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More Evidence on Climate Change and Conflict Links: Context is Key

Mideast Iraq Heat Wave

Iraqis displaced by conflict collect water at al-Takia refugee camp in Baghdad, July 2015 (AP Photo/ Khalid Mohammed)

By Neil Bhatiya, Climate and Diplomacy Fellow, The Center for Climate and Security

Much of the work the policy community has done with regard to the role climate change may play in driving armed conflict rests on important social science research which seeks to explore how conflicts start, are sustained, and eventually end. A lot of work in this subfield has focused on well-known case studies such as Syrian drought and the ongoing civil war there. In a new study in last Fall’s Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) Nina von Uexkull, Mihai Croicua, Hanne Fjeldea, and Halvard Buhaug add some essential new evidence to the debate over how climate change impacts, in this case increased drought, play into conflict dynamics.

The authors take advantage of new data collection efforts, focused both on meteorological phenomena and the distribution of ethnic minorities within states and the activities of violent non-state actors who are believed to be operating on behalf of those communities. Their dataset is both large temporally (1989-2014) and spatially (Africa and Asia) and focuses on what they believe to be the one climate impact most likely to drive conflict: drought.

While the general point that climate impacts are a national security concern is an important perspective, von Uexkell et. al help us understand specifically how that is manifested on the ground. The data they have collected suggests that conflict  is most likely to arise from drought conditions when three circumstances are present: the communities in question are predominantly dependent on agriculture for their economic livelihoods; their ecosystems are particularly vulnerable to environmental changes (e.g. the importance of the monsoon rains in the Indian subcontinent); and they lack coping capacity, particularly if that capacity is impaired by indifference or active suppression from the central government. That coping capacity, in the author’s eyes, is particularly weak if those communities experience:

a low level of socioeconomic development, a history of conflict, and limited access to economic and social capital that could facilitate alternate modes of livelihood. In addition, societal groups that are excluded from political processes are much less likely to be on the receiving end of government-sponsored relief aid and compensation programs in the wake of disaster.

When focusing on just those types of communities, the correlation between a drought and increased violence becomes statistically significant. This is especially true when that violence flares up in the midst of an ongoing conflict which predates the environmental shock. While the authors state that their findings are preliminary and more research is needed on using a climate change lens to analyze drivers of instability, this article does underscore several important considerations for the future.

First, as the authors point out in their conclusion, the international community needs to focus on current zones of conflict as much as they do forecasting where new zones of conflict may arise. Climate change becomes lethal in a political sense when it is stacked on top of significant pre-existing vulnerabilities and a history of  intrastate violence. We already know that conflict is most likely to occur in places with a recent history of organized, armed violence.

Second, though the prominent case studies are of military conflicts, at their heart these are economic and development crises; the violence in these cases proceeds from communities feeling  marginalized and exploited by their own governments.

Both of these may seem tall orders for an international community that tends to continually chase flashpoints across the globe. However, as this new research makes clear, those flashpoints are much more likely to last longer and be more difficult to solve under advancing climatic change.


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