On the front lines: Climate change’s complex relationship with conflict

Contributor: Will Bugler

Few things have a more significant impact on the fabric of a nation than war. Protracted conflict is often economically and socially ruinous costs both lives and livelihoods, and scars the collective psyche of those affected. In recent years much has been written about the relationship between conflict and climate change. The UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon called the civil war in Darfur “the world’s first climate change conflict”, and more recently, in the UK, Prince Charles linked the war in Syria to climate-driven drought. But peer-reviewed research into the link between climate change and conflict is not conclusive over the extent to which climate change drives violence. So where does the truth lie? Does climate change cause conflict?

The media portray the link between climate and war in simplistic terms. A typical media narrative on the issue might involve: a climate driven extreme event such as drought, followed by resource shortages, followed by migration, leading to increased conflict. But this narrative is floored in several important ways. In an excellent piece investigating the climate influence on the war in Syria, Alex Randall of the Climate and Migration Coalition highlights many of the pitfalls that journalists have fallen into when reporting on the issue.

One thing that the media does seem to get right is that climate change increases stress on resources and creates the conditions that can lead to migration. In this sense, climate change does appear to make the conditions for conflict more likely, in some cases. In the words of the former U.S. Defense Secretary, Chuck Hagel, climate change acts as “a threat multiplier” increasing the opportunities for tension to arise.


However, a common misrepresentation appears to be the link between large movements of people and conflict. In Syria, the media narrative ran that following prolonged drought people from the countryside moved to evermore crowded cities, and that this population influx increased tensions leading to civil unrest. There is good evidence for the first half of this narrative, however, as Randall explains, the second part of the narrative is not substantiated:

“Many media reports did not elaborate on how or why an influx of people into Syria’s cities might lead to armed violence… The media reports rest on the idea that the presence of large numbers of new people in Syrian cities gave rise to a protracted and violent conflict. But they offer little explanation of the causal mechanism behind this.”

In reality there appears to be little evidence to support the assertion that migration is linked to conflict. In Syria for example, the uprising began in the rural areas, and then the violent reaction of the Assad regime, led to widespread protest across the country including in the cities.

The migration-conflict narrative is problematic as it suggests that large movements of people will move from climatically sensitive areas to less climatically sensitive ones, and that this will lead to violent conflict. The policy implications of this for countries in, for example, Northern Europe might be to implement very strict immigration control and robust boarder defenses, or to stop giving safe haven to refugees.

This narrative ignores evidence that people who are displaced due to climate-driven events are: a) likely to move only short distances; b) only likely to move to neighbouring countrieswhen international travel is a necessity; and c) often intent on returning to their homes to support reconstruction efforts.

Context is crucial

So the relationship between climate and conflict is more complex that it first appears. Many scientific studies have found a connection, and many others find no causal link. How can this be? Recent research suggests that context is at the heart of the issue.

Studies, such as this one in Brazil [link to pdf] investigating conflict over land in times of restricted rainfall, have found a strong link between climate change and conflict. However, another study, investigating the same type of violence in Kenya, found that years with less rainfall are often followed by more peaceful periods.

Neither of these studies invalidates the other, instead, they suggest that climate stresses can lead to conflict or co-operation. What determines the response is the complex social, economic and political conditions. In this respect geography is paramount.

Colonial past

But history may also have a significant bearing on whether climate stresses will lead to conflict. Recently a team of researchers from the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research found that countries that have higher levels of ethnic ‘fractionalization’ – many mixed ethnicities living closely side-by-side – are more likely to suffer conflict in the wake of environmental disasters. Importantly the researchers tied this connection to colonial history, as the Climate and Migration Coalition explains:

“During the 19th and 20th centuries European countries placed arbitrary borders across huge parts of Africa and the Middle East. The perfectly straight borders of many countries are the lasting evidence of this. These borders often split people apart from their linguistic, religious and ethnic communities. The borders placed people from different religions and linguistic groups in newly created administrative areas. As the age of empire ended, these areas became independent nations. This left many ethnic and linguistic minorities seeking independence from the newly independent state they were part. Or re-unification with people they were split from by arbitrary border-drawing of the colonial era. In many cases, these struggles for independence or reunification lead to armed conflict.”

The Potsdam Institute researchers explain that violence today is likely to be an extension of the conflict and tensions created over many years since the colonial era. The research does not find that ethnic diversity itself is the cause of conflict. Indeed, ethnic diversity in parts of the world that have not been colonized does not demonstrate the same pattern.

For climate change practitioners working on migration and conflict issues, and governments and policymakers, the important upshot of these combined studies is that climate change impacts may lead to increased risk of conflict in some cases, especially in areas that have been affected by violent conflict in their recent history. However, climate vulnerability alone is not a good predictor of where violence may erupt.


For more information visit the Climate and Migration Coalition’s excellent website:http://climatemigration.org.uk/

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