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.


The impact of mega events in Brazil

If you’re curious about the evolution of reactions within Brazil to the World Cup, this one’s for you.

My friend Nayana Fernandez who is a journalist at the Latin American Bureau and has written extensively on Brazil, has compiled a list of provocative articles covering the impact of the World Cup on Brazilian society and politics.

Latin American Bureau - indie media reporting on reporting from the viewpoint of the region’s poor and marginalised communities

Latin American Bureau – indie media reporting from the viewpoint of the region’s poor and marginalised communities

Naya’s reading list

Rio on Watch
Yellow Card campaign
Amnesty International
Survival International
Copa Pública (in Portuguese)


The Dark Side of Rio’s World Cup by Catalytic Communities and partners
Public Domain by Paêbiru Produções
Aldeia Maracanã by Nayana Fernandez
No I’m not going to the World Cup by Carla Daudén


Aldeia Maracanã marks 513 years of Indigenous Evictions in Brazil” by Nayana Fernandez (Mar 19, 2013)

Brazil: Indigenous Community Evicted as 2014’s World Cup Approaches” by Nayana Fernandez (April 2, 2013)

FIFA Beware! Journalist Teams Up with Brazil’s World Cup Victims” by Andrea Dip (May 31, 2013)

Uprising in Brazil: An Extraordinary Moment for Change” by Nayana Fernandez (June 25, 2013)

Why people are protesting against the World Cup” by Marina Amaral (June 26, 2013)

Brazilian football: Rich fans only, please” By Ciro Barros and Giulia Afiune (Aug 27, 2013)

The Never-Ending Eviction: Demolition, protest and police violence in a Rio favela” by Felicity Clarke (Jan 13, 2014)

Brazil: World Cup security locks in repression” by Raul Zibechi (April 8, 2014)

Força Nacional: Brazil’s New Praetorian Guard?” by Ciro Barros (May 2, 2014)

Brazil: Favela pacification at the heart of new violence” by Jordana Timerman (May 6, 2014)

Brazil: Why Is Blackwater helping to train the World Cup security squads?” by Dave Zirin and Jules Boykoff (May 9, 2104)

A Brazilian Street Artist Has Created the World Cup’s First Viral Image by Jeremy Stahl (May 20, 2014)

World Cup 2014: 22 Staggering Images Of Brazil’s Indigenous Tribes Taking On The Riot Police With Bows And Arrows” by Jessica Elgot (May 28, 2014)

Drought fuels World Cup blackouts fear” by Kieran Cooke (May29, 2014)

Beautiful Game – Deep in the Brazilian Jungle, Villages Host Their Own World Cup” by John Lyons (May 30, 2014)

Brazil’s poor stage an alternative World Cup” by Elisabeth Gorman (June 3, 2014)

Check out in London (UK):

Manifest-Action Brazil‘ a photography exhibition about the violations of human rights in Brazil, at the Amnesty International UK in London from 9 June – 14 July 2014 – Launch event June 16 with films screening and round table discussion.

Is the “World Cup of all World Cups” a social powder keg for Brazil?

Image blog“What could’ve been robbed has already been stolen”.

So goes a recent and famous repost by Joana Havelange, an Executive of the Local Organising Committee, about the World Cup and corruption. This more or less sets the tone of the current national mood concerning the World Cup, and Brazilian newspapers are guessing that this neat sound bite might turn into a slogan for the entire event.

As Brazil edges closer to what will be one of the biggest events the country has seen in years, there’s a bubbling sensation akin to a match-box that’s waiting to strike up into one big ball of fire – suddenly and fiercely. #NãoVaiTerCopa, “No World Cup”, has engraved itself into social media sites and can be seen as graffiti on the walls of host cities across Brazil. Instead of eliciting joy and excitement, the World Cup has put Brazil on tenterhooks.

I tend to take taxis when I travel for work around Brazil, and these short trips in the car provide great moments for a relaxed chat with a local. So far, in the six host cities I’ve recently visited, all but one taxi driver out of 20 or so expressed a sense of excitement. Most responses are angry, referring to the event as horrible, corrupt, unnecessary and not a priority.

Stadiums are ivory towers with little connection to their local environment

Across host cities, World Cup stadiums pierce the cityscape like shiny ivory towers, oddly unfitting to the surrounding environment. Whilst in Fortaleza, a taxi took me from the airport into town and we drove straight past the stadium. It was impressive, and so was one of the main avenues that had been completely demolished, now just a river of mud and dirt, months behind schedule. The airport terminal promised for the World Cup was also a mere pile of bricks with some lead sticking out of foundation pillars. “So is that piece of junk going to be delivered as promised after the World Cup?” the taxi driver said as he jerked his thumb at the sort-of-started-but-not-really new airport terminal, “it probably won’t, as the rest of the stuff they promised”.

Some of the most expensive shiny new stadiums have been built in host cities that don’t even have a decent football team like Brasília, Manaus and Cuiabá. Locals wonder who will foot the bill for maintenance costs and if they will ever fill the stadiums again after the event. Built to world-class, expensive FIFA standards, the legacy of the World Cup stadiums remains unclear, given many will be handed over to the private sector, therefore losing the opportunity for public-centred activities within the stadiums. As urbanist and academic Christopher Gaffney points out on his blog:

“of the nine stadiums fully constructed with public money, seven have been handed over to Public Private Partnerships and Manaus and Cuiabá are desperately trying to find elephant trainers. Why doesn’t the government demand that these stadiums have public schools or emergency care centers inside them? Why can´t we make them multi-functional, integrated elements of the social and urban fabrics?”.


During the opening match of the World Cup, Dilma and Blatter from FIFA were welcomed by voracious booing that filled the stadium. Yet Fans showed with equal vigour their love and support for their national team. That the stadium played host to both booing and support demonstrates Brazilians’ love-hate relationship with the World Cup. The national and international protest against FIFA has reached such as extent that the organisation felt obliged to publish an FAQ that aims to clarify accusations directed at FIFA, which fails to mention important drivers such as the FIFA standards for stadiums, which cater to luxury and result in expensive stadiums.

Brazilians are pissed off and are slowly but surely gaining courage to show it – including on President Dilma’s Twitter page (a great 101 lesson into Brazilian insults and offensive humour, btw). In this new republic that’s still acclimatising to democracy, Brazilians are reclaiming spaces and growing their collective voice, despite facing police brutality.

Forever the “country of the future”?

And the Brazilian people have legitimate reasons too – with São Paulo’s population facing a severe water shortage crisis, 7 million people lacking basic sanitation, less than 20% of all committed infrastructure projects complete, and a government and police force that is getting ready to treat protestors as terrorists, it’s unlikely we’re going to be samba-ing our way to the stadiums. In the face of such issues, a World Cup hardly seems a priority, yet the government continues to invest more in stadiums than public health or education.

The World Cup was an opportunity for the “country of the future” to finally break through the developing ranks, emerge and shine amongst the new world. Brazilians were excited with the long list of promises attached to the World Cup. So whilst this event could have spurred growth, completed much-needed infrastructure projects and provided basic services to a growing middle class, Brazilians feel that they have been let down once again. As a taxi driver in São Paulo told me: “It’s as if we have forever been rowing against the tide, and I’m unsure how long I can go on.”

It’s no longer about the football

With a history of corruption, Brazilians sense they have been robbed yet again. Undelivered commitments and empty promises fuelled the social unrest we saw last year in June. With an upcoming national election in October after 12 years of PT rule (Worker’s Party), this World Cup isn’t about football; it’s more than a sporting event. This World Cup is a politically defining moment for Brazilian power structures and society, and is the Brazilian people’s opportunity to taken on more political driving force.