Let’s explore the connection between conflict and climate change, and how this affects communities around the world. 

Millions of people around the world live in extremely difficult circumstances. Many face food insecurity, have no permanent or safe place to live, or are affected by other threats to their livelihood. Conflict is in some cases the driver of these challenges, in other countries climate change is a constant threat. But did you know that these two issues are also interconnected?

A world less affected by conflict, and yet …

According to the United Nations (UN), the number of conflict-related deaths has decreased since its founding in 1946. Conflicts themselves have also become less deadly. This is, of course, something to celebrate. Yet, evidence from conflict- and climate-affected countries suggests that the climate crisis presents a threat to this progress. 

How are these two issues connected?

Both climate change and conflict are complex, multi-faceted challenges. It’s no surprise, then, that the relation between these two issues is also complicated. 

To put it simply, there are two general ways that climate change and conflict are related: 

  1. Climate change amplifies existing vulnerabilities of communities already living in conflict-affected areas.
  2. Climate change threatens resource-dependent communities (such as nomadic or pastoral people) which can drive new intercommunal conflicts. 
People build a well in Mozambique, as they recover from a climate-related disaster amid ongoing conflict

“Although climate change may not always be a direct cause of conflict, it can multiply and amplify existing risks to peace and development.“

Let’s dive a little deeper. As with many other issues such as the economy, politics, urbanisation and international relations, climate change both exacerbates and amplifies conflict. In turn, there is an increased impact on communities already living in poverty or in the midst of conflict. As the UN environment programme puts it: 

“Although climate change may not always be a direct cause of conflict, it can multiply and amplify existing risks to peace and development. It can obstruct access to water, food, health and housing. People who are already in vulnerable situations – including those living in poverty or in situations of conflict – may experience impacts more acutely because they have less capacity for coping and fewer resources with which to build resilience.”

So, does climate change cause conflict? 

No, not directly. As we’ve already discussed, climate change is already causing resources to deplete, and food and water scarcity to increase. As well as adding to what people are already facing, depleting resources can lead to social tension between groups over remaining resources. As one article from the UN Chronicle says, “climate change is often seen only as an additional stressor in regions of prolonged conflict. However, there is a clear correlation between conflict and climate change.”

Where can we see climate and conflict interacting?

The clearest examples of how climate change might be affecting conflict-affected countries are in Africa. Here, people are dependent on raw resources to survive. As these resources like water, land and forestry are destroyed or depleted by climate change, the possibility of conflict increases

Somalia, for example, is a country that has experienced decades of instability, poverty and widespread famine. A report from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, as detailed by UNEP, found that intense storms and droughts over the past forty years have tended to induce herder-farmer conflicts over access to resources.

People in Somalia face many challenges, including extreme drought and ongoing conflict. Credit: ICRC

More generally, there has also been research on the overall impact of a warming world on conflict. A paper published in the Annual Review of Economics examined several studies, finding that increasing temperatures increase the risk of conflict. It found that for every 1 degree Celsius increase in temperature, conflict between individuals (for example, assault, murder) increased by 2.4%. Conflict between groups (for example, riots, civil war) increased by 11.3%.

Why should we care?

There is still a lot more that needs to be understood about how these issues interact. However, it’s clear that climate-related disasters do serious damage to communities, and those already struggling because of conflict are more greatly affected. 

As well as this, as the world warms up, depleting resources and possible waves of climate-related migration may lead to an increase of violence in areas already affected by conflict.  Perhaps we may even see new conflicts arising as the battle for finite resources intensifies.

Then there’s the fact that all 10 of the countries most vulnerable to climate change are also affected by ongoing conflict. For people in these countries, climate change presents a very real threat to any hope of peace or sustainable development. 

These challenges again highlight the urgent need to address climate change at international, national and local levels. And, as Mercy Corps suggests in its report on conflict and climate, “it is no longer sufficient to address climate change and conflict separately, as if they are somehow disconnected from global challenges.” 

Climate change has the greatest impact on people who are already facing unimaginable circumstances. And if things continue as they are, these communities will be hit hardest. 

Be curious:

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