Climate Change and Conflict By Tobias Ide | 08 March, 2022
What Do We Know About Climate Change, Peace and Conflict?
Image: Loredana Sangiuliano/Shutterstock
The impacts of climate change on peace and conflict are high on the agenda of policy makers and the general public. From UN Security Council debates about climate change and security to comics about the impact of drought on the Syrian civil war, interest in the topic has grown immensely in recent years. If challenges like the COVID-19 pandemic have taught us anything, it is the importance of science in addressing global problems. So, what is the scientific evidence on climate change, peace and conflict?
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is the world-leading body assessing scientific evidence on climate change. The reports of its working groups, released every couple of years, are produced by thousands of leading academic experts and reviewed by even more scholars. Very recently, Working Group 2 of the IPCC released its latest (sixth) report on the impacts of climate change, including on peace and conflict. Here, I will summarise and comment on its main findings.
Researchers criticised the previous 2007 and 2014 versions of the report for drawing on inadequate sources and for inconsistencies between the different chapters. The sixth assessment, by contrast, provides remarkably consistent key messages derived from high-quality studies. These key messages, spread out over six chapters and 3,672 pages, include:
- Climate change increases the risk of intrastate armed conflict onset and incidence, for instance by raising food prices, intensifying competition or water and land, dampening economic growth, and weakening civil institutions. Climate change has very few impacts on armed conflicts between states and is generally more likely to affect low-intensity violence (rather than, for instance, full blown civil wars).
- Political and economic factors (e.g., a history of violence, inequality, state weakness) are far more important drivers of armed conflict risks than climatic factors. Climate change can only act as a risk multiplier in settings vulnerable to environmental stress and conflict, for instance due to high levels of agricultural dependence, political exclusion, and low levels of socio-economic development. This also means that the additional conflict risks created by climate change could be offset by future improvements of socio-political contexts, at least in theory.
- The growing literature on environmental peacebuilding and transboundary water cooperation highlights that jointly addressing environmental challenges can not only avoid conflicts, but also actively contribute to conflict transformation. This implies that there are synergies between climate change adaptation or mitigation and peacebuilding, with the potential to facilitate climate resilient peace. Recognising such interactions between climate change and peace, rather than just asking whether or not climate change drives conflict risks, is a key contribution of this report.
- However, maladaptation that does not take into account the rights and perspectives of local populations can result in additional tensions, for instance when commercial or geopolitical interests are prioritised, local land rights are ignored, or projects fuel tensions between different interest groups. The same is true for geoengineering options like solar radiation management, which can cause disputes between countries about the appropriate global temperature. Mitigation and adaptation should therefore always take conflict sensitivity into account. This is an important message of the IPCC in a time when large-scale land acquisitions for biofuels, solar energy, flood protection or reforestation impede the rights of local populations.
- Climate change also affects the micro-level and everyday, forms of conflicts that are not less important. In line with other recent research and reports, the IPCC highlights how climate change can have adverse impacts on women. Examples include girls walking longer distances to fetch water (and hence being more vulnerable to crime while having less time for education) or women being exposed to violence in tense post-disaster contexts. Most of these findings are so far only backed up by medium evidence and/or medium confidence. Hopefully, the 2022 assessment of Working Group 2 will stimulate further research on the so-far understudied topic of gender in the climate-peace-conflict nexus.
- Armed conflicts increase vulnerability to climate change, for instance because water and energy infrastructure is destroyed, a skilled workforce leaves the region, and capital to invest in green technologies is scarce. While already important by itself, this finding gains even greater importance in the light of the detrimental socio-ecological impacts of Russia’s invasion of the Ukraine.
The peace- and conflict-related part of the recent IPCC report also has its share of weaknesses and inconsistencies – which isn’t surprising for a document of this scope and volume. Chapter 4.3.6 on water-related conflicts, for instance, contains a much more conservative assessment of the climate-conflict nexus than the rest of the report. It also does not consider several more recent studies on the topic and completely ignores the environmental peacebuilding literature (despite the latter’s focus on water). Likewise, several passages (almost) solely rely on evidence from a single study, an expert assessment published in Nature in 2019. While the study itself is decent, experts have also criticised it for ignoring critical approaches, qualitative research, and voices from the Global South (curiously, the IPCC itself acknowledges the lack of representation of scholars from developing countries as a problem). A broader grounding in the literature would have benefited some areas of the report.
Such minor concerns apart, the IPCC Working Group 2’s 2022 report presents a comprehensive and coherent summary of current knowledge on climate change, peace and conflict. Particularly in the context of major wars being currently fought in Ethiopia, Ukraine, Yemen and elsewhere, this knowledge can hopefully help to build climate resilient peace in the future.
Tobias Ide is Lecturer in Politics and Policy at Murdoch University Perth and Adjunct Associate Professor of International Relations at the Brunswick University of Technology. He has published widely on the intersections of the environment, climate change, peace, conflict and security, including in Global Environmental Change, International Affairs, Journal of Peace Research, Nature Climate Change, and World Development. He is also a director of the Environmental Peacebuilding Association