Climate Change as a Driver for Armed Conflict

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Introduction

There is considerable research indicating that climate change may indirectly lead to more armed conflict. A number of studies conducted in 2015 indicated that fluctuations in temperatures and precipitation patterns systematically increased conflict, where every 1ᵒC increase in temperature led to a 2.4% and 11.3% increase in interpersonal (i.e. assault and murder) and intergroup (i.e. riots or civil wars) conflict respectively1Marshall Burke, Solomon M. Hsiang and Edward Miguel, ‘Climate And Conflict’ (Annualreviews.org, 2015) <https://www.annualreviews.org/doi/pdf/10.1146/annurev-economics-080614-115430> accessed 25 November 2021. In its 2011 Human Development Report, the UNDP attributed 40% of intrastate wars occurring in the past 60 years to natural resources, with at least 18 violent conflicts since 1990 fueled by the exploitation of natural resources and other environmental factors2‘Human Development Report 2011’ (Hdr.undp.org, 2011) <http://hdr.undp.org/sites/default/files/reports/271/hdr_2011_en_complete.pdf> accessed 24 December 2021.. While it may be argued that a direct correlation between the two does not exist, climate change has been labeled as a ‘threat multiplier’,3Johan Schaar, ‘The Relationship Between Climate Change And Violent Conflict’ (Cdn.sida.se, 2018) <https://cdn.sida.se/app/uploads/2020/12/01105650/working-paper-climate-change-and-conflict.pdf> accessed 24 November 2021. with its tendency to construct a causal chain resulting in the creation or exacerbation of conflict. It may serve as a catalyst for reduced food security, compromised livelihood of vulnerable factions and resource scarcity, which ultimately pave the way for conflict.4Johan Schaar, ‘The Relationship Between Climate Change And Violent Conflict’ (Cdn.sida.se, 2018) <https://cdn.sida.se/app/uploads/2020/12/01105650/working-paper-climate-change-and-conflict.pdf> accessed 24 November 2021. This article aims to highlight the effects of climate change and the link between it and an increase in violence or conflict in affected regions, as well as the implications that conflict in turn may have on regions’ ability to adequately maneuver and adapt to the climate crisis.

Past Instances of Climate-induced Conflict

According to Professor Pavel Kabat, Chief Scientist at the UN World Meteorological Organization (WMO), climate change is increasingly regarded as a national security threat given its impact in “rolling back the gains in nutrition and access to food; heightening the risk of wildfires and exacerbating air quality challenges; increasing the potential for water conflict; leading to more internal displacement and migration.”5Ibid n.2. The conflict in Sudan’s Darfur was regarded as the “first climate change conflict” given the correlation of resource scarcity due to swift desertification and drought with the erosion of peaceful coexistence of the African and Arabic agriculturist communities. The Sudanese civil war erupted as a result, with discord surfacing parallel to a major drought event in 2015-2016 in South Sudan and the Horn of Africa.6Chase Sova, ‘The First Climate Change Conflict’ (World Food Program USA, 2017) <https://www.wfpusa.org/articles/the-first-climate-change-conflict/> accessed 24 November 2021. Natural disasters which may not have spiralled into civil wars have nonetheless led to an increase in violence. Vanuatu witnessed a 300% increase in new domestic violence cases, reported by the Tanna Women’s Counselling Centre, after two tropical cyclones hit the Western division of Fiji in 2012.7 ‘climate Change, Disasters And Gender-Based Violence In The Pacific’ (Uncclearn.org) <https://www.uncclearn.org/wp-content/uploads/library/unwomen701.pdf> accessed 25 November 2021. A decade-long drought causing shrinkage of one of the largest freshwater lakes in the world, Lake Chad, gave rise to confrontations and competition between farmers and herders of the surrounding population for its access.8 ‘How Climate Change Can Fuel Wars’ (The Economist, 2019) <https://www.economist.com/international/2019/05/23/how-climate-change-can-fuel-wars> accessed 25 November 2021. While, in the above discussed instances, violence stemming from climate-induced events may not directly amount to conflict, it may create the conditions ripe for conflict to occur. 

Similarly, literature focusing on South Asia and South-East Asia categorize the regions as being greatly affected by both climate change and conflict. Coastal areas of Indonesia faced an upward spike in piracy-related activities seemingly due to reduced income opportunities from fishing.9Pernilla Nordqvist and Florian Krampe, ‘Climate Change And Violent Conflict: Sparse Evidence From South Asia And South East Asia’ (Sipri.org, 2018) <https://www.sipri.org/sites/default/files/2018-09/sipriinsight1804.pdf> accessed 27 November 2021. Increased intensity of ongoing civil conflicts, coupled with increased support for rebel or government groups faced by areas in India grappling with the Naxalite conflict, have been attributed to worsened living conditions, with easier recruitment by the groups in times of drought.10 Ibid n.9 Floods were seen to augment the support and strength of the Islamist group Jamaat-ud-Dawa in the Sindh province of Pakistan, especially in areas where the group had a previously existing stronghold or scarce government interference, stemming from their provision of disaster aid and assistance to the local population.11 Ibid n.9 With compromised living standards and thus lack of opportunities to generate a basic living income, such regions are bound to witness increased recruitment to armed groups, which may further exacerbate conflict in the area.

The Relationship between Climate-related Change and Security Risks

Some prominent factors identified as catalysts for violent conflict induced by climate change are as follows: 

Food security

Climate-related change has been seen to influence all aspects of food security, in times of uncertain water availability, changing pressure from pathogens or unsuitable temperatures to crop tolerance.12 Ibid n.4 Subsequently, price fluctuations, seen to be more severe in rural areas of vulnerable countries, reduce the availability of food resources, and increase its allocation in families’ budgets,13 Ibid n.4 contributing to increased rates of poverty in such areas. Lack of food security under these circumstances, with demand exceeding availability, gives rise to competition over factors of food production, deteriorating livelihood conditions, potentially triggering social unrest and violence in the region.14‘World Development Report 2011 – Food Security And Conflict’ (Web.worldbank.org, 2011) <https://web.worldbank.org/archive/website01306/web/pdf/wdr%20background%20paper_bora%20et%20al4dbd.pdf?keepThis=true&TB_iframe=true&height=600&width=800> accessed 27 November 2021.

Water Availability

Kofi Annan, UN Secretary-General at the time, stated as early as 2001 that fierce competition for fresh water may well become a source of conflict and wars in the future.15‘Water And Conflict’ (The New Humanitarian, 2014) <https://www.thenewhumanitarian.org/analysis/2014/04/22/water-and-conflict> accessed 28 November 2021. With increasing uncertainty in terms of availability of water due to reduced rainfall, increased variation in its distribution and drought cycles, there are implications on the productivity of agriculture and livestock, with the resultant impacts on malnutrition and poverty.16Ibid n.4 When freshwater supply is scarce, competition for limited supplies can urge nations to see access to water as a matter of national security, labeling it as a salient element of interstate politics and violent conflict. Conflict precipitating directly from water scarcity includes socio-political tensions; disputes over dams, reservoirs, and other large-scale projects; and disputes concerning environmental and resource issues.17Levy, B. S., & Sidel, V. W. (2011). Water rights and water fights: preventing and resolving conflicts before they boil over. American journal of public health101(5), 778–780. https://doi.org/10.2105/AJPH.2010.194670 Water scarcity may also be used for ‘weaponization’ of water, with its strategic and military use including the example of the Islamic state, which resorted to the tactical control of the Tigris and Euphrates. This entailed poisoning drinking water of enemies and attacks on major dams in the region to cut off water supplies or to flood villages and farms.18Peter Gleick and Charlie Iceland, ‘Water Is A Source Of Growing Tension And Violence In The Middle East – Pacific Institute’ (Pacific Institute, 2018) <https://pacinst.org/water-is-a-source-of-growing-tension-and-violence-in-the-middle-east/> accessed 29 November 2021.

Sea-level Rise

A rise in sea-levels may impact three of the four defining characteristics of States set out in Article 1 of the Montevideo Convention on the Rights and Duties of States, namely, a defined territory, a permanent population and an effective government.19‘Montevideo Convention On The Rights And Duties Of States’ (Jus.uio.no) <https://www.jus.uio.no/english/services/library/treaties/01/1-02/rights-duties-states.xml> accessed 8 December 2021. Through the erosion of coastlines, salinization of fertile land, and damage to livelihoods and housing, a rise in sea-levels threatens to jeopardize the statehood and continued existence of affected countries. This is particularly a threat for low-lying states or those holding large deltas, subjecting them to possible territorial or population loss.20‘Security Implications Of Climate Change: Sea Level Rise – Presentation By Prof. Walter Kaelin To The Security Council’ (Disaster Displacement) <https://disasterdisplacement.org/staff-member/presentation-by-prof-walter-kaelin-to-the-security-council-security-implications-of-climate-change-sea-level-rise> accessed 29 November 2021. Such large-scale losses certainly affect the overall governance capacity of such countries, with increased state fragility and security risks as a result of climate-induced displacement, and hence, serves as a stimulant for conflict.21Ibid n.18 Disasters associated with a rise in sea levels exacerbate communities’ pre-existing vulnerabilities. As a territory becomes uninhabitable triggering displacement, inter-communal violence may increase on the basis of access to resources, or ethnic and religious disparities.22Ibid n.18 The world may face the death of States, the rise of armed conflict, and the inability or unwillingness of those remaining to cooperate collectively in order to fight this threat, which will disrupt the international order as we know it.

Migration

The notion of “climate refugees”, as a result of migration or displacement, stems from a number of climate-change related happenings; natural disasters like earthquakes, floods, storms, droughts, or long waves of extreme heat; and resource scarcity as discussed above.23Ibid n.4 According to the 2021 Mid-Year Trends report released by UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, the global numbers of forced displacement now exceed 84 million, as more people flee violence, insecurity and the effects of climate change.24United Refugees, ‘Mid-Year Trends 2021’ (UNHCR, 2021) <https://www.unhcr.org/statistics/unhcrstats/618ae4694/mid-year-trends-2021.html> accessed 28 December 2021. Recent trends indicate more internal displacement due to climate-related disasters than conflict, where of the 30.6 million people displaced across 135 countries in 2017, 60 percent were as a direct result of disasters.25‘IDMC | Global Report On Internal Displacement 2018’ (Internal-displacement.org, 2018) <https://www.internal-displacement.org/global-report/grid2018/> accessed 29 November 2021. Migration as a result of climate-change may take various forms, including seasonal or more permanent within a country, or international migration that is sometimes permanent but often circular, where the migrant may return from the country of destination to the home country, for longer or shorter periods, usually occurring in cases of natural disasters.

While there may be a possibility of migrants serving as security threats to respective states, they themselves may fall victim to violations of even fundamental human rights, both during the journey and upon arrival.26Ibid n.4 Conflict may be exacerbated in migrant-receiving areas, stemming from competition over natural and economic scarce resources, ethnic tensions, socioeconomic tensions and burden on infrastructure and services. Migration induced by climate change often sees displacement of a large number of groups, which further prevents their smooth integration in receiving areas.27Guy J. Abel, Michael Brottrager, Jesus Crespo Cuaresma, Raya Muttarak, Climate, conflict and forced migration, Global Environmental Change, Volume 54, 2019, Pages 239-249, ISSN 0959-3780, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.gloenvcha.2018.12.003.(https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0959378018301596) This was illustrated by the Darfur migration during 1982–2002 which saw an increase in outbreaks of violence between Arab and non-Arab groups, accelerated by a lack of resource availability and absence of common institutions and mechanisms for conflict resolution. 28Ibid n.4

Two Sides of the Same Coin

The correlation between climate-change and conflict is two-fold; while climate change can precipitate conflict, existing conflict within regions can also exacerbate the effects of climate change.29 ‘Seven Things You Need To Know About Climate Change And Conflict’ (International Committee of the Red Cross, 2020) <https://www.icrc.org/en/document/climate-change-and-conflict> accessed 30 December 2021. According to the Notre Dame Global Adaptation Initiative (ND-Gain) Index, countries grappling with conflict, like Yemen, Mali, Afghanistan, Democratic Republic of the Congo and Somalia, were ranked amongst the lowest on the basis of countries’ level of vulnerability to climate change and their ability to increase resilience.30 ‘Country Rankings’ (Notre Dame Global Adaptation Initiative) <https://gain.nd.edu/our-work/country-index/rankings/> accessed 30 November 2021. Due to the deterioration in their capability to adapt to demanding circumstances, conflict-stricken countries are more fragile in the face of the implications of climate change. Conflicted regions may witness water, soil and land contamination, due to explosive remnants, reduced governance of authorities and displacement strains.31Ibid n.24 It further amplifies the vulnerability of marginalized factions of communities facing compromised socio-economic conditions, subjecting them to harsher implications and shocks of climate-change due to previously exacerbated food and economic insecurities and health disparities, and limited access to services.32 ‘when Rain Turns To Dust’ (Icrc.org, 2020) <https://www.icrc.org/sites/default/files/topic/file_plus_list/rain_turns_to_dust_climate_change_conflict.pdf> accessed 30 November 2021. A direct correlation can also be established between conflict and climate change, with the aftershocks of conflict, including degradation of the environment and infrastructure such as oil installations or industrial facilities, having detrimental climatic consequences, including the release of large volumes of greenhouse gasses into the air.33Ibid n.24

While countries around the globe must work to strengthen their populations’ ability to adapt and combat growing implications of changes in climate and the natural environment, those that have been affected by conflict find themselves bound in the face of potential risks.34‘COP26: The Invisible Front Line Of Climate Change In Conflict Zones’ (Multimedia Newsroom of the International Committee of the Red Cross, 2021) Possessing both restricted ability to adjust and a neglected climate finance and action plan, conflict-stricken communities struggle to recover from repeated climate shocks.35Ibid n.32 Mali serves as a prime example of the issue, a country blighted by insecurity. Due to the existence of conflict, increase in temperatures and extreme weather conditions have subjected the country to shortages of water infrastructure, inadequate public services, lack of sustainability with lower crop yields and increased cattle death, and climate-induced migration, all with increased severity.36 ‘Mali’S Invisible Front Line: Climate Change In A Conflict Zone’ (International Committee of the Red Cross, 2021) <https://www.icrc.org/en/document/mali-invisible-front-line-climate-change-conflict-zone> accessed 8 December 2021.

A combination of structural fragilities, previous demographic, economic and political pressures, poor governance and pre-existing security problems, all salient features of regions that are epicenters of conflict, will prove fatal in the face of climate change, leaving states vulnerable to destabilization by an ever-changing physical and geopolitical landscape.37‘Climate Change Raises Conflict Concerns’ (UNESCO) <https://en.unesco.org/courier/2018-2/climate-change-raises-conflict-concerns> accessed 8 December 2021.

Conclusion

Climate-change and conflict can be two sides of the same coin, more closely intertwined than one would think. The growing literature on the two demonstrates their adverse effects on each other. Climate change in the form of temperature increases and increased frequency of natural disasters, can lead to scarcity of natural resources, risking exacerbation of competition and violent conflict. When viewed from the inverse perspective, conflict can also exacerbate the effects of climate change, by means of environmental and socio-economic degradation. The changes occur within natural, social, and economic systems, which may generate complex and unpredictable sequences of events. The incoming waves of climate change will no doubt be accompanied by those of conflict, impacting the foundational resources that people, nations – and the world order built on those nations – depend on for survival, security, and prosperity.

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Zahra Ali Imran

Zahra Ali Imran will begin her LLB at University College London in 2022. She is currently working as a Research Intern at the Research Society of International Law, Pakistan, in the fields of anti-money laundering, human rights, trade, and cybercrime, focusing on Pakistan’s policy and legislative compliance with its international obligations. Her past work experience includes internships at Orr Dignam & Co and Asma Jahangir’s Legal Aid Cell. Zahra’s areas of interest include public international law, contract law, competition law, and litigation.

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