Climate Change Exacerbates Social Tensions and Leads to Conflict

The consequences of climate change will lead to greater conflict, social change and violence.

A wide array of research reveals that climate change plays a salient role in social change, violence and war. This research summary is one of the most comprehensive surveys of the social impacts of climate change ever assembled.

Climate change and conflict

The relationship between climate change, social tensions and conflict is well laid out by Kate Johnson. She provides a good overview of many of the ways in which climate impacts human behavior. She explains how climate change has the potential to increase conflict in environmentally and politically vulnerable states.

Johnson does not believe that climate change will necessarily lead directly to conflict, rather, she suggests that climate is a factor in the outbreak of conflict. According to this author, climate change will exploit preexisting ethnic, nationalist and religious divisions.

Johnson does not share the view that climate change is a causal factor in terrorism. She states that, “Climate change in less developed countries is not likely to lead to terrorism, but to conflict.” Climate change will cause inter-communal conflict when communities cannot meet their basic needs as a function of the Earth’s diminished carrying capacity or as a result of competition over specific resources.

She expects competition for water resources to be a major source of strife. With over 200 river basins touching multiple nations, “The potential for conflict over water is huge.” Johnson predicts that we will see “water-wars” as demand from growing populations outpace supply. One example could involve Israel, the Palestinian Territories and Jordan, all of which draw their water from the River Jordan.

Violence may also occur as a consequence of states or groups within a given state who wish to draw attention to life threatening climate change impacts. In eco-terrorism environmental extremists may use violence to demand ecological actions and safeguards.

As resources become more scarce due to climate change, people will be forced to migrate to meet their basic survival needs. These migrations between and within states may increase existing tensions and/or create new ones, potentially leading to conflict. The Bangladeshi migration to India in the 1980’s is a good example of how such movement can cause civil unrest. As far as migrations to Western European states are concerned, racial tensions could lead to racially motivated violence.

International Alert nations at risk

In a 2009 report titled “Climate Change, Conflict and Fragility,” the peace-building organization known as International Alert explores the relationship between climate change and conflict. It highlights the ways in which social and political realities interact with the impacts of climate change.

Policy makers are urged to look beyond technical fixes and to address the interlinked political, social and institutional aspects of the issues.

The report identifies a total of 61 countries at risk from climate change and conflict. However, more recent research suggests this estimate may be low.

AAAS statistical research

According to an August 1, 2013 study titled “Quantifying the Influence of Climate on Human Conflict” published in The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), there is a clear statistical link between climate change and conflict. This research indicates that increases in temperature and precipitation are correlated with higher risks of social upheaval, as well as personal violence.

These researchers drew on a wide array of disciplines from archaeology, criminology, economics, geography, history, political science, and psychology. They assembled and analyzed the 60 most rigorous quantitative studies and document a “substantial” correlation between climate and conflict. These studies explored the connection between weather and violence around the world from about 10,000 BCE to the present day.

The study showed that climate change exacerbated existing social and interpersonal tensions. Extreme rainfall, drought and hotter temperatures increased the frequency of interpersonal violence and inter-group conflict.

Going forward the researchers anticipate more conflict as the world is expected to warm 2 to 4 degrees C by 2050. They estimate that a 2C (3.6F) rise in global temperature could see personal crimes increase by about 15 percent, and group conflicts rise by more than 50 percent in some regions.

Climate change has been specifically correlated with a rise in assaults, rapes and murders, as well as group conflicts and war. These researchers point to the observation of an increase in domestic violence in India and Australia during recent droughts, and a spike in assaults, rapes and murders during heat waves in the US and Tanzania. They also report a relationship between rising temperatures and larger conflicts, including ethnic clashes in Europe and South Asia as well as civil wars in Africa.

It would appear that changes in the economic conditions caused by climate change are one of the main mechanisms at play. There may also be a physiological basis to the relationship between warming and conflict as higher temperatures appear to cause people to be more prone to aggression.

These research findings are succinctly summarized by Solomon Hsiang, one of the scientists that contributed to the research:

“[T]here is a causal relationship between the climate and human conflict…People have been skeptical up to now of an individual study here or there. But considering the body of work together, we can now show that these patterns are extremely general. It’s more of the rule than the exception…Whether there is a relationship between climate and conflict is not the question anymore. We now want to understand what’s causing it. Once we understand what causes this correlation we can think about designing effective policies or institutions to manage or interrupt the link between climate and conflict.”

United Nations Security Council

As noted in Resolution 1625, the UN Security Council is concerned with the prevention of armed conflict. Climate change is increasingly under scrutiny as a salient factor in the genesis of conflict.

In 2007, the United Nations Security Council was meeting to discuss the security implications of climate change. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon talked about resource scarcity, fragile ecosystems and severe strains placed on the coping mechanisms of groups and individuals, potentially leading to “a breakdown of established codes of conduct, and even outright conflict.”

In 2011, the Security Council agreed to a statement expressing “concern that the possible adverse effects of climate change may, in the long run, aggravate certain existing threats to international peace and security.”

Extreme weather in 2012 added a sense of urgency to UN discussions leading to the following statement, “The impacts of climate change, such as sea-level rises, drought, flooding and extreme weather events, can exacerbate underlying tensions and conflict in part of the world already suffering from resource pressures.”

Information presented to the Security Council earlier this year explicitly made the link between climate change and conflict. A February 2013 Bloomberg News article reviews the research presented by Joachim Schellnhuber to the security Council. Schellnhuber is the director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research and Angela Merkels’ chief climate advisor. Schellnhuber’s research shows the connection between climate change and global security challenges.

The Security Council session was evidence of the increased focus on the link between climate change and global security. As articulated in notes prepared for diplomats at the council’s session, “There is growing concern that with faster than anticipated acceleration, climate change may spawn consequences which are harsher than expected.”

Either rich nations will find a way to supply needy nations suffering from damaging climate effects “or you will have all kinds of unrest and revolutions, with the export of angry and hungry people to the industrialized countries,” Schellnhuber said.

Center for American Progress on migration and security

The Center for American Progress has released a series of reports on how climate change, migration and security factors will play out in different regions of the world. This series of reports examines the relationship between climate change, security and conflict.

A January 2012 report titled “Climate Change, Migration, and Conflict,” reviews the growing evidence of links between climate change, migration, and conflict.

An April 2012 report called “Climate Change, Migration, and Conflict in Northwest Africa,” explores the overlays and intersections of climate change, migration, and security create an arc of tension in Northwest Africa comprising Nigeria, Niger, Algeria, and Morocco.

A December 2012 report called “Climate Change, Migration, and Conflict in South Asia,” analyzes South Asia through the prism of climate, migration, and security. The report details the underlying trends shaping the entire region and elucidates the risks posed by current long-term trajectories.

A June 2013 video titled, “Climate Change, Migration, and Security in South Asia,” shows how climate shifts have the potential to create complex environmental, humanitarian, and security challenges in South Asia.

US Intelligence Community on Security Threats

In the U.S. intelligence communities, there is an emerging consensus that conflicts ensuing from global warming constitute a bonafide threat to American security.

A February 2012 National Intelligence Assessment titled Global Water Security indicates that over the next two or three decades, vulnerable regions (particularly sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East, South and Southeast Asia) will face the prospect of food shortages, water crises, and catastrophic flooding driven by climate change.

In addition, the depletion of groundwater in agricultural areas will pose risks to national and global food markets in the next decade, threatening “social disruption.” The U.S. intelligence community has also identified water management, particularly the mitigation of trans-border riparian risks, as a source of major concern in the next three decades.

A November 2012, National Research Council (NRC) report commissioned by the CIA, titled “Climate and Social Stress: Implications for Security Analysis”, found that climate change causes considerable stress to the people of affected areas.

“Security analysts should anticipate that over the next decade, droughts, heat waves, storms, or other climate events of surprising intensity or duration will stress communities, societies, governments, and the globally integrated systems that support human well-being.”

According to a December 2012 National Intelligence Council report titled “Global Trends 2030,” climate change will force migration and exacerbate existing social tensions surrounding resources and other environmental factors, which will in turn lead to conflicts.

The report notes that critical resources of food, water and energy will be adversely impacted. Climate change along with water shortages will impact agricultural production at the same time as increased energy demands may limit the amount of raw materials available to make fertilizers.

Climate change will constrain natural resources, drive migration, and exacerbate tensions globally. The report says that climate change and extreme weather will be key factors fueling tensions over access to food, water, and energy.

“…many developing and fragile states-such as in Sub-Saharan Africa- face increasing strains from resource constraints and climate change, pitting different tribal and ethnic groups against one another and accentuating the separation of various identities. Ideology is likely to be particularly powerful and socially destructive when the need for basic resources exacerbates already existing tensions between tribal, ethnic, religious, and national groups.”

According to the report, the impacts of climate change will be particularly acute in Asia where monsoons are crucial to the growing season. The report further predicts that increasing global temperatures could provoke conflict between Europe and Russia.

A March 2013, Worldwide Threat Assessment of the US Intelligence Community, reiterates the idea that a changing climate and competition for natural resources can fuel tensions and conflicts.

The report reviews how competition for scarce resources (food, water, minerals, and energy) “are growing security threats.” It also explores how extreme weather events can cause a host of problems ranging from disruptions in the food and energy supply, human migrations, riots, civil disobedience and vandalism, all of which can exacerbate state weakness.

Not only can climate change increase the price of food, when combined with population growth it can also increase the risk of conflict between farmers and livestock owners. This is especially true in sub-Saharan Africa and Central Asia. We can also expect to see more disputes over fisheries as water scarcity becomes a growing problem in major river basins, and as marine fisheries are depleted.

The growing scarcity of freshwater due to climate change and extreme weather are expected to combine to harm the economic performance of important US trading partners. As noted in the report,”many countries are using groundwater faster than aquifers can replenish in order to satisfy food demand.”

Global population increases, a burgeoning middle class and an increased proportion of the world’s population living in urban areas will put intense pressure on food, water, minerals, and energy.

DoD, Military and National Security

A number of leading U.S. Defense officials have declared that climate change is a national security issue including Thomas Fingar, the former chairman of National Intelligence Council and Leon Panetta, the former Secretary of Defense. Another former Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates, said “Over the next 20 years and more, certain pressures-population, energy, climate, economic, environmental-could combine with rapid cultural, social, and technological change to produce new sources of deprivation, rage, and instability.”

Other top military officials that have also directly linked climate change to instability. This includes General Gordon Sullivan, Vice Admiral Dennis McGinn, General Anthony Zinni, Brig. General Bob Barnes and General Chuck Wald.

Brig. General Steven Anderson, USA (Ret.), former Chief of Logistics under General Petraeus and a self-described “conservative Republican added, “I think that [climate change] increases the likelihood there will be conflicts in which American soldiers are going to have to fight and die somewhere.”

The relationship between climate change and conflict is not new in military circles. A 2007 report titled “National Security and the Threat of Climate Change” by a U.S. based think tank known as the Military Advisory Board of the CNA Corporation, links climate change and terrorism. As stated by retired Admiral T. Joseph Lopez, “climate change will provide the conditions that will extend the war on terror”. This statement is based on the premise that greater poverty, increased forced migration and higher unemployment will create conditions ripe for extremists and terrorists.

A 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review report called climate change a threat to national security that “may spark or exacerbate future conflicts.” This report indicated that climate change could have significant geopolitical impacts around the world. As reviewed in the report, climate change was expected to cause devastating droughts, crop failures, and mass migrations, all of which will coalesce to create the kind of dangerous conditions that breed violent extremism.

On June 21, 2013, the University of Maryland announced that the Department of Defense (DoD) is providing a $1.9 million grant for a new 3 year research project that will model the relationship between climate change and conflict.

The research is being led by a team of researchers from the University of Maryland. They are at the head of a team of policy experts and scientists that are developing new models based on the relationship between conflict, socio-economic conditions and climate. These statistical models and case studies will identify the best predictors of climate-related conflict. These models will also be used to project future conflict and develop military and policy interventions.

“It’s likely that physical and economic disruptions resulting from climate change could heighten tensions in sensitive areas of the world,” says lead researcher Elisabeth Gilmore, an assistant professor in the University of Maryland’s (UMD) School of Public Policy. “We hope to develop an integrated model to help researchers and policy makers better anticipate civil conflict under a range of climate change scenarios.”

In regions with ongoing conflicts such as sub-Saharan Africa, additional changes in food and water availability, public health crises, and disruptive migration could further destabilize civil order.

PNAS Research on Africa

The notion that climate change can lead to tension and even war is not a matter of speculation. In Africa, climate already drives armed conflict. What could be described as the world’s first war caused by climate change has already occurred in Darfur, Sudan.

In Darfur land degradation (drought and desertification) as a result of climate change has led to protracted conflicts. As explained in 2006 by former British Defense Secretary Dr. John Reid, “the blunt truth is that the lack of water and agricultural land is a significant contributory factor to the tragic conflict we see unfolding in Darfur.”

These climate conflicts can take a terrible toll on human life. According to UN figures, the war in Darfur has killed 200,000 people and forced two million from their homes.

A comprehensive examination bears out a strong link between climate change and armed conflict in sub-Saharan Africa. According to 2009 research from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), titled “Warming Increases the Risk of Civil War in Africa,” warming causes war.

The report notes that conflict was about 50 percent more likely in Africa in years when it was unusually warm. Overall, this research demonstrates how conflict arises in conjunction with scarce food supplies and warm conditions.

The research revealed “strong historical linkages between civil war and temperature in Africa, with warmer years leading to significant increases in the likelihood of war.”

Over the last two decades, conflicts have increased by 50 percent. Even smaller skirmishes have been linked to food scarcity and warmer temperatures in Africa. The research reveals that even if we see economic development and more responsible governance, we can still expect to see a rise in strife from climate change.

“We were very surprised to find that when you put things like economic growth and better governance into the mix, the temperature effect remains strong,” said Dr Marshall Burke, one of the studies authors.

As temperatures continue to rise on the continent, the research shows that conflicts are also expected to increase.

“When combined with climate model projections of future temperature trends, this historical response to temperature suggests a roughly 54 percent increase in armed conflict incidence by 2030, or an additional 393,000 battle deaths if future wars are as deadly as recent wars.”

Center for Climate & Security on Syria

As reviewed in a March 2012 report from the Center for Climate & Security titled “Syria: Climate Change, Drought and Social Unrest,” the current conflict in Syria has been linked to climate change. According to the hypothesis put forth by these authors, climate change has caused internal displacement, rural disaffection and political unrest that ultimately contributed to the state of civil war we have today in Syria.

“Syria’s current social unrest is, in the most direct sense, a reaction to a brutal and out-of-touch regime and a response to the political wave of change that began in Tunisia early last year. However, that’s not the whole story. The past few years have seen a number of significant social, economic, environmental and climatic changes in Syria that have eroded the social contract between citizen and government in the country, have strengthened the case for the opposition movement, and irreparably damaged the legitimacy of the al-Assad regime. If the international community, and future policy-makers in Syria, are to address and resolve the drivers of unrest in the country, these changes will have to be better explored and exposed.”

This research cites water shortages, drought, crop-failures and displacement as contributing factors to Syria’s civil war. Syria’s farmland has collapsed due to climate change.

As explained in the report from 2006-2011, up to 60 percent of Syria suffered from “the worst long-term drought and most severe set of crop failures since agricultural civilizations began in the Fertile Crescent many millennia ago.” In the northeast and the south nearly 75 percent of crops failed. Herders in the northeast lost around 85 percent of their livestock, and 1.3 million people were directly impacted.

Over 800,000 Syrians have lost their entire livelihood as a result of the droughts. A total of one million Syrians were made “food insecure”and two to three million were driven to extreme poverty. Overuse of groundwater is seriously depleting the aquifer stocks which further complicates the issue.

In response to these events, there has been a massive exodus of farmers, herders and agriculturally-dependent rural families from the countryside to the cities. In the farming villages around the city of Aleppo alone, 200,000 rural villagers left for the cities.

The fact that the rural farming town of Dara’a was the focal point for protests in the early stages of the Syrian civil war illustrates how climate change induced drought was a central issue in the initial uprisings.

Of course, there were other factors adding to Syrian instability, they include Influxes of Iraqi refugees which have added to the strains and tensions of an already stressed and disenfranchised population. Over-grazing of land and a rapidly growing population also compounded the land desertification process. However, climate does appear to have been a factor leading to the civil war we see in the country today.

Climate models predict that the situation in Syria will worsen as climate change impacts intensify. Yields of rainfed crops in the country are expected to decline between 29 and 57 percent from 2010 to 2050.


Taken together, these reports provide irrefutable evidence that climatic events can increase social tensions and conflict. From the dawn of human civilization to the present the research shows a clear causal link between climate and strife. Climate change not only fans the flames of social tensions, it is a pivotal catalyst in the dynamics of conflict.

Richard Matthews is a consultant, eco-entrepreneur, green investor and author of numerous articles on sustainable positioning, eco-economics and enviro-politics. He is the owner of The Green Market Oracle, a leading sustainable business site and one of the Web’s most comprehensive resources on the business of the environment. Find The Green Market on Facebook and follow The Green Market’s twitter feed.

Image credit: CIFOR, courtesy flickr


Richard Matthews
Richard Matthews
Richard Matthews is a consultant, eco-entrepreneur, sustainable investor, and writer. He is the owner of THE GREEN MARKET, one of the Web’s most comprehensive resources on the business of the environment. He is also the author of numerous articles on sustainable positioning, green investing, enviro-politics, and eco-economics.

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