Rising tempers: climate change and war

Is climate change fueling war? Over the last decade, many prominent figures have raised concerns that climate change could be linked to conflicts and unrest. In 2007, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon described the Darfur conflict as the world’s first climate war; in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech in 2009, the U.S. President Barak Obama said, “the world must come together to confront climate change”, adding that “if we do nothing, we will face more drought, more famine, more mass displacement – all of which will fuel more conflict for decades”. However, a direct link between climate change and war is not so easy to prove, and out of the spotlight, the academic debate ranges on.

Dry lake in Burkina Faso

Dry lake in Burkina Faso.
Image used under a CC-BY 2.5 license from Wikimedia commons.

An increasing number of studies have shown support for a link between armed conflicts and climate change. The first, published in 2009 by Marshall Burke and colleagues, found a strong correlation between temperature rises and the likelihood of armed conflicts in sub-Saharan Africa1. The team predicted that conflicts would increase by 54% by 2030, based on global climate trend projections

Another study, published in Nature in 20112, found that El Niño, also known as the Southern Oscillation (ENSO), determined around 20% of all civil conflicts between 1950 and 2004. El Niño refers to temperature fluctuations in the ocean and atmosphere of the east-central Equatorial Pacific, and Solomon and colleagues found that the probability of new conflicts in tropical areas doubled during El Niño years.

More recently, a greater focus has been given to the Middle East. A 2015 paper by Colin Kelley and colleagues linked droughts in Syria between 2007 and 2010, and the consequent failure of the agricultural system, to a mass migration into urban areas, exacerbating social unrest and conflict3. The economic uncertainty caused when an important resource, like water, food or oil, becomes scarce, is the single most consistent factor present when social conflicts develop. As summarised by the World Bank, climate change will have a near-term impact in reducing water availability and potentially decreasing crop yields in large areas of the world, therefore exposing populations to water stresses and to the risk of hunger. But resource scarcity does not always mean conflict.

Going to war. Or not?

Military convoy in Afghanistan

Military convoy in Afghanistan
Image used under a CC-BY 2.0 license from Wikimedia commons.

There are a number of studies that show that cooperation can also arise from resource scarcity. Scarcity is often found to promote the development and the evolution of social rules and norms necessary to allocate scarce resources and to prevent conflicts over access to them.

This holds true not only at the local and community level, but also in international negotiations. The UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UNDESA), for instance, reports that, regardless of the increased competition that water scarcity might cause among users, at the international level cooperation is more predominant than conflict. In the last 50 years, of all water-related disputes, 37 have resulted in armed conflict, whereas 150 have been dealt with diplomacy and treaties. Efforts to manage transboundary water basins through bottom-up cooperation have been made in many cases (e.g. Lake Chad through the Lake Chad Basin Commission, or the river Nile trough the Nile Basin Initiative), and have proved successful, making the case for the importance of governance and a participatory approach in the management of scarce resources and the regulation of their extraction.

Different institutions and governments have responded to scarcity in different ways, and with different degrees of success in terms of environmental sustainability and human welfare. Analyses that assess whether climate change leads to political unrest are useless if they fail to consider the impact of rules, norms, negotiation processes, and the drivers for their evolution over time, and this becomes particularly important when we consider climate change as a threat to national security.

Perhaps a better question to ask would be; “under what social and institutional conditions does climate change result in war?”

Scientists have identified a number of elements that can help prevent violent conflicts as a consequence of natural resource scarcity. As well as the severity of resource scarcity, factors such as how unequal access to the resource is, and how democratic and economically open the country is, have been shown to influence the incidence of armed conflicts4.

The narrative on climate change and war needs to be updated, taking research like this into account when developing the tools to plan ahead, and to identify the best political solutions to prevent conflicts before they happen. As one Nigerian proverb teaches, “In the moment of crisis, the wise build bridges and the foolish build dams”.


1. Marshall B. Burke, Edward Miguel, Shanker Satyanath, John A. Dykema and David B. Lobell (2009) Warming increases the risk of civil war in Africa. PNAS 106 (49) 20670–20674, doi: 10.1073/pnas.0907998106
2. Solomon M. Hsiang, Kyle C. Meng and Mark A. Cane (2011) Civil conflicts are associated with the global climate. Nature 476(8) 438-441 doi: 10.1038/nature10311
3. Colin P. Kelley, Shahrzad Mohtadi, Mark A. Cane, Richard Seager, and Yochanan Kushnir (2015) Climate change in the Fertile Crescent and implications of the recent Syrian drought. PNAS 112 (11) 3241 – 3246 doi: 10.1073/pnas.1421533112
4. Richard A. Matthew, Ted Gaulin (2001) Conflict or Cooperation? The Social and Political Impacts of Resource Scarcity on Small Island States. Global Environmental Politics 1 (2) 48 – 70 doi:10.1162/152638001750336596

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