Climate change is one of the most pervasive global threats to peace and security in the 21st century. But how many people would list this as a key factor in international relations and domestic welfare? In reality, climate change touches all areas of security, peace building, and development. The impacts of climate change are already adversely affecting vulnerable communities, as well as stretching the capacities of societies and governments.
Climate change is best understood as a ‘threat multiplier’, i.e. something that interacts with existing pressures (such as social conflict, economic inequality, large-scale migration, or competition for resources) and further compounds these issues—increasing the likelihood of instability or violent conflict. Using facts and analysis from the SIPRI Yearbook 2016, we’ve taken a look at 7 of the most important ‘compound factors’ that climate change can influence….
1. Local resource competition
The impacts of climate change directly affect the availability, the quality, and access to natural resources, particularly water, arable land, forests, and extractive resources. Growing competition when supply cannot meet demand can lead to instability and even violent conflict where there are no adequate management institutions or dispute resolution mechanisms in place. In the worst case, natural resource competition can contribute to regional instability or civil conflicts. For example, land disputes were a major driver of 27 of the 30 civil conflicts in Africa between 1990 and 2009.
2. Livelihood insecurity and migration
Climate change increases the human insecurity of people dependent on natural resources for their livelihoods. Rising human insecurity can induce them to migrate or seek out alternative, illegal sources of income, which in turn can also drive conflict. Where there is also resource scarcity in the alternative location or job sector, there is an increased risk of conflict between the newcomers and those who were there first. For example, in northern Kenya, many nomadic pastoralists have turned to fishing on Lake Turkana as recurring drought has reduced the viability of maintaining cattle herds, leading to lethal conflicts between rival Kenyan tribes and with Ethiopian fisherfolk on the other side of the lake.
3. Extreme weather events and disasters
How a government reacts to and prepares for natural disasters can increase or mitigate the risk of conflict following such an event. In the worst case, government action after a disaster can create grievances and increase the risk of conflict, while in the best case government action can be a springboard to build peace and increase resilience. Disasters put additional strain on already weak government systems, disrupt economic activity, displace communities and often require a large-scale humanitarian response which a weak state is less able to manage.
4. Volatile food prices and provision
Climate change, in conjunction with other factors such as population growth, rising energy prices, and the rapid advance of biofuel production from crops, has heightened the volatility of food supplies and prices around the world. While higher food prices do not always lead to violent conflict, sudden food price hikes are a major driver of civil unrest and protest. High unemployment, as well as social and economic marginalization also contribute to this political instability – with food price riots often used as a political tool to demonstrate people’s discontent. In 2008 a global food crisis saw riots in response to food and fuel inflation across 48 countries, most notably including Bangladesh, Burkina Faso, Haiti, and Pakistan.
5. Trans-boundary water management
Shared water resources are often a source of cross-border tension. As the impacts of climate change affect the supply and quality of water, and at the same time the demand for water continues to grow, competition over water is likely to increase pressure on existing water-sharing agreements and governance structures. There have been no occurrences of wars fought over water to date, but as water supply becomes less certain and demand grows, climate change could compound the risks.
6. Sea-level rise and coastal degradation
Rising sea levels threaten the viability of lives and livelihoods in low-lying areas. More frequent flooding and the risk of loss of territory to the sea increase the prevalence of displacement, migration, and social unrest. Particularly at risk are the small island states, which face the loss of their entire territory, and cities built on river deltas and coasts, such as Karachi in Pakistan and Lagos in Nigeria, where flooding and storm surges will have a major impact on economic development and large, highly concentrated populations. Territorial loss may increase migration, which in turn can increase competition for resources— in some cases, this causes heightened tensions between migrants and host communicates, increasing the risks of conflict.
7. The unintended effects of climate policies adaptation and mitigation
In an already fragile context, policies designed to help vulnerable communities adapt to climate change can increase fragility risks if they fail to consider the wider economic, political, and social impacts—particularly any knock-on consequences they may have on access to resources, food security, and livelihoods. Efforts to cut carbon emissions through shifts to green technologies and renewable energy could also pose a risk of conflict as these will create new power dynamics within highly politically sensitive energy sectors.
Featured Image Credit: ‘Desert, Drought, Landscape’ by cocoparisienne. Public Domain via Pixabay.