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Climate Change Doesn’t Have to Stoke Conflict

  • Tarek Ghani
  • Nov, 2020
  • 196
  • America Ignores Africa

Politics matter more than the environment when it comes to war and peace

Among the many sobering projections of harm to be caused by climate change is this eye-popping statistic: on average, according to economists, a rise in local temperature of half a degree Celsius is associated with a ten to 20 percent increase in the risk of deadly conflict. If accurate, that means the likelihood of such strife is swiftly rising. UN climate scientists estimate that manmade emissions have generated one degree of global warming since preindustrial times, and because the pace of climate change is fast accelerating, they predict another half a degree of warming as soon as 2030. Tropical areas will have even more extreme warming, with a corres-pondingly higher risk of climate-related insecurity.

Ending or preventing conflicts exacerbated by climate change requires a faster and different approach than addressing climate change itself. Many governments have begun to curb emissions, but they are gradually phasing in their climate mitigation efforts. For example, 120 countries have embraced a net-zero carbon emission target by 2050-a worthy goal that could prevent the earth from eventually becoming uninhabitable. But millions of people around the world are already experiencing record heat waves, extreme precipitation, and rising sea levels-changes that disrupt livelihoods; exacerbate food insecurity, water scarcity, and resource competition; and spur migration. Tackling climate change is a necessary but inescapably longer-term endeavor. Conflict prevention must happen now.

The relationship between climate and conflict is neither simple nor linear. The same climate impacts can produce very different conflict outcomes depending on the political response. In some instances, rising temperatures and uneven rainfall generate scarcity; in others, climate change-and human responses to it-unlocks new resources. While some countries manage climate-induced competition well, others don’t manage it at all-making conflict more likely. The relationship between climate and conflict can also be inverted: conflict and criminality can worsen climate change and impede mitigation efforts, as illegal logging has done in the Amazon.

In short, the impact of climate change depends heavily on how states are governed. Climate matters when it comes to war and peace, but the politics and policies surrounding climate matter even more. For this reason, the response to climate change cannot be limited to curbing its shocks. Rather, the focus will need to be on bolstering states’ ability to withstand those shocks and ensuring the resilience of their most vulnerable communities. Doing so will require understanding the complex political dynamics that either enable societies to manage environmental change or propel them toward violence.


Northern Nigeria is a textbook case of environmental changes stoking deadly conflict. Starting in the 1970s, the region has experienced frequent droughts as a result of climate change, and the Sahara has steadily advanced southward into Nigeria, causing the desertification of an estimated 351,000 hectares of land annually. Many natural water sources have dried up as a result, diminishing pastures and farmland. In the most affected northern Nigerian states, these environmental changes have intensified long-standing competition between herders and farmers over dwindling resources. Large numbers of herders have migrated south in search of productive land and in doing so have come into conflict with settled crop farmers in central Nigeria. Both communities have at times mobilized armed groups for protection. The resulting violence has overextended Nigeria’s military, which was already stretched thin from its war against the deadly jihadi group Boko Haram. Nigerian investigative journalists reported that armed violence by “bandits”-a term that refers to both herder-allied and criminal groups in the northern states- was responsible for 875 reported fatalities between January and September 2019. That number is more than twice the 370 fatalities attributed to Boko Haram over the same period.

Northern Nigeria is hardly alone. Around the world, climate change is increasing the risk of violent conflict by discrediting central governments, prompting clashes over resources, and boosting the recruiting appeal of nonstate armed groups. In northeast Syria, for instance, a severe drought, exacerbated by poor water management policies, lasted from 2006 to 2011. Among families dependent on agriculture, 75 percent suffered crop failures, and herders lost nearly 85 percent of their livestock. Syria’s 2011 uprising had many causes-first and foremost the government’s brutal repression of the initial protests. But the drought must surely be counted among them, as popular unrest and vi...

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