In past years, researchers, politicians, and journalists alike have paid increasing attention to the possible links between climate change and conflict. On the surface, the connection appears simple. Climate change brings on drought and extreme weather, destroying people’s livelihoods and in turn creating economic and political instability that leads to conflict. In understanding climate change as a security threat, however, looking for the “smoking gun” of climate-induced conflict is too narrow to be useful for responding to the risks it creates. Instead, this popular conception of environmental degradation leading to conflict needs to be flipped. Framing the environment as a source of conflict distracts from the underlying grievances that lead to political unrest and ignores the many ways in which managing natural resources and the environment can be a source of reconciliation and cooperation.
The impulse to see conflicts as caused by climate change has been repeatedly seen in the past decade, especially when used to explain violence in arid regions. As the conflict in Syria grinds on into its fifth year, researchers have suggested that one of the contributing factors to the initial unrest was a severe drought, exacerbated by climate change, between 2006 and 2009. The drought led to mass migrations of farmers into Syria’s cities, where they faced persistent unemployment, exacerbating the social tensions that eventually exploded into the Syrian Civil War. Similar analysis in 2013 linked the Arab Spring erupting across the Middle East to severe weather in many of the major grain exporting countries of the world leading to price spikes for food. Back in 2007, UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon linked ongoing climate change-induced drought in the Sahel to the conflict in Darfur.
Underlying these observations is the assumption that climate change makes natural resources like water, farmland, or imported grain scarce, and that this leads to violent unrest as states and communities compete to secure their livelihoods. In many cases, however, it is pre-existing political grievances and disparities of power that contribute to the perceived environmental crisis, rather than the other way around. Segments of society that lack of political power are the ones that are forced onto marginal lands, have their traditional land and water rights taken from them, or are neglected in the wake of environmental shocks to food and water supplies. Sudan, Syria, and the countries rocked by the Arab Spring had much more in common than just drought. They were all countries where governments persecuted or neglected large segments of the population.
In Syria, for instance, the drought came on gradually, and much of the suffering was due to the already repressive government’s meager response. In Tunisia, the epicenter of the Arab Spring, the domestic price of food was in fact remarkably stable in spite of drought-induced international price spikes in the months leading up to the unrest. In Sudan, conflict began with the marginalization of Darfur before intermingling with local resource clashes.
This is not to say that climate change does not contribute to conflict, but that the relationship is neither simple nor direct. The link between the two is complex, misunderstood, and far more subtle than a causal connection. Even where climate and environmental change are factors, they do not trigger conflict as much as change and intensify the circumstances in which other factors of the conflict play out.
While climate change strains already fragile political situations, there is also great potential for shared resources to be a source of reconciliation and engagement. Evidence shows that water in particular is more often a source of cooperation than conflict. In the past 50 years, there have been only 37 instances of interstate violence over water but over 200 water treaties created.
The Indus Basin Treaty between India and Pakistan is particularly remarkable for being respected even during period of open conflict between the two states. Meanwhile, in the Nile River Basin, tensions over the Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam led to Egypt, Ethiopia, and Sudan signing an agreement over the Nile’s waters in 2013.
In the coming decades, as climate change puts increasing stress on limited, shared resources and increases the likelihood of drought, staying focused on cooperation and political reconciliation will be all the more crucial. Scholars and policy-makers alike should avoid leaping to over-simplified answers that avoid the difficult questions of political grievance. Instead, they should seek to manage the impacts of climate change to create common ground and foster cooperation between states and communities.