Climate and Conflict: Preventing Collective Violence in a Warming World

Prepared by: Michelle Choe


Climate change presents environmental and societal challenges, where rising sea levels have already led to forced displacement, food insecurity, and climate refugees. Increasing evidence shows that climate change is directly correlated with occurrences of collective violence and genocide. As climate change continues to accelerate, so does the threat of increased collective violence. This raises the question of how the international system can provide tools to mitigate and prevent collective violence in a warming world and the importance of understanding climate change when addressing global security. 

Current State of Climate Change and Global Security

With 2020 reaching one of the warmest years on record, the impacts of climate change can be seen across the globe this past year, from record-breaking heat waves in the Pacific Northwest to torrential floods in China, the United States, and Haiti. Climate change-induced “natural” disasters are unlikely to stop, as global temperatures are expected to rise 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels in the next five years. Countries worldwide have agreed to tackle the global issue of climate change through the ratification of the Paris Agreement, a binding treaty that entered into force in 2016

Nations signed on to the Paris Agreement agree to reduce emissions to prevent global temperatures from rising above 2°C, provide financial support to developing countries to adapt to climate change, and strengthen international efforts for environmental preparedness. While the Paris Agreement covers the environmental targets to offset the impacts of climate change, it fails to address the significant global security risks that climate change poses.

How is Global Security Vulnerable to the Effects of Climate Change?

Climate change creates a risk to national and global security, where rising temperatures lead to increased levels of forced displacement, food insecurity, and economic and social collapse. These societal impacts combined with existing conflicts and fissures in communities can heighten tensions, creating a perfect climate for violence within and between countries. With the fast-approaching 1.5°C mark, which will bring ocean acidification, extreme heat waves affecting 14% of the global population, and more significant biodiversity loss; so will instances of societal conflict and violence.

At a ministerial United Nations (UN) Security Council meeting in September, global leaders expressed their concerns that a warming world due to climate change will be a more violent one. This is not the first time that climate change and violence have been discussed on the international level. In 2007, the UN acknowledged climate change’s role in increased conflict and has since held various meetings on the topic. However, the UN Security Council has kept climate change and conflict off the Security Council agenda, finding climate change not to be a cause for collective security action. The UN Security Council’s choice to disregard climate change as a collective security issue leaves the international system without any binding resolutions or measures to prevent violence induced by climate change. This leaves countries and individuals that are expected to face the greatest environmental impacts of climate change also vulnerable to increased levels of violence, especially occurrences of collective violence and genocide. 

The Cause of Increased Collective Violence

There is increasing evidence that climate change leads to increased levels of collective violence, where collective violence is a causal effect of global warming. Collective violence is  defined by the World Health Organization, as the “instrumental use of violence” by a group against another and includes armed conflict, genocide, and organized violent crime. Collective violence induced by climate change can be seen historically in increased levels of armed conflict and more recent history with outbreaks of genocide fueled by existing identity politics, combined with competition over natural resources. 

The threat of collective violence due to climate change is not a new phenomenon. Studies conducted by climate researchers have found that between the years 1500 to 1800, the Northern Hemisphere saw a rise in armed conflict because of decreased agricultural production due to cooling caused by climate change. Meanwhile, areas experiencing more temperate climates did not experience the same increased levels of armed conflict. 

Similar evidence has been found in modern times as well. A study conducted by Columbia University’s Earth Institute, which compared the weather cycle of El Niño to occurrences of armed conflict between the years of 1950 to 2004, found that El Niño increased civil wars around the world by 21% and by 30% in countries directly impacted by El Niño. Increased levels of collective violence occurred, particularly in areas directly experiencing the impacts of climate change compared to those indirectly affected. 

A Tale of Two Countries Plagued by Climate Change

However, collective violence caused by climate change can spill over to bordering countries or regions whose climate and environment were not directly impacted and exacerbate existing conflicts. Most notably seen in the 2003 conflict in Darfur and the 2013 Syrian Civil War, where drought and forced migration heightened pre-existing conflicts. 

The conflict in Darfur can be traced back to a changing climate, where increasing desertification in northern Sudan heightened pre-existing disputes between the Arab nomads and Darfur’s ethnic African farmers. Before 2003, rainfall across Sudan decreased by 16% to 30% and northern Sudan’s desert expanded 60 miles to the south. The lack of habitable and farmable land led to increased competition within Darfur, as the expanding desert pushed Arab nomads further south, encroaching onto the lands of Darfur’s African farmers. 

This culminated in the Darfur genocide, where local Darfuri Farmers rebelled against Sudan’s central government due to its lack of aid. The then President Omar al Bashir soon quashed the rebellion using local Arab militias to commit genocide against the Darfuri people. Darfur reflects the relationship between climate change and collective violence, where the impacted climate in northern Sudan led to the overspill and migration of Arab nomads into Darfur. Additionally, it highlights how the effects of climate change can exacerbate existing fissures and play into identity politics and nationalism. 

Similarly, the 2013 Syrian Civil War is likely a causal effect of climate change. Scientists from Columbia University and the University of California Santa Barbara found that the Syrian Civil War showed one of the most robust connections between human-caused climate change and collective violence. From 2007 to 2010, Syria faced an ongoing period of drought and a breakdown in farming, resulting in a mass migration of 1.5 million farmers into urban areas fueling civil unrest. One of the underpinning causes of the Syrian Civil War can be linked to the mass migration of people due to climate change. The lack of social mechanisms to deal with the increased strain on resources led to outbreaks of collective violence. 

Darfur and Syria present past examples of how climate change is extensively linked with collective violence. Both conflicts showcase the instability that accompanies climate change by limiting resources, food and water, magnifying political and ethnic divides, displacing communities, and subsequently leading to the mass migration of peoples to more temperate and environmentally stable regions. Undoubtedly, Syria and Darfur presented global security risks where the rise of ISIS and increased political upheaval in Europe due to the migrant crisis, developed out of these climate change-induced conflicts. An understanding of climate change will need to be incorporated into conflict, and international security measures, or scenarios like Darfur and Syria are likely to repeat themselves.

The Next Step: How to Prevent Climate Induced Collective Violence 

While past evidence and studies have found an increase in collective violence due to climate change, increased violence in our future is not inevitable. Countries and global leaders can take steps to mitigate and prevent the destabilizing effects of climate change by taking a multilateral approach to preventing future climate security issues like Darfur and Syria. 

The UN Security Council offers a possible solution to incorporating climate change in discussions of global security. Unlike other UN bodies, the UN Security Council can adopt binding and coercive measures to ensure adequate measures are taken to aid countries experiencing the brunt of climate change and prevent collective violence from occurring. While some countries, such as Ireland and the United States, have pushed for climate change to be placed on the UN Security Council’s agenda, other Security Council members like Russia and China have pushed back. Russia and China have stated that including climate change will create an unnecessary political component and both have argued that collective violence is not inevitable in a warming world. 

Regardless, the UN Security Council will likely face future climate change-related security issues due to growing concerns of climate refugees and forced displacement. As climate change continues to accelerate, with Scientists predicting that levels of climate-induced armed conflict will increase from between 3% to 20% in the upcoming future, the correlation between climate change and collective violence cannot be ignored. Action is required specifically for countries in the Global South, such as South Asia, sub-Saharan Africa, and Latin America, as they are predicted to face high levels of forced displacement due to rising temperatures. Sub-Saharan Africa especially will face high levels of forced displacement, whereby 2050 between 57 million and 86 million people will be forced out of their homes due to climate change. A warming world is in our future whether we like it or not, and it is up to the global system to work together to prevent future crises and collective violence. 


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