From Swords to Ploughshares: Climate and Conflict Part 2

November 26, 2019

I gave a lecture at Chichester Cathedral recently for World Peace Day, examining the relationship between climate breakdown and conflict. In Part 1 of this mini-series, we looked generally at whether there is a link between them, where in the world we are seeing it, and how it’s affecting people, both at an individual, local level and a national one. In Part 2 I will look more closely at the key issues and some of the links between the two problems.

Given we can see that the two issues are linked, how do they affect each other? Let’s take a look at some of the key areas that mean climate and conflict are often mutually reinforcing…

1. Agriculture and food security
Changing rainfall patterns affect the fertility of the land and force people whose ancestors may have lived in an area for many centuries to relocate because they are unable to produce enough food to eat and make a living. A 2016 study showed that a 1℃ temperature rise in countries that are dependant on agriculture was correlated with a 5% increase in migration to other countries. Migration due to food shortages can also take place within the same country, e.g. from rural to urban areas. This problem of climate-induced food insecurity is not limited to land-based food sources: ocean acidification is also forcing communities reliant on dying fish stocks to migrate to find new sources of food. As we will see, migration can have significant effects for stability and levels of violence.

2. Climate adaptation capacity
In the case of slow-onset disasters, people will usually try to adapt to changes in climate (like those mentioned above) as a first response over migration. But this can actually serve to increase tensions, by highlighting or exacerbating societal inequalities more than sudden shock events, that affect everyone in the same way in the short term. Relative deprivation and perceived injustice can create conditions that make conflict more likely. Conflict in turn significantly affects an individual’s ability to adapt, making it much more difficult to deal with the challenges arising from environmental degradation.

3. Weak governance
Adaptive capacity is not only significant at an individual level, but at a societal one too, meaning the role of governments is pivotal. In fact, vulnerability is caused by society – hazard, exposure to hazard and capacity to cope are determined by people’s social, political and economic situation. In turn, climate-induced scarcity has been recognised to increase areas of ‘ungovernable spaces’ by contributing to economic hardship and fuelling social tensions that allow for increased recruitment into terrorist organisations with the potential to destabilise a region. In countries that are on the verge of conflict, sudden climate-related disasters can be exploited by those seeking to achieve a particular political aim, because the ensuing chaos stretches military and police capacity and allows their activities to go unnoticed and unchallenged. This then facilitates further environmental degradation because, although measures such as the SDGs and the Paris Agreement make provisions to help the most vulnerable countries, support hardly reaches the most fragile contexts where this vulnerability is most acute and climate finance is most needed.

4. Displacement and migration
Where individuals and governments are unable to adapt to situations of climate shocks and conflict, people often have no choice but to leave their homes, either for another part of their own country or a new country altogether. Global displacement is currently at an all-time high, and one person is displaced every second by natural disasters, whether climatic shock events, chronic droughts or cyclonic flooding. One place we see this is in coastal cities whose inhabitants are suffering the effects of sea-level rises. Sometimes it works in reverse with people displaced by conflict exposed to unpredictable climates in their new environments. For example, in Colombia, many people moved to the Mocoa area to seek refuge from armed groups, not knowing that it was a hotspot for flash floods and landslides. The landslide there in 2017 claimed 300 lives, and left many more people missing. This issue is set to become more problematic. By 2050, the World Bank estimates that given high greenhouse gas emissions combined with unequal development, more than 143 million people could become internally displaced, with potential knock-on effects for political stability, as the resources of host regions become increasingly stretched.

5. Resource competition
Competition over natural resources, often exacerbated by climate change, can lead to conflict and movement of people. For example, low-level disputes over water or land can escalate into armed conflict during a drought. Migration can in turn increase the pressure on resources in host communities, leading to tension and violence. One example of this is the way that climate change is moving the borders between agriculturalists and pastoralists in the Sahel region in north Africa, as desertification is decreasing the land available for cattle grazing, meaning pastoralists are increasingly encroaching on farmers’ land, which is directly linked to the upsurge in violence in these areas. Resources are also sometimes deliberately restricted as a means of manipulation for political ends. One example of this is water weaponisation, involving tactics such as cutting off the flow of freshwater, the policing of narrow seaways or the re-routing of shipping (e.g. in the Panama canal or Palestine).

These brief thoughts from my lecture give just an overview of some of the main ways that climate change and conflict interact, but this is an area that is just gaining traction amongst researchers and future study will shed more light on these important interrelations. In Part 3, we’ll look at what needs to be done to help address these issues.

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  • Reply Norma Goodwin December 3, 2019 at 9:00 am

    Hi Ruth, it seems to me that most articles about climate change do not take into account population growth which is a major factor.

  • Reply Mike Hill December 28, 2019 at 5:40 pm

    Thank you for Parts 1 and 2. I can’t find Part 3. Does it exist yet? So far, you have presented a convincing case for the interrelatedness of climate change and conflict, and given some useful examples. Sufficent to make me concerned. But what on earth can I do about it?! So I’m eagerly awaiting Part 3. May the Lord continue to bless you with insight into these harrowing situations.

    • Reply Ruth December 29, 2019 at 5:59 pm

      Thanks Mike. Yes, Part 3 is still to come – in the new year. Do subscribe to the blog (if you haven’t already) and then you’ll be notified once it’s up. All the very best, thank you for your kind words.

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