What is the relationship between climate change and conflict?
There is widespread concern that climate change has the potential to undermine human security and incite conflict. However, evidence of any direct causal relationship between climate change and security is inconsistent. Some qualitative material and single-case analyses infer correlations between resource scarcity and increased violence (Buhaug et al., 2008). However, statistical data and quantitative models fail to find robust associations between these variables (Buhaug et al., 2008; Bernauer et al., 2011). The most recent IPCC report (2014) argues that violent conflict increases vulnerability to climate change by harming key components of adaptation, such as social capital, livelihood opportunities, and infrastructure.
Some experts argue that climate change generates new conflicts and security challenges by worsening resource scarcities, intensifying natural disasters, and undermining state capacity to provide people with services and opportunities (Lind et al., 2010; Buhaug et al., 2008). Environmentally-induced migration may cause or worsen conflict ‒ increasing competition over resources, inciting ethnic tensions, and destabilising neighbouring areas, especially where political institutions are weak, or conflict resolution mechanisms are deficient (Reuveny, 2007; Bernauer et al., 2011). Examples in FAO’s Climate-smart agriculture sourcebook (2013) show how conflicts over diminishing resources cut across a range of sectors, livelihood types and resource users, such as pastoralists in Kenya, small-scale shrimp producers versus fishers in Nicaragua, and livestock grazers versus conservationists in Tibet. Landscape management approaches have proven effective in managing resource conflict among stakeholders with competing interests (FAO, 2013).
Contextual factors such as governance, institutions and economic conditions are likely to determine whether climate-related events generate conflict (Lind et al., 2010). Climate change may not increase the risk of conflict in all societies (Buhaug et al., 2008). Economic and political contexts influence people’s capacity to adapt to climate change, and levels of violence (Bernauer et al., 2011).
Lind, J., Ibrahim, M., & Harris, K. (2010). Climate change and conflict: Moving beyond the impasse (IDS In Focus Policy Briefing 15). Brighton: Institute of Development Studies.
This briefing summarises two opposing views on the impact of climate change on violent conflict ‒ first that climate change causes conflict, and second that politics and institutions cause conflict. It calls for a focus on the economic and political structures that make certain groups and individuals vulnerable over time, rather than on external pressures and shocks as sources of vulnerability.
Reuveny, R. (2007). Climate change-induced migration and violent conflict. Political Geography, 26(6), 656-673.
What are the links between climate-induced migration and violent conflict? Based on qualitative research, this article suggests that climate change can contribute to conflict in areas receiving migrants through: competition for resources; ethnic tensions; distrust; and other conditions such as underdeveloped economies or reliance on the environment for survival. Episodes of environmental migration have contributed to conflict in some cases due to competition over resources. Recommendations to mitigate these negative effects include reducing dependence on the environment for livelihoods and protecting vulnerable areas against sea level rise.
Bernauer, T., Koubil, V., & Böhmelt, T. (2011). Environmental changes and violent conflict (Foresight Project: Migration and Global Environmental Change, SR 12). London: Government Office for Science.
This paper identifies mixed evidence on how environmental stress has contributed to conflict. Drawing on qualitative studies, findings show that environmental stress (e.g. drought) has contributed to conflict. However, quantitative analyses – particularly large-N studies – do not find a significant association between conflict and environmental change in a larger population of countries and locations, over a longer period of time. The impact of environmental changes on violent conflict is likely to depend on the economic and political conditions that influence the capacity for adaptation, such as economic resources or technological capabilities.
UNEP, UN Women, PBSO, & UNDP. (2013). Women and natural resources: Unlocking the peacebuilding potential. Nairobi and New York: UNEP, UN Women, PBSO & UNDP.
What is the relationship between women and natural resources in conflict-affected settings? Women are the primary providers of water, food and energy in rural settings. They are often highly dependent on natural resources for their livelihoods, and are therefore particularly susceptible to changes in the quality and availability of these resources during and after conflict. Lack of access to land can expose women to greater physical and livelihood risk. Natural resource management can enhance women’s engagement and empowerment in peacebuilding processes.
Approaches to address climate-related security threats
Despite lack of robust evidence of direct causal links between climate change and security, experts urge that climate-related factors should be considered when designing development and peacebuilding interventions.
Blondel, A. (2012). Climate change fuelling resource-based conflicts in the Asia-Pacific (Asia-Pacific Human Development Report Background Papers Series 2012/12). New York: UNDP.
What is the role of climate change in resource-based conflict in the Asia-Pacific? This paper argues that environmental changes are likely to act as ‘threat multipliers’ for conflict, particularly in areas that already experience security and development challenges. Recommendations for curbing the effects of climate change include prioritising equitable natural resource management and developing regional mechanisms to share knowledge on the effects of climate change.
Buhaug, H., Gleditsch, N. P., & Theisen, O. M. (2008). Implications of climate change for armed conflict. Paper presented at the workshop on Social Development Dimensions of Climate Change, World Bank, Washington, DC.
This paper finds that climate change could cause conflict and social instability by: increasing resource scarcity; intensifying natural disasters; and bringing about a sea level rise. However, the occurrence of violence depends on contextual factors. While some single-case analyses suggest resource scarcity contributes to organised violence, statistics show no robust correlation between resource scarcity and increased conflict. Recommendations for targeting future development and peacebuilding efforts include investing in rigorous, systematic research, promoting systematic environmental accounting, targeting conflict-prone areas vulnerable to adverse climate change effects, and using development policies for peacebuilding.
UNEP. (2009). From conflict to peacebuilding: The role of natural resources and the environment. Nairobi: United Nations Environment Programme.
Early findings from an analysis of intrastate conflicts over the past sixty years indicate that ‘conflicts associated with natural resources are twice as likely to relapse into conflict in the first five years’ (p.5). Further, ‘since 1990, at least eighteen violent conflicts have been fuelled by the exploitation of natural resources’ (p.8). Yet fewer than a quarter of peace negotiations for conflicts linked to natural resources have addressed resource management mechanisms. This study argues that the recognition that environmental issues can contribute to violent conflict highlights their potential to also contribute to cooperation and peacebuilding. Integrating the environment and natural resources into peacebuilding strategies is a security imperative.
- FAO. (2013). Climate-smart agriculture sourcebook. Rome: FAO.
- IPCC. (2014). Climate change 2014: Impacts, adaptation and vulnerability – Summary for policymakers. Geneva: IPCC.