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Fri 22 November 2019
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Is climate change exacerbating armed conflicts around the world? Yes, but probably less than you thought.

Can a rise in global average temperature really start a border war in Africa, or an insurgency in Asia? Or, are such claims simply scaremongering, deployed lazily by climate change groups and politicians to bolster public support for their cause?

As with many topics of importance, the answer appears messy, complex and broadly unsatisfying to all concerned.

In a paper published on 12 June in the scientific journal Nature, a process called ‘expert elicitation’ took place on the degree that climate change affects armed conflicts.

Some of the most qualified people in the world from a plethora of fields connected to climate and conflict spent one day providing their individual views and two days discussing the issues as a group. Their areas of knowledge were disparate – an Earth scientist from the United States, a geographer from England, a sociologist and political scientist from Norway, an economist from Belgium, a security expert from Germany, among many others. They had already spent long academic careers publishing polar opinions on the matter in the academic press, but this expert elicitation process was the first time they had all sat down together and talked.


Defining Harm and Conflict

If we speak about ideas without first defining and agreeing what the key words mean, and where the boundaries of the topic are, it leads to an unfocused conversation where individuals can extract very different meanings from identical words and phrases.

Previous work connecting climate to violence has included suicide and domestic abuse and, although these are indeed acts of violence, it was decided to remove them from the conversation as the drivers of suicide are very different to those of armed struggles.

The factors influencing armed conflict were described as (listed in declining importance and the first four being deemed by far the prime factors):

  1. Low socioeconomic development
  2. Low state capability
  3. Intergroup inequality
  4. Recent history of violent conflict
  5. Conflict in neighbouring areas
  6. External intervention
  7. Economic shocks
  8. Natural resource dependency
  9. Population pressure
  10. Political shocks
  11. Illiberal democracy
  12. Mistrust of government
  13. Corruption
  14. Climate variability and/or climate change
  15. Physical geography
  16. Vertical income equality

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How much did climate influence conflict historically? How much modern conflict is climate change responsible for? Will this change in the future?

The experts’ answer was an equivocal yes, climate change does affect conflict – but probably less than you think.

They concluded that climate change accounted for between 3-20% of historical conflicts and an average of 5% of modern conflicts, with all agreeing less than 10%. For the future, under the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change scenario of a 2°C rise in global temperature above pre-industrial levels, they estimated that 13% of conflicts would be down to climate change, and 26% if there is a 4°C rise. These values are the averages, the variance of opinion for the 4°C rise ranging between 10-50%.

The obvious critique of this evaluation is that one cannot view climate change in isolation as a causal factor in that list. A failed crop harvest due to climate change-related heat waves could cause food riots that induce political and economic shocks. Climate change might cause a series of flooding events in a poor market slum region which would increase intergroup inequality. One might argue that this attempt to see climate change as a separate, isolated factor, is a bizarre form of academic tunnel vision.

Fortunately, the rigorous depth of this evaluation acknowledges the interrelatedness of the factors and explores the connections both quantitatively and qualitatively. The key factors most affected by climate change were economic shocks and natural resource dependency, however, even combined, their overall risk in triggering armed conflict was assessed to be less than factors such as low state capability (state power), low socioeconomic development, intergroup equality, or previous history of conflicts in a region.

The percent value listed for each factor’s connection to armed conflict carries ‘error bars’, which represent how uncertain the stated value is.

All experts placed a very high degree of uncertainty on the influence of future climate change on armed conflict, higher than any other contributing factor. This large uncertainty arises because the complex mechanisms that connect climate to conflict historically, and in the modern world, might not remain stable in the future.

Global order and state cooperation might change (for example the UN governance on climate policy, or cooperation around water use). Macroeconomic factors might shift, for example, global depressions affecting how states and populations respond to climate variability. Potential future ideological fluctuations, such as swings to right-wing climate denialism may develop – all of these hard to quantify possibilities increase the error bar uncertainty surrounding how future climate change may affect conflict.

However, error bars and uncertainty should not make us dismiss the figures, they should only adjust the light in which we frame them.

What practical steps can be taken to reduce climate-related conflict?

The report estimated a 67% (57 % for a 4°C rise scenario) possibility of reducing future climate change-related conflict via significantly increasing and investing in:

  • Climate adaptation technology
  • International peacekeeping and post conflict/disaster aid and reconstruction efforts
  • International development assistance
  • State capability building
  • Economic diversification and resilience
  • International governance
  • Institutions for managing and adapting to human migration
  • Structural equity and capacity (such as crop insurance for failed harvests, more secure land tenures etc.)

Such recommendations might seem harmless, perhaps verging on banal, yet, even these are fraught with tangled delicacies.

Implementing a system to improve climate adaptability may end up adversely affecting or displacing people, which might trigger fresh conflicts. There are also potential feedback dynamics, reverberations both positive and negative. Take, for example, if you want to ‘improve climate adaptation systems’, the odds are increasingly against you once a conflict has started: conflict increases vulnerability to climate change shocks, and these shocks can then decrease the ability to implement climate adaptations systems on the ground, which then further increases the violence, and so events spiral for the worse. The report published ‘extended data’ segments to discuss such messy relationships.

We live in a convoluted world. But, let us not feel defeated by this complexity and interrelated chaos. The numbers appear in our favour, and climate change appears to influence armed conflict much less than many people might imagine. I see hope in this report, and common sense in the recommendations on how to reduce the link between climate and warfare further.

We are a species that can be brutal, violent and selfish one moment and kind, peaceful and cooperative the next. The more we begin to understand, at a quantitative academic and practical governmental level, the social and physical drivers that trigger mass violent behaviours, the more we can avoid them and nurture the best in our species.

This is a brief summary of what is a very complex, detailed and broad analysis. I urge readers to examine the original report here, along with the supplementary and extended data, and come to their own conclusions.

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