Climate change and conflicts | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, February 26, 2017 / LAST MODIFIED: 04:32 PM, February 27, 2017

Climate change and conflicts

"For centuries, wars have been fought for territorial expansion, ideological or religious dominance, and national pride. In the future, as climate change progresses and its effects become more pronounced, conflicts between states …could increasingly take centre-stage.”

-              Byers & Dragojlovic

The very succinct quotation above alludes to the upcoming challenges of climate change.  Undoubtedly the forces of nature are unpredictable, dangerous and devastating. They have far-reaching implications and heart-wrenching impacts. Science itself attests to the fact that throughout the ages, the Earth has experienced climate changes and consequent natural disasters - even on epic scales. Throughout the world today, we are witnessing the growing frequency of climatic anomalies such as flooding, storms, droughts or persistent forest and bush fires. They can have dramatic consequences for those affected, entailing loss of property and livelihood, famine and life threatening situations.

Recently, studies and journalistic investigations have focused on one particularly chilling potential social consequence of climate change: an increased frequency of armed conflicts around the world. By studying the link between various climactic factors and rates of historical violence, researchers have speculated that the climate trends we will experience over the next century -- hotter overall temperatures, more erratic rainfall patterns and a rising sea level -- could make conflict and war more common in the future. Now, in the most comprehensive analysis of the work on climate change and armed conflict to date, a team from UC Berkeley has found that these climate trends are indeed likely to significantly increase the incidence of armed conflict.

Their paper, published in Science Magazine, examined 60 studies to aggregate sets of data on events, spanning from 8000 BCE to the present, which examined climate variables and incidences of violence in all major regions of the globe. For example, one of the source papers focused on temperature changes and violent crime in the US from 1952 to 2009, while another looked at the number of conflicts in Europe per decade from 1400 to 1999 as a function of precipitation. Cross-comparing these studies with the same statistical methods revealed patterns that, when projected into the future, suggest that by 2050 we could see 50 percent more instances of mass conflict due to the effects of climate change.

In two separate studies presented four years apart, David Zhang and his colleagues looked at the period between 1500 and 1800 to understand the social and political effects of climate change. They used time series data from the Northern Hemisphere, especially from Europe and, to a lesser extent, from China, to develop and refine their theory. Through that, they concluded that “a drop in average temperature around 1560 was immediately followed by a reduction of bio-productivity, which negatively affected agricultural yields and thus food supply per capita.” Over the next thirty years or so, this was followed by cascading escalation of social unrest, migration, famine, war, and epidemics and widespread conflict. From 1618, the crisis culminated in Thirty Years War. Subsequent warfare, together with famine and epidemics, led to a considerable shrinking of European population. Furthermore, in their findings it was highly surprising to observe similar macro-patterns for regions as disparate as Europe and China at a time when both areas were largely detached from one another both economically and politically. The authors argue that this synchronicity can hardly be explained unless one assumes social mechanisms triggered by the same kind of climate stresses. They also asked, “Does it also apply to global warming, both in the North and in the South?” And replied that “yes it is applicable in both the cases”.

Former UN Secretary‐General Kofi Annan and the Global Humanitarian Forum in Geneva stated that each year the impacts of climate change are responsible for hundreds of thousands of deaths with hundreds of millions of people severely affected directly. According to Annan, climate change is a serious threat to over half the world's population; half a billion people are at extreme risk (Global Humanitarian Forum, 2009).

In fact, while  Zhang and colleagues have shown that social and political dislocations in temperate regions of the northern hemisphere are mostly associated with climatic cooling, others have demonstrated that the opposite holds true for the tropics where warmer El Nino years have always been, and are still, associated with serious social and political trouble. From all this, it seems fair to conclude that global warming of the scale associated with future climate change would have negative effects comparable to those studied by Zhang and colleagues with regard to climatic cooling. In fact climate change is expected to be more severe than any previous climate shock since the end of the last ice age. Like the previous incidents in history, in the 21st century also humanity is going face miserable climatic stresses; which will portend scenarios of violent conflicts and wars.     

Because of strategic salience of change to the climate and consequent disasters the debate about relationship between climate change and conflict rages on. Scientists and strategic thinkers are convinced that even small changes in temperature or rainfall are correlated with rise in conflicts and wars.  In 2007, the Norwegian Nobel Committee awarded the Peace Prize to Al Gore and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, citing climate change as a threat to international security. Some, including United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon, have even claimed that the crisis in the Darfur region of Sudan – which pits farmers against pastoralists – stems, in part, from environmental pressures and the scarcity of water and land. And the Secretary General termed the conflict in Darfur as the first Climate War.

The argument about the connection between climate change and conflict boils down to an argument about resource scarcity and competition over the means to sustain livelihoods. Long-term trends such as desertification, rising sea-levels, and the spread of disease vectors, along with the increased frequency and severity of short-term natural disasters such as flooding and hurricanes, will disrupt economies, reduce the available supply of natural resources, and generate mass migration out of affected areas. Competition between haves and have-nots will intensify, and wars will be fought over dwindling food and water resources. Some areas may well become net beneficiaries of climate shifts, even as the absolute availability of resources declines, but this will only exacerbate global and intrastate inequalities and produce further friction. Environmental refugees fleeing uninhabitable areas will place strains on receiving communities, undermine the ability of those communities to provide basic services, and contribute to ethno-cultural tensions.

Developed countries will erect physical and virtual barriers to entry in order to protect their resources and way of life. States will falter as they are unable to meet the demands of their people, face a reduction in revenues, and be unable to contain outbreaks of violence. In summing up their core predictions in a US Department of Defense report, Schwartz & Randall write, “nations with the resources to do so may build virtual fortresses around their countries, preserving resources for themselves. Less fortunate nations … may initiate struggles for access to food, clean water or energy … defence priorities will shift and the goal is resources for survival rather than religion, ideology, or national honour.”

It is difficult to assess prognostications about the future. However, environmental degradations, resource shortfalls, and natural disasters of the past can inform conjectures about what may transpire down the road. Recently in his seminal work titled Climate Wars: The Fight for Survival as the World Overheats, Gwynne Dyer mentions about waves of climate refugees, dozens of failed states and all-out war. From one of such world's great geopolitical analysts comes a terrifying glimpse of the strategic realities of the near future, when climate change drives the world's powers towards the cut-throat politics of survival. His presentations are considered by many reviewers as prescient and unflinching. And really what drives almost all of these scenarios is that the principal impact of warming on human beings is on the food supply, that the hotter it gets, the less food we can grow.


As a thumb rule, for every one Degree Celsius average global temperature rise, we lose ten percent of the supply of global grain production. And there's no slack in the system. In fact we're eating all that we grow. And so, what they see is a variety of ills arising from an absolute shortage of food. Refugees are coming up against borders that don't want to let them in, but they are starving back home, their farm is dried up or blown away, they are trying to get into a place where there's still some food. Dyer advocated for geo-engineering as a solution to climate wars. This is all about exploiting geo-engineering measures for one's own benefit. But his critics discard this on the ground that it may lead to unhealthy competition between the nations putting Mother Nature and this planet in danger and jeopardy again.

Conflicts occur when different groups of people are competing for scarce resources. As climate change plays out, areas of the world that can now feed themselves will no longer be able to do so, in some cases because of flooding, in others because of low rainfall (southern Europe and much of Africa, China and central America), in some cases because the loss of mountain glaciers mean that rivers will run dry in the summer (Pakistan and California are both dependant on glacial melt water to irrigate their farms.) This will lead to pressure on land (China, for instance, might resurrect land claims in Siberia), and disputes over water. (What would Egypt do if countries upstream were to divert the waters of the Nile? It will also lead to huge migrations across the world in which the still relatively viable countries will either have to seal off their borders, or face an influx of climate refuges. All these are impetus to think about the possible scenarios which may take the toll on the vulnerable countries and nations.

According to the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), climate change is advancing rapidly. Fourth Assessment Report (AR4) of the IPCC expects a global rise of 2-7 Degree Celsius to occur by 2100, unless resolute counteractions are taken. This global warming will cause more frequent and more severe extreme weather events such as heavy rains, droughts, heat‐waves and storms. There is also a danger of tropical cyclones not only becoming stronger but also occurring with greater frequency in extra-tropical regions. At the same time, sea levels continue to rise. According to the IPCC these direct impacts of climate change will have far-reaching effects upon societies and the lives of people around the world (IPCC, 2007).

A number of high‐profile individuals and policy groups have published alarming reports claiming that climate change will have enormous impacts on humanity. According to Robert D. Kaplan, in his influential article The Coming Anarchy , the core foreign policy challenge for the twenty‐first century is the “political and strategic impact of surging populations, spreading disease, deforestation and soil erosion, water depletion, air pollution, and possibly, rising sea levels, developments that will prompt mass migration and, in turn, incite group conflicts.” Along the same lines, Thomas Homer‐Dixon argues that “climate change will help produce insurgencies, genocide, guerrilla attacks, gang warfare, and global terrorism.”

Former UN Secretary‐General Kofi Annan and the Global Humanitarian Forum in Geneva stated that each year the impacts of climate change are responsible for hundreds of thousands of deaths with hundreds of millions of people severely affected directly. According to Annan, climate change is a serious threat to over half the world's population; half a billion people are at extreme risk (Global Humanitarian Forum, 2009). In a report to the Pentagon on implications of climate change for US national security, Schwartz and Randall sketch scenarios of epic proportions, including the risk of reverting to a Hobbesian state of nature whereby humanity would be engaged in “constant battles for diminishing resources.” Hence we need to think about the issue seriously lest we are caught with total surprise.

The writer is a freelance contributor.

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