Does Climate Change Cause Violent Conflict?

23rd November 2015 By ,   0 Comments


Bernie Sanders, Prince Charles and Charlotte Church may have little in common, but we recently discovered that they agree on at least one thing.

All three have recently stated that climate change has played a big part in causing the ongoing civil war in Syria, and if we want to end violence in the long-run, we should get more serious about tackling climate change.

Explore: What’s going on in Syria and should the UK be involved?


What was said?

In early October 2015, singer and activist Charlotte Church told BBC Question Time:

“Lots of people don’t know about this, but there is evidence to suggest that climate change was a big factor in how the Syrian conflict came about.

“From 2006 until 2011, they experienced one of the worst droughts in its history, which of course meant that there were water shortages and crops weren’t growing, so there was mass migration from rural areas of Syria into the urban centres, which put on more strain, and made resources scarce etc, which apparently contributed to the conflict there today.

“I think we also need to look at what we are doing to the planet and how that might cause more conflict in the world.”

In the first Democratic debate in the US which followed shortly after the terror attacks in Paris, Democratic Party Leader candidate Senator Bernie Sanders remained firm in his word that climate change is the greatest threat to America’s national security, despite terror threats:

“In fact, climate change is directly related to the growth of terrorism. And if we do not get our act together and listen to what the scientists say, you’re going to see countries all over the world — this is what the CIA says — they’re going to be struggling over limited amounts of water, limited amounts of land to grow their crops, and you’re going to see all kinds of international conflict.

In an interview with Sky News to be aired in late November, Prince Charles made the same point:  

“And, in fact, there’s very good evidence indeed that one of the major reasons for this horror in Syria, funnily enough was a drought that lasted for about five or six years, which meant that huge numbers of people in the end had to leave the land.

Prince Charles

Prince Charles

“It’s only in the last few years that the Pentagon have actually started to pay attention to this. I mean it has a huge impact on what is happening. I mean the difficulty is sometimes to get this point across – that if we just leave it and say, well there are obviously lots of, there are endless problems arising all over the place therefore we deal with them in a short term way, we never deal with the underlying root cause which regrettably is what we’re doing to our natural environment.”

United States defence agencies are taking climate change very seriously. The White House has called the effects of climate change a “threat multiplier” which “may increase” the international “risk of conflict.”

So the claim is that climate change makes violent conflict more likely. If enough people say something is true, then it’s true, right? Nah. Best to look at the evidence first.


First up – what actually is climate change?

This video should clear things up for you. The quick version: the stuff that humans do like burning oil and gas or farming animals on a massive scale is disturbing the general balance of things, causing dramatic weather effects.

What evidence is there that climate change makes conflict more likely?

Both Charlotte Church and Prince Charles mentioned there was evidence to suggest that climate change is partly to blame for the Syrian conflict. What is this evidence?

In a tweet following her Question Time appearance, Church linked to a study, produced in early 2015 by The Earth Institute of Columbia University, that said pretty much what Church and Prince Charles were saying:  

“… a record drought that ravaged Syria in 2006-2010 was likely stoked by ongoing manmade climate changethe drought, the worst ever recorded in the region, destroyed agriculture in the breadbasket region of northern Syria, driving dispossessed farmers to cities, where poverty, government mismanagement and other factors created unrest that exploded in spring 2011.”

The researchers were clear that climate change did not directly cause the war, but made an already unstable situation much more unstable:

“We’re not saying the drought caused the war,” said Richard Seager, a climate scientist at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory who coauthored the study. “We’re saying that added to all the other stressors, it helped kick things over the threshold into open conflict. And a drought of that severity was made much more likely by the ongoing human-driven drying of that region.”

So the argument is that drought was one complicating factor among many, like poverty and government mismanagement, but essentially made these things worse than they would have been. This isn’t the only study that has found links between climate change and violent conflict.

A large quantitative study published in 2013 by researchers at the University of California, Berkeley and Princeton University, found that even small changes in normal temperatures and rainfall can have a large and systematic impact on increasing the risk of violent conflict.

They found the same result across these three different forms of violence across 27 different modern societies around the world:

  1. Personal violence and crime such as murder, assault, rape, and domestic violence. 
  2. Intergroup violence and political instability, like civil wars, riots, ethnic violence, and land invasions.
  3. Institutional breakdowns, such as abrupt and major changes in governing institutions or the collapse of entire civilizations.

The second category – intergroup violence – was found to be most responsive to changes in climate.

The research considered different forms of climate change like temperature and rainfall, and found that conflict responded most consistently to changes in temperature: The higher the temperature, the greater the likelihood of violence. Why do these trends go hand in hand? The authors aren’t sure. They have a number of possible explanations for this finding, but none of these have been scientifically tested.

These possible, and not proven, explanations (or hypotheses) for how climate change might make conflict more likely are:

  1. When climate change harms local economic productivity, for example through drought, the value of engaging in conflict rises for individuals who can no longer earn a livelihood through regular work
  2. When climate change harms local economic productivity, for example through crop failure, states are weakened and less able to put down rebellions
  3. When climate change increases actual or perceived inequalities within a society, for example if crop failure leads to certain groups stockpiling supplies, there is more motivation to forcibly redistribute resources through violence.
  4. If climate change leads to large movements of people, say from the countryside to the town, this can put more pressure on existing problems like poverty or urban unrest.
  5. Finally “climate anomalies might result in conflict because they … may affect aggression though some physiological mechanism.” In plain English: People may be more angry because they are too hot.

Others have looked at conflicts throughout history, linking adverse weather conditions to the French Revolution, and noticing patterns between the rise and fall of powerful Empires and cycles of drought. What’s important to mention here is that these historical climate changes took place before human industrial activity began to impact significantly on the Earth’s weather systems. This means that they can’t be used as evidence to show that climate change as we know it today makes violence more likely. What they do suggest is that conflict might be more likely at times of social change and upheaval, which can be brought on by droughts or harsh winters which force people to adapt in new ways.

In sum, the 2013 study found strong evidence that violence is significantly and consistently more likely in places that have experienced an increase in temperature, even a small increase. However, the actual explanations for why we see these two trends in the same place still need testing. We have a lot of evidence for the pattern, just no explanation that everyone agrees on. The recent case of Syria fits with one of their possible explanations, where drought-induced movement to the cities brought extra strain to the tense environment, and other historical cases show us that harsh weather conditions often occur right before a conflict.  


The Evidence Against Climate Change Causing Conflict

None of the studies we mentioned in the previous section suggested that climate change directly causes conflict. They just say there is a clear pattern that emerges – if you look at the big picture – where climate change and conflict often occur together.

Many articles have stressed that climate change never automatically leads to conflict, and is only ever one contributing factor among many. Climates may change, but you need other elements in there to really mess things up and make things turn violent.


Syrian President Assad

If we look at the case of Syria again, the argument is that a manmade drought caused many to move to cities, and this large movement of people put much more pressure on an already tense environment. So there were other factors already making things unstable, the most important possibly being an oppressive autocratic (the opposite of democratic) regime.

This article in the Atlantic, which looks at the origins of Syria’s conflict, takes into account the changes in Syria’s climate and the bad impact it had on the economy and scarce resources.  This was only really a problem, however, because Syria’s existing problems and history made it impossible to agree on how to share those resources.

It’s not about the change itself, but how that change is managed and adapted to.

In the same way as no famine has ever taken place in the history of the world in a functioning democracy, some would warn we should be more worried about the dictatorial governments than climate change.

Don’t blame the climate change, blame the government that couldn’t handle the climate change.


The other angle: Why tackling climate change could help end conflict

It’s not just the effects of climate change, like drought, that may be making conflict more likely.

Some also argue that the causes of climate change are also the causes conflict: the world’s dependency on fossil fuels like oil and gas.

Ethnobotanist and climate change advocate Pavlos Georgiadis argues, for example, that the upcoming UN Conference on Climate Change – the COP21 to be hosted in Paris this week – presents a unique opportunity to strike at the heart of ISIS and its economics. ISIS largely funds itself through capturing and selling oil, and Georgiadis believes that:

“By rendering oil resources inefficient, the global economy can greatly inhibit the jihadists’ international expansion. It might actually be one of the very few ways of disempowering its money machine…”

By reducing the global demand for oil, and therefore reducing its price, we can strike the violent organisation right in its finances. Oof.  

climate-change-saudi-obama (273x185)

President Obama greets a delegation from Saudi Arabia

We also know that some countries have become massively powerful through their control of fossil fuels. We’re talking Saudi Arabia’s oil wealth, or Russia’s control of gas pipelines. Both of these countries have led controversial and violent foreign policies, for example Saudi Arabia’s bombing in Yemen and Russia’s activities in Ukraine. Other states, dependent on fossil fuels for keeping their lights on, have the dilemma of punishing countries like Saudi Arabia and Russia for their aggression, knowing they would be risking their trade and energy supplies. In some people’s view, as long as specific countries control the world’s limited supply of fossil fuels, they can do what they want and everyone else pretty much has to treat them nice.  

Other countries with oil, like Nigeria or the Democratic Republic of Congo, have ended up with a lot of violence on their turf partly because of different groups wanting a slice of the pricey oily cake. Oil doesn’t kill people, guns do. But oil brings money, and money is often what gets you guns and/or power.

Would the world be a more peaceful place if we invested in generating our energy from the sun or the wind rather than from limited fossil fuels? As far as we know, The Simpsons’ Mr. Burns is the only one in history to have held access to the sun hostage, and look what happened to him. Countries, armies or armed rebel groups are unable to gain sole control of the sun or the wind, meaning they can’t make a killing in money from it.

On the flipside – would the transition away from fossil fuels just create more conflict? Reducing the demand for oil would put many people out of a job. Poverty, or more specifically inequality, is thought by many to be a big cause of conflict and violence.

Also, countries who were powerful thanks to their oil wealth, might not be too pleased by the prospect of losing that power as oil prices drop. We’re entering the dodgy realm of conjecture here, but violence may well be a consequence of these countries’ struggle to hold on to that power.


Why all of this misses the point

Sure, there is still debate about how important a factor climate change is in causing conflict, and about why exactly higher temperatures might lead to more violence. It’s also probably true that oppressive governments and unequal societies are a much bigger cause of conflict that changing climate.

In spite of all this worthwhile debate – which needs more research and thought – this is just one more good reason to combat climate change.

Oppressive governments may be too much to take on, but climate change is something we can directly change ourselves, either through individual actions of greening our lifestyles, or demanding that our governments make big changes.

In London this Sunday, thousands are expected to march in support of greener policies from their governments, which will be debated at the UN Conference on Climate Change – sometimes referred to as the COP21 – on Monday.


Should combating violent conflict be on the agenda at the COP21? We asked an expert

Dr. Dagomar Degroot

Dr. Dagomar Degroot

We asked an expert, professor of environmental history at Georgetown University Dr. Dagomar Degroot, whether combating violent conflict should be on policymakers’ radar at the upcoming UN Conference on Climate Change in Paris.

Scenes: “If climate change is one of the root causes of the Syrian conflict, what should policy makers and world leaders be taking away from this?”

Dagomar: “The key takeaway should be that climate change is not a distant threat. It is already connected to many of the other problems the world faces today. Dozens of studies now show that long-term shifts in regional precipitation [rainfall], temperature, or even storminess, can lead to conflict between and within societies.

“However, these connections are complicated. They depend on the characteristics of different societies and regional environments. Overall, we can say that poor, agricultural societies are more vulnerable to the destabilizing influence of climate change.

“To ensure that a warmer world is not also a more violent world, international policymakers need to build on the progress that has already been made in reducing extreme poverty around the globe. Of course, they also need to ensure that we sharply reduce our greenhouse gas emissions.”

Scenes: “Should the evidence that Syria was affected by climate change before the conflict broke out be placed high on the agenda at the COP21, or are there more pressing issues on tackling climate change?”

Dagomar: “We can be quite sure that climate change led to a severe drought in and around Syria. We can also say, with reasonable confidence, that this drought created conditions that made a civil war more likely.

“This should indeed be high on the agenda at COP21. It reveals that we already need to think about how we might adapt to climate change by making vulnerable societies more resilient in the face of extreme weather.

“With that said, attempts to mitigate [make less severe] global warming by reducing greenhouse gas emissions must take centre stage in Paris, because the hotter our world becomes, the more we must struggle to adapt. So what we really need are profound cuts in our greenhouse gas emissions.”


Is combating violent conflict an important reason to tackle climate change? It’s on you.


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