Author(s): Tobias Ide

Climate change, disasters and armed conflict

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Humanity will very likely not keep global warming to two degrees Celsius (relative to pre-industrial temperatures). This means that during the 21st century, humanity will cross an important planetary boundary and head into a much more climate-insecure future. One characteristic of this future will be higher risks of climate-related disasters, such as droughts, storms, floods, and heatwaves.

Both experts and policy makers have long expressed concerns about climate change as a security risk, with disasters playing a key role in these debates. Political leaders including former US President Barack Obama, Prince Charles (now King Charles), and the G7 Foreign Ministers have argued that climate-related disasters make armed conflicts more likely. In line with this, several prominent experts claim that droughts have driven the onset of the Syrian civil war, facilitated human rights violations in Sudan, and driven impoverished young men into the hands of Boko Haram in Nigeria. Other scholars, by contrast, refute such claims and argue that the impact of disasters on armed conflict risks is unproven and weak at best. Which of these two factions is right?

My new book provides a comprehensive answer to the question of whether or not disasters increase armed conflict risks. It studies 36 cases of large-scale disasters striking conflict zones in 22 countries in the period 1990-2015. Twenty of those disasters were climate-related (see here for a short overview). The key goal of the study was to trace how disasters shaped the conflict intensity and behaviour of the conflict parties.

The results for climate-related disasters reveal at least four key insights (which are generally also true for the larger sample including disasters unrelated to climate change, such as earthquakes).

First, in most cases, disasters have no or only a very minor impact on conflict dynamics. The 1996 floods in Nepal or the 2015 heat wave in Pakistan, for instance, were too short, too far away from the core conflict area, and/or did not affect the conflict parties in a significant way. That means one point for those sceptical about a climate-conflict link.

Second, in almost one third of all cases, we see climate-related disasters driving an escalation of fighting in the year after the disaster. During and after the 1999-2001 drought in Uganda, for instance, the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) increasingly attacked civilians to enforce donations and raid food aid. This was because, among other impacts, the drought reduced the supply of voluntary contributions and food availability for the LRA. Likewise, the United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA) was able to recruit a larger number of followers after the 1998 floods due to widespread, flood-related anti-government grievances and livelihood insecurities. These new recruits, in turn, strengthened the military power of the rebels. Consequentially, proponents of a climate-disaster-conflict nexus have a point as well. One should note, however, that such a nexus primarily occurs in countries with high levels of vulnerability, as indicated by high poverty rates and little economic diversification. Empirically, countries with low poverty rates and diversified economies are very unlikely to experience disaster-related armed conflict onset or intensification.

Third, in close to another third of all cases, climate-related disasters facilitated a de-escalation of the armed conflict. After the 2010 floods in Pakistan, for example, both the government forces and the Tehrik-i-Taliban (TTP) rebels had to provide disaster relief and could hardly move their soldiers around as 20% of the country was under water. The TTP also had to cope with a reduced inflow of volunteers and (forced or voluntary) donations from the disaster-stressed population in north-western Pakistan. As recently as 2022, insurgents in the southern Pakistani province of Baluchistan faced a similar challenge. With the resources and manpower of the conflict parties strained by massive floods, they needed to reduce their fighting activities, at least temporarily. Such a link between disasters and lower armed conflict risks is currently hardly acknowledged in climate security debates. Proponents of disaster diplomacy and environmental peacebuilding argue that shared environmental threats open windows of opportunity for conflict reduction and cooperation across conflict divides. Two to one for the sceptics.

Fourth, across the spectrum of conflict escalation and de-escalation cases, parties to an armed conflict usually act in an opportunistic manner. For sure, there were spikes of local solidarity and mutual support after climate-related extreme events in many cases, as there were massive grievances about unprepared or unresponsive authorities. However, these solidarities and grievances mostly resulted in local social movements but did not impact larger armed conflict dynamics. Rather, the conflict parties acted strategically on disaster-induced opportunities (e.g., more recruitment opportunities or a distracted government) or constraints (e.g., reduced resource availability or limited troop mobility).

With humanity moving beyond earth’s safe operating space and towards a climate emergency, we are likely to see an increase in climate-related disasters over the coming decades. The security risks associated with this development are very real, yet by no means deterministic. First, decision makers can still address other drivers of disaster risks, such as persistent inequality or poorly managed urbanisation. Second, disasters can also result in no change or even a reduction in conflict intensity, hence providing windows of opportunity for aid delivery and negotiations between conflict parties. Neither disasters nor conflicts are an inevitable outcome of climate change. The future remains ours to make.

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