Climate change intensifies future risk of armed combat

Does climate change increase the risk of violent armed conflict? A new article published last week on June 12 in Nature suggests that the intensification of global warming could indeed increase the future risk of armed conflict (1).

The risk will increase more than five times on the current warming trajectory, which is projected to increase by 4 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, according to the study, and the risk of future conflict could potentially increase by up to 26%. Even 2 degrees Celsius of warming above pre-industrial levels could more than double the impact of climate on conflict.

To better understand a possible link, the authors conducted a “comprehensive and balanced” assessment of the relationship between climate and conflict; more specifically on organized armed conflicts within countries, including state armed conflicts, non-state armed conflicts and unilateral violence against civilians.

The assessment was based on 6-8 hour individual interviews with experts in the fields of political science, environmental science and economics, including 11 climate and conflict experts (co-authors of the ‘study). The interviews were followed by 2-day group discussions. And experts seem to agree that climate has affected armed conflicts within countries, although the mechanism behind these important interactions remains unclear.

The researchers also believe that the potential implications of climate change may be quite different from historical climate disturbances. Therefore, future societies are likely to be forced to deal with unprecedented climatic conditions that have not yet been experienced and which may prove much more difficult to adapt.

According to the study, the role of climate may be small compared to other drivers of conflict, such as socio-economic factors, government, societal inequality and whether there is a recent history of violent conflict. However, the authors also note that given the widespread detrimental human, economic and environmental consequences of armed conflict, understanding the climate-conflict relationship is important.

Additionally, the results could help inform new ways to reduce the likelihood of future armed conflict and lead to more informed decisions about how to aggressively implement future climate change mitigation strategies.

Previous studies indicate that global warming will most likely increase global inequalities between social groups. Extreme weather events caused by climate change can harm economies by reducing crop yields and animal production. Clearly, mitigating climate change and reducing the risk of armed conflict is a win-win approach. The authors suggest that ensuring crop resilience and post-harvest storage to increase food security and diversify economic opportunities could reduce potential links between climate and conflict.

Therefore, peacekeeping, conflict mediation and post-conflict relief operations should integrate climate mitigation tactics into their risk analyzes by considering how climate shocks could potentially aggravate violent conflicts.

Furthermore, it is extremely important to understand how climate can interact with known drivers of armed conflict. For example, food export bans following low crop yields can increase instability in agriculture-dependent countries.

(1) Mach, KJ et al. The climate as a risk factor for armed conflict. Nature (2019). DOI: 10.1038/s41586-019-1300-6