Climate change and conflicts

In many publications, media reports and public debates, a direct link between climate change and violent conflicts is established. A causal link, however, is disputed in scientific circles. Many researchers warn of a simplified presentation of extremely complex and dynamic processes, above all when this leads to not only political but also military circles beginning to speculate on security policy strategies for tackling climate change and its effects.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) follows a different approach as illustrated in its fifth report of 2013: Climate change has a demonstrable effect on human security, even if it does not necessarily go hand in hand with armed conflict. Germany and the United Kingdom have also made several efforts to propose climate change as a security topic to the United Nations Security Council.

The German Council of Environmental Advisors (WBGU) also warns of the rising security risk that is inherent to climate change and refers to four areas in which climate-related conflict constellations could occur, in its 2007 Special Report 2007 “Security Risks of Climate Change” (in German):

a) Reduction of freshwater availability;

b) reduction of foodstuff production;

c) increase of storms and floods;

d) migration.

Climate-related reduction in freshwater availability

Climate change has an adverse effect on the water supply in many regions. Water will become more scarce because either the resources are decreasing overall, or the availability spread throughout the year is subject to severe fluctuations. At the same time, the demand for water is growing continuously due to the global growth in population and people’s increasing requirements. This gap in supply already causes societal conflicts in parts of the world today which, without formal rules and agreements on the use of water resources at the local and regional level, has led to violence before now. At an international level in comparison, violent conflicts were rare. Instead, water crises are often settled using better water management and by seeking amicable solutions through collaboration. Through integrated water management, which also takes the consequences of climate change into account, violent conflicts around water can be curtailed.

Climate-related decrease in foodstuff production

Agricultural production could be affected by climate change in some regions of the world; a decline in productivity due to worsened environmental conditions is very likely. Some scientists fear as a result that there will be an increased risk of food crises, which could have a destabilizing effect on society or may aggravate conflicts.

Decreases in production which cannot be compensated for through food imports from industrial nations are expected in particular in developing countries. This additional burden could inhibit development in these already weaker countries.

As a crisis-prevention countermeasure, the WBGU recommends, on the one hand, making adjustments in the agricultural area as an answer to climate change. On the other, they recommend supporting good governance that strives to achieve social equilibrium, participation in society and development.

Climate-related increase in storms and floods

Due to climate change, more tropical hurricanes and weather extremes, as well as a rise in sea levels, is expected. The analysis of past storms and floods with more than 1,000 fatalities shows that these can lead to existing political and societal conflicts being intensified. Preventative disaster protection can also help to avoid conflicts here. It would be helpful to build up appropriate infrastructure and emergency planning, as well as to improve land use planning.

Migration due to environmental factors

Already today, catastrophic events lead to environment-related refugee movements. Hurricane Katrina, which laid waste to New Orleans in 2005, is just one prominent example of how people can be forced to flee by a natural disaster. The advancing degradation of the environment can also become a cause for migration.

There is some argument as to what extent migration is also triggered by conflicts that arise as a result of environmental changes or that themselves change or worsen environmental conditions. Whether environment-related migration in turn influences or ignites conflicts in the region of origin, transitional regions or destination regions should also be examined.

In most cases, it is challenging to identify migrants who move solely due to environmental factors. There is no evidence that the assumption that migrants for their part intensify (environmental) conflicts is correct. Similarly, we are still missing reliable proof of the ostensible causal link between environmental factors and the outbreak or aggravation of conflicts. On the contrary—in the past, shortages have also often led to increased cooperation and not to conflicts.

In every case, the highly complex network of causes makes it essential to consider environmental factors only in connection with other reasons for migration. These causes include the individual political, societal and economic factors at play in a conflict situation as well as historical influences.

Sources and further information:

BICC 12/2015

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