Climate crisis raises risk of conflict

A warmer world will be more dangerous. As the thermometer rises, so does the risk of conflict and bloodshed in more vulnerable regions.

armed conflict
Zambian peacekeepers from the United Nations patrol streets lined with looted items awaiting collection in the main town of the disputed Abyei area on the border of Sudan and independent South Sudan in 2011. Climate heating brings more risk of bloodshed and armed conflict, says new research. Image: United Nations Photo, CC BY-SA 2.0 via IFPR Flickr

If the world warms by 4°C this century, the climate factor becomes more dangerous – five times more dangerous, according to new research, which predicts a 26 per cent increase in the risk of conflict, just because of climate change.

Even if the world sticks to a promise made in Paris in 2015, when 195 nations vowed to contain global warming to “well below” 2°C above pre-industrial levels by the end of the century, the impact of climate on the risk of armed conflict will double. The risk will rise to 13 per cent.

US researchers report in the journal Nature that they quizzed a pool of 11 experts on climate and conflict from a range of disciplines. There is no consensus on the mechanism that links a shift in average temperatures and ethnic bitterness, migration, violence and outright civil war within any single nation. But there is a simple conclusion: whatever the process, climate change raises the risk of conflict.

And the study comes just as the latest publication of the  Global Peace Index warns that 971 million people now live in areas with what is termed high or “very high climate change exposure”, and 400 million of these people already live in countries with “low levels of peacefulness.”

Making conflict likelier

The Global Peace Index issues the same warning: that climate change can indirectly increase the likelihood of violent conflict by affecting the resources available to citizens, to jobs and careers, and by undermining security and forcing migration.

And, the same study says, this comes at a colossal economic cost. In 2018, the impact of violence on the global economy totalled $14.1 trillion in purchasing power. This is more than 11 per cent of the world’s economic activity and adds up to $1,853 per person.

Both studies reinforce earlier research. Social scientists, geographers and statisticians have repeatedly found links between climate change and conflict, between climate change and migration, and have warned of more to come, specifically in South Asia, and worldwide.

Levels of armed conflict over time have been heavily influenced by shocks and changes in international relations among states and in their domestic political systems.

James Fearon, political scientist, Stanford University

There is a debate about the role of drought in the bloodshed in Syria, but there is less argument about the proposition that climate change unsettles what may already be nations or communities vulnerable to conflict.

There have also been bleak warnings from prehistory: archaeologists think that climate change may have been behind the collapse of the Bronze Age Mediterranean culture and the fall of an ancient Assyrian society.

The point of the latest study was simply to find some consensus on the risks of conflict in a world in climate crisis. The theorists think that climate stresses over the last century have already influenced in some way between 3 per cent and 20 per cent of armed conflict risk.

They think the risks could increase dramatically, as normally productive agricultural regions face catastrophic crop failure, as extremes of temperature make crowded cities more dangerous, as people are driven off their land by sustained drought, and as climate impacts impoverish the already vulnerable, to increase global levels of injustice and inequality.

Planning protection

Armed with a sense of the scale of the future hazard, governments and international agencies could equip themselves with strategies that might help to increase global food security and provide other economic opportunities. Peacekeeping forces and aid agencies need to understand, too, that climate factors are, increasingly, part of the risk.

“Historically, levels of armed conflict over time have been heavily influenced by shocks to, and changes in, international relations among states and in their domestic political systems,” said James Fearon, a political scientist at Stanford University and one of the authors.

“It is quite likely that, over this century, unprecedented climate change is going to have significant impacts on both, but it is extremely hard to anticipate whether the political changes related to climate change will have big effects on armed conflict in turn. So I think putting non-trivial weight on significant climate effects on conflict is reasonable.”

 This story was published with permission from Climate News Network.

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