From Swords to Ploughshares: Climate and Conflict Part 1

November 11, 2019

We know that climate change is an ever-present and increasingly serious threat, and it seems there is always more news of wars, conflicts and violence – but is there any link between the two?

I was recently invited to give a lecture for World Peace Day at Chichester Cathedral, looking at the relationship between climate breakdown and conflict. As I prepared for the lecture, I was reminded of the moving day I spent with Daniel a few years ago, on his shamba, on the floor of the Rift Valley in Tanzania. One of the things that became apparent on that day was how the climate crisis was leading to conflict between him and the herders around him, as they looked for land on which to graze their goats. With good grazing ground becoming increasingly scarce, the goats kept breaking through his thornbush fences. He would have to throw stones at them to scare them away, and you can imagine he was none-too-happy with the herders themselves.

We have been aware of the reality of climate breakdown for decades, and wars and conflict have gone on since the beginning of human society, but there is a particular interest growing in looking at these two topics together. It has become increasingly recognised that – alongside poor governance – conflict and climate change pose the biggest threats to international development, and their effects could see millions of people pushed back into poverty, reversing the progress that has been made in the last thirty years. In fact, Tearfund has seen these two issues as so central to combating global poverty that it has made them two of its three corporate priorities.

So how might climate change and conflict relate to each other? Although a strong causal relationship between the two has not yet been proved by research (this is a new area where further study is needed), there is evidence to show that they are linked. Some researchers have suggested that climate change ‘loads the dice’, increasing the likelihood of the outbreak of violence. But not only that, for both agriculture and warfare, the way we use the earth’s resources has undergone a radical transformation – more intensive methods of production have gone hand-in-hand with greater exploitation of the natural world. Tearfund has found as it has developed its work in these two areas that the root causes of fragility and the challenges for environmental stability are very similar.

There certainly seems to be a correlation between climate issues and fragility: 26 of the 39 states with the highest fragility have chronic, high exposure to multiple climate hazards, facing some combination of floods, wildfires, chronic aridity, rainfall anomalies, cyclones, and coastal inundation. And, of the 10 countries in the world with the largest number of multilateral peacekeepers, 8 of these countries are also highly exposed to climate change.

This correlation means that there are climate and conflict ‘hotspots’: the MENA region (Middle East and North Africa), the Lake Chad region in west-central Africa, the Sahel region in north Africa, parts of west, central and east Africa, parts of Latin America (particularly tropical Latin America), and parts of Asia. For example, in the Lake Chad region armed conflict and climate change are compounding each other and affecting water governance, leading to displacement and poverty. There were 11 million people in need of urgent humanitarian assistance there in 2018. To take an example from a different area, Iraq is both one of the countries in the Middle East that has been hit hardest by climate breakdown and one that has seen much conflict and instability. And in Latin America, which is more than 85% urbanised, the rapid movement of people from the countryside to cities driven by climate breakdown (particularly in tropical Latin America), has fuelled deadly violence given a context of poor government services, lacklustre policing, plethora of firearms, inequality, youth bulge, and dislocated families. These are countries and regions nearer the equator that are less developed, meaning their governments are less able to cope with the effects of climate change, and there are pre-existing higher levels of poverty and instability, increasing the risk of conflict.

Nigeria is a notable example of a country where climate change and conflict are perpetuating and reinforcing each other. Drought and desertification have seen a significant reduction in crop yields for farmers as well as pasture for herders to graze their cattle, leading to competition for the limited fertile land and water resources available, which in turn has led to violent clashes between the two groups. The country is now the poverty capital of the world, with the number of absolute poor rising there and in DRC, meaning that by 2030 these two countries will account for more than 40% of Africans in extreme poverty. The Global Terrorism Index also named it the third most terrorised country three years in a row, whilst the Fragile States Index ranked it 14th in its listings for 2018. Between 2010 and 2015, Nigeria lost 6500 citizens and $14.7 billion, with 62,000 others displaced in a record 850 perennial clashes between herdsmen and farmers in the middle belt region of the country. The crisis is now a full-blown national security threat.

So climate change and conflict are increasingly appearing together, worsening the crisis that fragile communities find themselves in. In Part 2, we’ll look at some of the key issues that tie these two problems together before looking, in Part 3, at how we might work to bring about change.

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  • Reply Fwangmun Oscar Danladi November 12, 2019 at 9:13 am

    Thanks, Ruth, for this reflection… The Nigerian context has evident based reality of the relationship between climate change and conflict… Will explore further research on this. Thanks for the push.

  • Reply Ruth November 12, 2019 at 9:54 am

    Thanks for the comment. Yes there is so much more that could be said about the Nigerian context and it would be interesting to know what research there is that looks specifically at the link between climate breakdown and the terrible conflicts being experienced. I’m glad this article has been helpful. Best wishes.

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