifth Assessment Report, the United Nation’s Agenda 21 sustainable development plan, or the May 2013 Technical Update of the Social Cost of Carbon for Regulatory Impact Analysis Under Executive Order.”

The amendment, if passed by the Senate later this year, would effectively prevent the Department of Defense from using funds to assess or address climate change—or in other words force our defense agency to ignore science. According to the amendment’s sponsor, Rep. David McKinley, the amendment “prohibits the costs of the President’s climate change policies being forced on the Department of Defense by the Obama Administration.” This tactic, however, is not new; Congress has and will continue to reign in and attempt to control government agencies through the budget process. In 2011, for example, in an attempt to strip the Environment Protection Agency of its authority to regulate greenhouse gasses, Congressional Republicans proposed a plan to decrease $3 billion from the agency’s budget. Considering that the level of climate naysayers in Congress has not wavered, actions such as these— particularly with a GOP majority in the Senate —will continue to politicize science in ways that will certainly affect U.S. national security, both at home and abroad.

Going Forward
Despite Hill tactics and the deep division among Americans on climate change, President Obama’s strong speech and statement at the United Nations Climate Summit in September 2014 is a welcome step forward and assurance that the U.S. Government is taking concerted action on climate change and its manifold impacts. But we need to go beyond a ‘securitization’ approach to climate-change related conflict. More dedicated research to elucidate the way in which specific impacts of climate change contribute to and catalyze conflict in high-risk contexts and guidance on programming will assist decision makers and development actors to act to mitigate and manage the risks.

As the global ‘leader’ in emissions (per capita), and also a country that will likely feel multiple and far-reaching impacts of climate change related conflict, setting a strong example to other countries on committing to adaptation and mitigation measures lays at the very foundation of a more comprehensive approach. Such an approach could save not just the U.S. tax payer billions down the line in adaptation costs, military spending and foreign assistance, but one which will also save lives.


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