A growing field of research is finding correlations and connections between climate change and outbreaks of human conflict.
A working paper by the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER), reviewed 55 studies into climate change and cases of human conflict. The statistical analysis concluded that changes in temperatures and precipitation patterns systematically increase the risk of both inter-personal violence (murder, rape, assault) and inter-group (civil conflict, war) violence.
The work builds upon an earlier IPCC report published in 2014, which concluded that climate change provided fertile ground for violence generally, due to the increased pressure imposed on resources and society.
Further research into specific case studies also support these findings, implicating climate change among the causal factors in the war in Syria, violence against women, modern-day piracy, violence in Colombia, and contemporary conflicts throughout Africa.
As Chris Field, one of IPCC report authors, commented, “It’s high time to move beyond weather and energy related impacts when discussing the risks of a changing climate”. The report highlights that changes in climate and outbreaks of conflict form a potent combination, due to the creation of a negative feedback loop of effects.
Variations in temperature and precipitation patterns increase stress on societies and resources – such as food shortages, water scarcity and infrastructural damage. These shortages then often trigger outbreaks of violence and conflict, and societies experiencing conflict are more vulnerable to the damage created by climate change as they are less likely to adapt. In other words, climate change acts as a ‘threat multiplier’ or ‘accelerant of instability,’ particularly in already volatile regions, such as Pakistan, Egypt, Syria, and East Africa.
Further research into the causal relationship between human conflict and climate change is needed. However as Marshall Burke, author of the NBER Working Paper, stated to the BBC, “one of the main mechanisms that seems to be at play, is change in economic conditions. We know that climate change affects economic conditions, particularly in agrarian parts of the world”. This relationship suggests security analysts and political scientists need to incorporate environmental variables into their assessments of political and economic stability in conflict-prone areas.
Once a greater understanding of the mechanisms linking climate change to conflict is established, the question will be, how can societies adapt in order to mitigate conflict risk?
National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER), (October 2014) Climate and Conflict
IPCC (October, 2014) Climate Change 2014: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability
Science Magazine (August, 2013) Quantifying the Influence of Cimate on Human Conflict (August, 2013)