Controversies in Military Ethics & Security Policy
Climate Change as a Risk Amplifier – On the links between climate change and conflict
When former U.S. Vice President Al Gore and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007, the decision was met with great approval by some, and heavy criticism by others. Criticism was sparked mainly by the fact that at the time of the award, no general empirical relationship could be established between the increase in greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and the prevalence of violent conflicts. On the contrary: compared with the 1990s, the number of armed conflicts had decreased significantly while climate change had progressed. Looking to the future, critics were also sceptical as to whether the close connection posited by the Nobel Committee between climate change-induced environmental changes and armed conflicts really existed. Those on the other side of the argument pointed to a number of recent wars such as the one in Darfur in Sudan, and to the conflict potential associated with scarce resources such as arable land and water, whose availability – in their view – will decrease because of climate change.1
Since 2007, the question of the links between climate change and conflicts has become the subject of scientific studies and publications now numbering in the hundreds.2 While the results of these studies and the conclusions drawn from them are still mixed, a number of broadly accepted findings can be identified. These are presented below.
Climate change as a threat or risk
The different reactions to the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize stem from two basic positions in the analysis of conflicts. One emphasizes environmental factors, the other underlines the societal dimension as the decisive factor in the emergence of conflicts and their escalation into violence. In the scientific debate surrounding the links between climate change and conflicts, these two basic positions are strongly associated with the disciplines in which researchers are based. While authors with a background of climate research or ecology generally regard environmental factors as dominant, conflict researchers tend to focus on the human-made conflict process.
The two basic positions are well illustrated by the example of the impact of drought on the war in Darfur from 2003.3 The outbreak of this war, which resulted in several thousand deaths, had been preceded by repeated violent clashes over land and water. These mainly involved farmers and cattle herders, but had also taken place between different ethnic groups. Population growth, but also a trend of diminishing annual rainfall – which was manifested particularly in the form of recurring droughts – had exacerbated these conflicts over the decades. Yet this did not result in numbers of victims on the same scale as was seen after 2003. After 2007, following negotiations and agreements, the fighting subsided. Not least, this also happened because a peace force comprising several thousand troops was stationed in the region. Currently the situation in Darfur is largely calm. However, the number of displaced persons remains very high, and there are ongoing local battles among armed groups and with government units.
Declining rainfall and recurring droughts have placed people’s lives in Darfur under increasing strain over the decades. The link between this deterioration of environmental conditions and global climate change is obvious. Therefore, from an ecological perspective, the war that started in 2003 was an eruption of violence between groups over increasingly scarce water and usable land. Ban Ki-moon, the then Secretary-General of the United Nations, called the Darfur conflict the first climate war.
However, the war did not follow one of the many droughts. It came after a series of comparatively rainy years. Nor was it triggered by one of the frequent local clashes. Rather it was a deliberate effort by the Sudanese central government in Khartoum to gain control over Darfur – a province in which it had had little presence until then. This was made possible by the ending of another war, which had been a priority for the government up until that time. The rebels in southern Sudan had gained the upper hand militarily, and in the Machakos Protocol of 2002, the government had made far-reaching concessions that opened the way to ending the fighting and independence for the south. An important tool used by the government to take control in Darfur was to recruit and arm paramilitary units – the Janjaweed – who used brutal violence, mainly against civilians. Thus the escalation of conflict in Darfur did not result from environmental changes directly, but was the consequence of political decisions instead. On the other hand, it took place in an environment trending toward an increasing scarcity of land and water.
Other examples, such as the significance of a drought in the northeast of Syria for the still ongoing war in that country,4 or of disasters in the Philippines for local fighting,5 reveal a similar picture. While it is true that environmental changes linked to climate change preceded the armed conflicts, the actual lines of conflict lay elsewhere – in particular, they were struggles over political power.
Moreover, climate-related environmental changes are by no means accompanied by an intensification of conflicts or even wars everywhere. In South America too, for example, climate change is affecting the conditions under which people live – e.g. in the Andes. But still there has been no increase in armed conflicts.
Nevertheless, the impacts of climate change are not irrelevant. They are not determinant, though.6 There are two reasons why this is the case. Firstly, the impacts of climate change are relevant almost exclusively in places where conflicts of interest between different groups already existed before. Here they can intensify disputes, for example by making water or fertile land scarce, or affecting their distribution between groups. Secondly, even in such situations, the people affected have various response options open to them. For example, they can fight over the diminishing fertile land, or they can agree to share its use. Apart from the intensity of conflicts, an important factor determining the prevailing response is the existence of institutions for dealing with and managing conflicts. Where there are widely accepted ways of reconciling the interests of different groups, the likelihood of conflict escalation is reduced. Other factors also influence response patterns, for example the relative shifts in wealth and income associated with environmental changes, or the exploitation of conflicts by political actors who seek to augment their own power.
Researchers with different disciplinary backgrounds can agree that from this perspective, climate change is a risk factor for armed conflicts among many others. How significant it is depends partly on the relative importance of environmental changes and the respective economic, social and political contexts, and partly on the choices between escalation and de-escalation made by the relevant actors. Thus to explain why environmental changes linked to climate change are occasionally important for the escalation of conflicts, we must consider both the ecological, economic, social and political initial conditions, and the specific conflict process in the conflict region.
Given this close intertwining of environmental changes with other risk factors for the escalation of conflicts, it is very difficult to assess or quantify the influence of climate change. This is true for case studies as much as for quantitative studies, which use statistical methods to analyze many of their cases. Even though it is undisputed that climate change has an influence on the occurrence of conflicts in the world in general, the question of its significance for current, never mind future developments remains a question with varied answers.
An interesting attempt to shine some light on this issue was made a few years ago by researchers from Stanford University in California, USA.7 They held a retreat for scientists who had published prominent research on the link between climate change and conflicts, with very different findings in some cases. The scientists were asked to discuss what significance they thought climate change had, compared to other risk factors, for the occurrence of conflicts now and in the future.
Even with this approach, only a rough estimate of the relative importance of climate change as a risk factor for armed conflicts can be obtained. But it is interesting to note that despite differences in detail, the experts agreed on a number of points in their assessments. For example, they agreed that climate change is currently far less important than other risk factors, such as low per-capita income, the presence of ethnic conflict, or weak statehood. Estimates of the contribution made by climate change to conflict risk in the recent past ranged from 3 percent to 20 percent, although all researchers expressed a high degree of uncertainty. They agreed that the significance of climate change will increase in the future. Most expected a weak to moderate increase in its significance, with a global temperature rise of 2 Celsius, or a moderate increase in a 4 °C scenario.8
Local, regional and global contexts
As well as a growing consensus on the general significance of climate change for conflicts, there is also increasing recognition that the risks of climate change differ not only from region to region, but also on different levels of societal organization.
Drinking water offers a good illustration of this last point. Contrary to what is often claimed in sensationalist articles and books, water has very rarely caused wars between states in the past. At the same time, there is little likelihood that this will change in the future.9 Even where this does seem possible, for example because the building of dams could exacerbate water shortages – as currently with the construction of a Nile dam in Ethiopia – past experience suggests that an amicable settlement is far more likely than armed conflict. One reason for this is that the costs of war would be far higher than the losses of water, in terms of a loss of income for farmers and other users of the water, that could be expected in negotiations. The situation is different when the issue is no longer one of distribution of water but of absolute scarcity, or where agreements on sharing are not possible because of the lack of any institutions able to sanction breaches of those agreements. Both are particularly common at the local level. Confrontations over water usage in the Sahel zone, for example, occur mostly where there are no traditional institutions such as councils of elders, or modern ones such as courts, to organize a reconciliation of interests. On the other hand, water scarcity often leads to greater trust and cooperation between population groups.10
Water is only one of various environmental changes linked to climate change. Others include the loss of usable land due to rising sea levels and salinization, or the expansion of drylands. Here too, local conflicts are more frequent than national or international ones. An important reason for this is the relative significance of environmental changes such as reduced rainfall, natural disasters or rising sea levels on people’s living conditions and livelihoods. While the impacts may be very great locally, with a few exceptions such as small Pacific island states, they are rarely as important for larger geographical units. Another reason is that greater diversity of employment opportunities and lifestyles increases the capacity to compensate for problems caused by climate-related environmental changes, for example in agricultural production. This tends to be the case in larger units. Finally, institutions for conflict management and resolution are often particularly weak at the local level. However, local conflicts can also develop national and regional dimensions, particularly in fragile states, where central institutions do not function well either. For example, when Typhoon Haiyan struck some islands of the Philippines in November 2003, insufficient aid delivered to the victims triggered armed conflicts between government troops and armed groups.11
Yet it is not only local environmental changes that can cause local effects. In our globally networked world, negative consequences of climate change can show up in very different places than where the environmental changes occur. Migration and prices are important transmission belts. Environmental changes in one region, especially natural disasters, can lead to conflicts in regions that people migrate into. However, the importance of this conflict factor is highly disputed in the scientific literature.12 One example of the significance of prices for local conflicts is the repeated “bread riots” in numerous countries of the Global South. Since local prices for breadmaking cereals can be strongly dependent on world market supply and demand, a sharp drop in production in one region of the world can have a considerable impact elsewhere. Some authors have cited this mechanism as a factor in the Arab Spring of 2011. Because of droughts in Russia, China and several other countries of the Global North, world market prices for bread cereals had risen far above average in the fall of 2010, fueling protests in a series of Arab states.13
A major exception to this focus on local conflicts is suggested frequently in the Arctic. The impacts of climate change in the Arctic are fundamentally different from those in most regions of the world. Here there is no widespread deterioration of conditions for income generation. Indeed they are improving – for everyone except the indigenous population. The increased use of shipping passages in the Arctic, and in particular the possible exploitation of natural resources, hold considerable potential for conflict. However, the Arctic states have so far managed to resolve their conflicting interests through treaties.
Apart from the Sahel, the main regions that have already turned into conflict risk hotspots due to climate change today are to be found in South Asia and Southeast Asia. In these regions, strong negative impacts on people’s income as a result of droughts, floods, storms and other natural disasters converge with existing economic, social or political conflict lines. In all these regions, income levels tend to be low and the main source of livelihood is agriculture. For the future, other hotspots are identified where creeping climate change will lead to environmental changes via a permanent decrease in precipitation and rising sea levels – such as the Mediterranean region and southern Africa.14
Conflict mitigation and peacebuilding
The close linkages between climate-related environmental changes and social and political risk factors offer a variety of starting points for measures and activities to reduce the conflict potential of climate change.15
First and foremost are measures to limit the extent of climate change. Impacts on the environment and the associated strains on the cohesion of societies and relations between states grow with the degree of global warming. Accordingly, it is also significant for the occurrence of conflicts in the future whether the international community is able to limit the global temperature increase to 2 °C or even less, compared to the pre-industrial era.16
The impacts of climate change on the physical environment and the availability of resources such as land and water can also be modified by taking active measures. Disaster risk reduction plays an important role here, because even gradual climate change – as seen for example in a rising sea level – will initially cause damage primarily in extreme situations, in this case storm surges. Adaptation measures are therefore a second instrument for influencing how climate change affects the occurrence of conflicts.
Projects aimed at strengthening societies’ resilience to climate-related environmental changes go further than adaptation measures. For example, rapid economic recovery after a disaster can prevent conflicts from forming between social groups who have been affected to differing degrees.
Alongside these measures, aimed at limiting environmental changes resulting from climate change, are those aimed at containing the social and political forces of conflict escalation. In principle, these are no different from what has proven useful in conflict management and peacebuilding over the course of decades, ranging from programs to stabilize the economy, to strengthening institutions to deal with conflicts, and to activities intended to bring about reconciliation between adversarial social groups.
However, it seems obvious to combine conflict management and peacebuilding measures with activities aimed at mitigating environmental risks.
This is attempted in a particularly active way in “environmental peacebuilding”, where, for example, measures to protect the environment are combined with programs for reconciliation between adversarial groups. In practice, such a combined approach is difficult to implement, and can produce unintended consequences.17 For one thing, activities to mitigate environmental risks and social and political conflict risks often compete with each other. One example would be the construction of dams, which reduces the risk of flooding, but at the same time involves the forced resettlement of people. Another example is the large-scale cultivation of crops for energy production, which is often associated with a shortage of land for food production by small farmers. Conversely, peacebuilding measures – such as those aimed at stimulating the economy in post-conflict societies – can also worsen environmental conditions. Secondly, actors who are concerned with environmental risks and social and political conflict risks are often isolated from one another. An example of this is the different objectives of international development and aid organizations, which usually have a clear focus on a limited field of activity.
Dangers of "securitization" and underestimating the climate conflict risk
The complexity of the link between climate change and conflicts not only complicates empirical analysis and efforts to mitigate conflicts influenced by climate change, it also leads to underestimation and exaggeration of the importance of this link.18
This was particularly clear in the second half of the first decade of this century. An important reason for this was the attitude of a number of governments, led by the U.S. administration under George W. Bush, on the one hand, and the strengthening of social movements for more climate protection on the other. Emphasis of the conflict risk of climate change proved to be a powerful argument for mobilizing for more climate protection. But this came at the price of increasing fears about mass migration to Europe and the United States, and turning former and active military personnel into dominant promoters of the dangers of climate change. So far, admittedly, there have been few signs of a “securitization” of climate change, meaning roughly a widespread adoption of the view that climate change is an existential threat, which can only be countered by eliminating democratic processes and employing coercion. There has also been little sign of any activities aimed at countering the risks of climate change by military means.19 On the other hand, the fear of a huge wave of climate migrants into Europe and the United States is stubbornly persistent in politics and society, even though it is not supported by analyses of migration movements to date. This has become an important factor in the migration policies of a number of states. Exaggerations of the importance of climate change also serve the interests of politically failing decision-makers and elites. They can blame a factor beyond their control for poor living conditions and protests – even escalation into armed conflicts – for which they are in fact culpable. The conflict in Darfur is an example of this, too.
Alongside exaggerations of the risks to peace and security, a downplaying of climate change can be seen – both in general and specifically when it comes to questions of social cohesion and dangerous conflicts. For example, the Trump administration in the U.S. rejected any kind of attempt on the practical, political or diplomatic level to link climate change with conflicts, because they disputed the very notion of anthropogenic climate change. Other actors in international politics, while accepting that climate change affects living conditions for many people, are unwilling to see this as a relevant conflict risk. For example, not only the United States, but also Russia and China prevented Germany, during its two-year membership of the UN Security Council in 2019/2020, from successfully introducing a resolution that identified climate change as a threat to international peace and security. This angered a number of states particularly affected by climate change, such as the small Pacific island states, who would like to see the international community do more.
Climate change as a present and future risk
It makes little sense to view climate change in isolation from other conflict factors. Its impacts on societies are determined to too great an extent by people’s dependence on environmental conditions, their ability to adapt to environmental changes, how the negative consequences of such changes are distributed among different social groups, and how these distribution issues are perceived by the population – to mention just a few important factors.
However, with a rising global temperature and its consequences for climate and weather, the expected magnitude of environmental changes also increases, especially in the form of extreme weather events, but also longer-term changes such as rainfall and sea level. This tends to increase the risks of armed conflicts. Yet even in the foreseeable future, these risks are likely to become dominant only where there is a high level of dependence on agricultural production, and where other lines of conflict intersect with those over the distribution of the negative consequences of environmental changes.
The close intertwining of climate change with other conflict factors opens up a wide range of opportunities for mitigating the risk of conflict. Here again, however, the conditions for success diminish as climate change increases. This is because the close entanglement also means that important brakes on conflict escalation, such as trust between different social groups and institutions for conflict management and resolution, lose their power to shape events as climate change intensifies.
1 Gleditsch, Nils Petter (2021): “This time is different! Or is it? NeoMalthusians and environmental optimists in the age of climate change.” Journal of Peace Research 58(1), pp. 177‑185.
2 Von Uexkuell, Nina and Buhaug, Halvard (2021): “Security implications of climate change: A decade of scientific progress.” Journal of Peace Research 58(1), pp. 3‑17.
3 For a concise description of the disputed positions, see the IPCC’s Fifth Assessment Report. Adger, W Neil et al. (2014): Climate Change 2014: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability. Part A: Global and Sectoral Aspects. Contribution of Working Group II to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change. Cambridge/New York, pp. 755‑791.
5 Brzoska, Michael (2018): “Weather Extremes, Disasters, and Collective Violence: Conditions, Mechanisms, and Disaster-Related Policies in Recent Research.” Current Climate Change Reports 4(4), pp. 320‑329.
6 Koubi, Vally (2019): “Climate Change and Conflict.” Annual Review of Political Science 22, pp. 343‑360, www.annualreviews.org/doi/pdf/10.1146/annurev-polisci-050317-070830; von Uexkuell, Nina and Buhaug, Halvard (2021); Scheffran, Jürgen: “Climate change and weather extremes as risk multipliers.” In: Brzoska, Michael and Scheffran, Jürgen (eds.), pp. 19‑48.
7 Mach, Katharine J et al. (2019): “Climate as a risk factor for armed conflict.” Nature 571(7764), pp. 193‑197.
8 Mach, Katharine J et al. (2019).
9 Bernauer, Thomas and Böhmelt, Tobias (2020): “International conflict and cooperation over freshwater resources.” Nature Sustainability 3(5), pp. 350‑356.
10 De Juan, Alexander and Hänze, Niklas (2021): “Climate and cohesion: The effects of droughts on intra-ethnic and inter-ethnic trust.” Journal of Peace Research 58(1), pp. 151‑167.
Michael Brzoska is a senior research fellow at the Institute for Peace Research and Security Policy (IFSH) at the University of Hamburg. Until 2016, he was Scientific Director of the IFSH. He is also a senior research associate of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI). He studied economics and political science before working at various peace and conflict research institutes. From 2007 until 2017, he was Principal Investigator in the climate research cluster of excellence at the University of Hamburg.