Foreign Policy published an article yesterday by David Livingstone titled “Stop Saying Climate Change Causes War: The dangerous ethical implications of letting humans off the hook for their conflicts.” We agree with the title. Climate change contributes to insecurity, and can contribute to conflict, but there’s little evidence suggesting that climate change acts as a primary cause of war. We also do not want to let the authoritarians of the world off the hook for their bad governance. However, the article goes on to largely dismiss, or ignore, recent research demonstrating a connection between climate change and security. Most worryingly it seems to be arguing with outdated 19th century “environmental determinist” thinkers. This is a misguided trend which could obscure rather than illuminate the truth.
Avoid over-simplification, and avoid under-estimation
Unlike environmental determinists of the past that stripped governments and people of agency and responsibility, and argued that our fates were sealed by our environments, today’s serious analysts do not attribute to climate change a sole or even primary responsibility for war, conflict or state fragility. These analysts often describe climate change as a “threat multiplier,” which implies that it functions as an “exacerbating” factor in a complex political environment that may make other drivers of insecurity more acute. Given the right circumstances, the likelihood of instability and conflict can increase. As a number of articles demonstrated in a 2011 special issue on climate change and conflict from the Journal of Peace Research, a correlation between climatic change and sub-national conflict has been established, but few (if any) researchers are identifying climate change as a primary cause. It’s complicated, and it’s unhelpful to oversimplify it. However, as we argued here and here, it’s equally unhelpful to underestimate the climatic and natural resource variables that can heighten the likelihood of instability and conflict. The responsible path is in the “muddy middle.” That’s where the truth lies, and thus, from where the best solutions will emerge. Oversimplify the climate connection to state fragility and conflict, and you omit important social, political and economic factors, and potentially absolve governments of responsibility. Underestimate the climate connection, and you leave societies unprepared for the very real risks they face.
The Case of Syria
Let’s take the case of Syria as an example of the complex intersection of government deficiencies and climate change. Syria experienced a devastating crop and livestock failure from 2006-2011, which contributed to the displacement of 1.5-2 million farmers and herders, many of whom fled to urban areas. Who’s responsible? Well, the Assad regime, for not better preparing or responding. A climate-exacerbated mega drought from 2007-2010 (the worst in its recorded history) came face to face with the regime’s mismanagement of the country’s water resources, agricultural and pastoral lands, which contributed to this major collapse in livelihoods. The Syrian regime largely did nothing to assist those displaced, and Syria became a much more fragile place. Researchers, including ourselves here, here and here, have attributed this failure to the Syrian government. After all, countries like Jordan have experienced the same precipitation declines that Syria has, due to climatic changes, and yet have avoided such a collapse. Better governance, in the case of Jordan and elsewhere, is a key difference.
That said, climate change is likely to test the ability and/or willingness of governments to govern effectively in the future, and that cannot be ignored.
Letting neither governments nor climate change off the hook
It is disagreements about the distribution of power, stark differences in ideology, and deficiencies in the provision of basic services, that are often the primary causes of political turmoil, conflict and war within and between nations. Climate change can place added pressure on those dynamics, which can contribute to a fraying of the social contract between citizen and government. This, in turn, can heighten the possibility of governance breakdowns. In short, climate change certainly does not act alone, but it can make things worse. And in the future, it could make things much worse.
Livingstone’s article in Foreign Policy raises an important point, but misses another. We do not want to give authoritarian, or negligent, governments another exogenous excuse for their actions. That could help prolong, or worsen, existing inequities, and do harm to the development of more free and just societies. But let’s also not waste our time avoiding the reality of climate change impacts on security by conflating that reality with 19th century pseudo-science. If we do that, we give policy-makers license to ignore additional stresses to social, political, economic and natural resource drivers of conflict. This could leave populations and nations in the future much more vulnerable than they might otherwise be.