Climate change is one of the factors that exacerbates armed conflict around the world. Although there is no direct causality between climate change and armed conflict, recent empirical evidence suggests a significant correlation between these phenomena. This is particularly evident in cases where countries suffer from corruption, weak governance, ethnic strife, or resource scarcity. In those contexts, climate change functions as a "threat multiplier."
According to a 2019 Stanford study, climate change triggered between 3 to 20% of armed conflict worldwide over the past decade. This study noted that the likelihood of armed conflicts could increase by 26% as global temperatures rise by 4 degrees Celsius. The United Nations Environment Programme has also attributed 40% of conflict over the past 60 years to struggles over natural resources.
Given the prevalence of armed conflict worldwide and the upcoming 28th Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, it is becoming increasingly important to empower certain states to better adapt to climate change to prevent new conflict hotspots. This can be achieved through examining several factors that drive climate conflict, including the following issues:
1- Scarcity of resources: Different countries face differing degrees of vulnerability to extreme weather events. For example, coastal cities face a greater threat from rising sea levels than landlocked cities, while some countries are at a greater risk of drought than others. Countries that are facing freshwater shortages are more vulnerable to resource-based conflict especially if the majority of their citizens depend on those natural resources for their livelihoods or work in fields such as agriculture or raising livestock.
2- Weak governance: There are several risk factors for conflict related to weak governance and institutions, including poverty, inequality, poor urban planning, and economic downturns. Countries with weak institutions and governance are more vulnerable to climate change conflict than other countries are. For example, the al-Shabaab terrorist organization has imposed exorbitant taxes on Somalis’ agricultural harvest and livestock. When a drought hit the country a few months ago, Somalis couldn’t afford to pay the taxes. Somali citizens found themselves between a rock and a hard place: either they could pay the taxes or they would have to join al-Shabaab. Such conditions have exacerbated extremism and conflict in Somalia.
3- Maladaptation to climate change: Here we define maladaptation as climate change mitigation plans that fail to consider long-term impacts. Such plans can do more harm than good and will exacerbate the effects of climate change. For example, a company might plant trees with the intent to offset carbon emissions but then chooses to plant the trees in a location with a high risk of forest fires. Similarly, the Vietnamese government built a hydroelectric dam to control floods, but citizens living on the other side of the dam were consequently unable to access water resources that were indispensable for agriculture. In this context, adaptation should be understood as an ongoing process that can be modified and improved over time. There is no silver bullet to adaptation. Climate change adaptation plans become more effective when they first focus on short-term goals and then expand incrementally as needed to enhance the state’s resilience to conflict stemming from climate change.
4- Economic instability: There is a correlation in some countries between economic instability and incidence of violence. This varies from one country to another. However, according to several qualitative analyses on post-conflict intervention programs, efforts to mitigate climate change effects are more difficult in regions facing economic instability. A 2019 study by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) indicated that intervention programs which address both economic pressures and violence were more successful than programs that focused only on eliminating violence without considering underlying structural dynamics. Countries dealing with severe economic pressures often prioritize urgent concerns and immediate threats without giving much attention to long-term adaptation policies that could better protect against future extreme weather events.
5- Inequality in climate spending: There is a lack of equitable representation for minorities at the negotiating tables where development plans are decided. This contributes significantly to conflicts over resources depleted by climate change. When violence erupts during peace-building programs, violent acts are usually committed by excluded parties. In this context, inclusion plays a fundamental role in preventing violence and disrupting development plans. The parties with the capacity to ensure inclusion bear primary responsibility for these programs’ success. Improvement in this sphere could be achieved through advisory sessions that address citizens’ needs at the grassroots level, especially the needs of women who are their families’ breadwinners and who depend on natural resources for their livelihoods. Independent committees could also be created to oversee the implementation process.
There are several countries that are currently grappling with different aspects of climate-driven conflict, including:
1- Sudan’s struggles with adaptation and sustainability: Seventy percent of Sudan’s population depends on natural resources for their livelihood, including those who work in agriculture, raising livestock, and fishing, among others. Sudan is therefore one of the countries that is most vulnerable to the adverse effects of climate change. Over the past few years, Sudan was hit with several extreme weather events such as a 2020 flood which destroyed tens of thousands of homes. Until 2019, Sudan was also struggling with sanctions and is still experiencing political unrest. The COVID-19 pandemic placed further strain on Sudan’s healthcare sector and economy. All of these factors help explain why the majority of conflicts in Sudan are resource-based. The country’s 2016 National Adaptation Plan (NAP) identified several Sudanese states as the most vulnerable to climate conflict, including West Darfur, South Kordofan, West Kordofan, and the Blue Nile. These states have experienced conflict between farmers and herders as well as over water resources and internal displacement to the capital.
A 2022 Christian Aid study noted that Sudan’s GDP could fall by 22 percent by 2050, even if global temperature does not rise above 1.5 degree Celsius (the best climate scenario at this point in time). This could strain Sudan’s capacity to adapt to climate change, and intensify existing power struggles while also exacerbating the Blue Nile-South Kordofan border conflict or hyperlocal conflicts between farmers and herders.
2- Climate change triggers extremism in Somalia: Somalia also illustrates the nuanced correlation between climate change and conflict. Weather conditions in Somalia are influenced by various factors, such as the Intertropical Convergence Zone (ITCZ), monsoonal winds, ocean currents, jet streams, and tropical cyclones. According to the IOM, the country’s temperature is expected to rise by 1.9 degrees Celsius by 2030 and its water resources are expected to be cut in half by 2080.
Somalia is currently facing one of the worst famines in its history, following a drought that hit the country several months ago, which killed livestock and triggered several tribal conflicts over natural resources. Somalis who primarily depend upon natural resources for their livelihoods are especially vulnerable to recruitment by al-Shabaab. The terrorist group imposes high taxes on agricultural harvests which are already affected by climate change. Those who cannot pay these taxes have no choice but to seek refuge in other cities or countries where al-Shabaab is less powerful, or else to join the group. Al-Shabaab also blocks aid shipments within its spheres of influence.
3- Intense rivalry over resources in the South China Sea: There is an intense rivalry between countries bordering the South China Sea, especially China and the Philippines, due to the sea’s rich resources, fisheries, and oil and gas reserves. This sea contains 10 percent of global fish stocks and is one of the most important sea routes worldwide. Observers warn that climate change will take its toll on fish and coral reef biodiversity in the South China Sea, which could exacerbate resource competition in places where overfishing is already a problem. According to a study conducted by the University of British Columbia and ADM Capital, climate change and rising temperature could threaten the biodiversity of fish species in the South China Sea and reduce dissolved oxygen levels. In a best case scenario, fish stocks in the South China Sea will shrink by 22 percent, even with lower carbon emissions and controls on overfishing. Countries on the South China Sea are also vulnerable to sea level and temperature rise, which could significantly affect agriculture.
4- Mounting effects of climate change on Middle East conflicts: A 2019 study conducted by the World Resources Institute identified seventeen countries worldwide as the most vulnerable to water scarcity, twelve of which are in the Middle East. Climate change conflict in the Middle East is expected to intensify. The World Bank has warned that water scarcity in the region could result in a loss of 6 to 14 percent of GDP in these countries by 2050.
One of the most significant resource conflicts in this region is the ongoing dispute between Turkey, Iraq, and Syria over the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, which have experienced a 40 percent decrease in flow over the past few decades due to climate change and unilateral development plans. While Iraq has accused Turkey of withholding water flow through constructing the Ilısu Dam, Syria has made similar allegations that Turkey has impinged upon its share of the Euphrates River and exacerbated its water scarcity crisis. This has led to the "water weaponization" by terrorist groups, especially during the Syrian war, which has created problems for state institutions and caused damage to infrastructure.
Given that a significant portion of the rural population in this area relies on the waters of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, which have experienced severe drought in recent months, the IOM estimates that water scarcity in Iraq has displaced over 20,000 people. Additionally, some United Nations estimates suggest that Iraq is losing around 100 square miles of agricultural land each year due to climate change. This means that the country will lose about 20 percent of its food production capacity by 2035.
5- Escalating conflicts between Iran and Afghanistan: Last May, two Iranian border guards were killed in clashes with the Taliban due to conflicts over the flow of the Helmand River, which spans nearly a thousand kilometers and is shared by Iran and Afghanistan.
Disputes between the two countries over this matter are not new. In 1973, Iran and Afghanistan signed a treaty on water resource sharing, which focused on the distribution of water between the two countries. However, the treaty was neither ratified nor implemented, and disagreements over the dams remained unresolved until the present day. The recent clashes can be attributed to climate change and the extreme weather events that Iran has experienced over the past two years. According to the Iranian Meteorological Organization, over 90 percent of Iran’s population suffered from drought in 2022. Additionally, the scarcity of water resources in Afghanistan has compelled the country to construct dams on the Helmand River.
In conclusion, despite the significant impacts of climate change in driving conflict, this crucial correlation has not received sufficient attention during previous editions of the Conference of the Parties. The upcoming COP 28 in November 2023, which will be held in the UAE, could present a key opportunity to discuss the role of climate change in exacerbating conflict and to examine this issue from both environmental and security angles. Developing practical solutions for climate change adaptation in conflict zones will be of paramount importance during the upcoming conference.