Climate change and armed conflicts

Mabel González Bustelo
Head of the Conflicts and the Environment campaign, Greenpeace Spain
Mabel González Bustelo

Mabel González

For many years, climate change was seen as an environmental problem, but one aspect which was given little consideration is its possible relationship with the number and intensity of armed conflicts in the world. This has started to change. In recent years, a growing number of academics and institutions have begun to analyse the possible consequences of climate change for the frequency and distribution of violence in the world. The UN Security Council debated this issue for the first time in 2007, as a threat to peace and global security.

The most recent reports make it clear show that climate change will have the harshest consequences for people who live in poverty, in developing or unstable countries and in those that are poorly governed. Furthermore, in these cases climate change will be combined with economic and socio-political problems to increase the risk of violence. There are four basic risk factors: political instability, economic weakness, food insecurity and large-scale migrations.

According to the organisation International Alert, there are 46 countries in the world where climate change, combined with problems of this nature that already exist, will lead to a high risk of violent conflicts. 2,700 million people live in these countries. In another 56 countries, there will be a high risk of instability due to the inability of their Governments and state structures to meet the challenges of the new conditions. 1,200 million more people live in these countries. This means that in much of the world, climate change may have a direct effect on peace and stability if combined with other vulnerability factors that are already present.

Although the present vulnerabilities and new conditions will combine in different ways in different countries and regions, there are some key factors that should be taken into account. An essential factor will be the availability of water. More than 400 million people currently do not have stable and secure supplies of this resource, and this number will increase in the future. This will probably lead to tensions in fast-growing countries such as India and China, where demand is growing much faster than the supply available. This is also the case in the Middle East, where there is already tension over the management of hydrographic basins shared between different countries.

The change in global temperatures and the change in rainfall patterns will affect harvests, leading to a reduction in places like southern Africa and central and southern Asia, which already suffer from food insecurity. The projected rise in sea levels as a consequence of the melting of the icecaps will affect populations living in coastal areas, and reduce the availability of land in areas such as southern Asia. Many of the 200 million people living in coastal alluvial areas will be affected by this rise.

In areas like the Sahel, desertification is already affecting the availability of arable land and therefore food. The rise in temperatures and longer warm seasons will also enlarge the regions affected by diseases such as cholera and malaria, which could lead to more epidemics.

The conflict in Darfur (Sudan) has been described as the first climate change war. No conflict has one single cause, and factors such as a history of government neglect, institutional weakness, the proliferation of weapons (especially among young people), the lack of formal and informal mechanisms for negotiating access to resources and the distribution of power between different groups have come together. All this is in addition to the encroachment of the desert, with the consequences for the retreat of arable land and the exhaustion of water sources, which has led to competition for access to these resources among farmers and shepherds who had traditionally shared them.

Organisations such the International Federation of the Red Cross and Oxfam have warned of an increase in the frequency and intensity of natural disasters as a consequence of this phenomenon. In 2007, more than 20 African countries and 11 in Asia suffered from the worst flooding in decades. The number of tropical storms and hurricanes and their intensity has also increased.

A final risk factor is that large numbers of people are very likely to move and migrate as a response to scarcity and loss of ways of life. Forecasts suggest that people will leave rural areas that can no longer provide enough to live and move into the cities, and even to other countries. Although migrations are not in themselves necessarily sources of conflict, they may be if they lead to an increase in poverty and urban exclusion - often linked to violence - or if the people involved go to other places where the population already lives in precarious conditions and they are seen as competitors for scarce resources.

Obviously, climate change is not and will not be the only source of tension. But it may have serious consequences for global peace and security, especially in areas where its effects are added to conditions of poverty and inequality, and a history of violence, political instability and bad government. The latter is very important, as inefficient and weak state structures will be less able to promote adaptation, or to negotiate an equitable outcome for all the social groups affected.

The lack of legitimacy is a key factor in the weakness of states: when citizens do not receive answers to their problems, it is easier to seek solutions by violent means. That is why climate change is a further risk to the weakness being faced by numerous countries and populations around the world.