Playing a risky game: climate change and conflict

Recently, high-profile names John Kerry and Elon Musk made direct statements on the link between climate change and conflict. The US Secretary of State said in a statement that climate change was a contributing factor to the civil war in Syria, whilst the solar and space entrepreneur cast a long-term view on the European refugee crisis: “today’s refugee problem is perhaps a small indication of what the future will be like if we do not take action with respect to climate change”.

Prior to the civil war in Syria, international security experts were confident the country would not succumb to the Arab Spring. Yet researchers at the Center for Climate and Security have pointed out that climate was overlooked as an environmental stressor in policy assessments, omitting “[the] massive internal migration […], mainly on the periphery, from farmers and herders who had lost their livelihoods completely”, as a result of drought.

1.5 million people on the move

Drought_Syria_Charles Roffey

Flickr/Charles Roffey

Recent research demonstrates how one of the worst droughts on record to hit Syria between 2007-2010 caused mass rural migration: as 60% of the land experienced severe lack of rainfall, unsustainable farming practices gave way, causing farmers to lose their livelihoods. This initiated a rural exodus of more than 1.5 million people into cities. The urban population soared, creating new, and exacerbating existing social and infrastructure stresses. Ultimately this led to heightened societal tensions – and devastating conflict at record scales.

Linking change and conflict: what the experts say

The relationship between climate change and conflict is not new to research. A hotly contested paper published by Hsiang et al. looks at quantifying the impact of climate change on human conflict and made recent splashes in the media, reigniting the discussion. There is a long-standing debate on whether climate increases conflicts, but as critics point out, there is a need for more research on how climate variability and change result in increased rates of conflict”.

Edward Carr encourages that research on the link between climate change and conflict be actionable, contributing to policy and avoiding environmental determinism, which can cause media sensationalism. A 2012 University of Colorado Boulder study on armed conflicts in East Africa echoes this, concluding that “socioeconomic, political and geographic factors play a much more substantial role than climate change”. Calling for a more nuanced analysis on climate change and conflict, Carr emphasizes that research should address what aspects of climate change will drive conflict, what countries will be affected, and how policy can be leveraged to reduce potential conflicts. Climate Central published a post linking to a

The perception that climate change is too far removed as a direct stressor, however, can be risky. Humanitarian expert Jim Jarvie points out that critics often consider climate change to lack ‘immediacy of now’ in conflict zones to be included in policy and risk assessments. The International Institute of Sustainable Development (IISD) produces continuous research on the issue, commenting that failure to include climate stressors in risk and conflict analysis could undermine potential for long-term sustainability of humanitarian work.

A post by Climate Central sums up a paper published in the National Academy of Sciences, stating the important role that climate change had to play and which can be linked to a chain of events: “There is a chain of events, stretching back over 40 years, that had led to the present calamitous conditions. The change in climate, forced by greenhouse gases, was one of the key events in this tragic story.”

Source: Climate Central, modified from Kelley et al., 2015

Source: Climate Central, modified from Kelley et al., 2015

The latest research and thought leadership acknowledges that climate change is a threat multiplier and enhances risk. Overlooking the weight of environmental stresses can undermine analysis and potentially lead to inaccurate assessments, as in the case of Syria. However, experts on both sides of the debate conclude that there remain large research gaps that need to be filled, in order to better understand the effect of climate change on conflicts and produce actionable research.

Within this context, the G7’s recent and widely-circulated report, A New Climate for Peace, calls climate change the “ultimate threat multiplier”, hastening conflict in fragile social situations. The launch of the report confirms that climate change has firmly shifted into national policy as a security threat, as demonstrated by a poll in which 70% of the world’s nations explicitly stated climate change as a national security concern.

The report calls climate change the “ultimate threat multiplier”

Adapting our looking glass

We cannot ignore the devastating consequences of the current Syrian refugee crisis, an historically unprecedented event. If we are to learn from history, we should begin by integrating climate risk into our planning and development processes. By increasing our awareness of climate stressors, we can work to better prepare for likely socio-economic impacts from climate change, and ensure strengthened continuity of social progress.