Is Climate Change Causing More Wars? - The Years Project

Is Climate Change Causing More Wars?

By Vishva Bhatt

As climate change has caused global temperatures to rise, there also seems to be an ever-growing number of conflicts around the world. So, what is the evidence linking climate change to war? 

Alarmingly, several studies suggest that climate change makes conflicts such as civil war or genocide more likely. It is important to note that climate change alone has not been proven to increase the likelihood of discord; however, climate change compounded with challenging economic, political, or social conditions can heighten the risk of conflict. Climate change is a threat multiplier, which means it amplifies problems already facing the world. Stressors such as poverty, political instability, and crime are magnified by increased droughts, floods, or heat waves.

As anthropogenic climate change continues to alter the environment, scientists have been tracking an increase in the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events. Extreme weather events adversely affect communities around the world as they experience unusually warm winters or sweltering summer temperatures much higher than usual. Fluctuating temperatures may not derail urban areas that have adequate coping capacities, but they are detrimental to communities that depend on agriculture or other natural resources for their livelihoods. 

Increases in various climate-related disturbances such as floods, droughts, or fires further stress already-vulnerable communities and threaten their livelihoods. Evidence links rise in temperature to a rise in civil war. Researchers at Princeton University and UC Berkeley found that a rise in average annual temperature by even 1° Celsius (1.8° Fahrenheit) leads to a 4.5% increase in civil war that year. There has been a global increase in the incidence of civil war following World War II, with civil wars even having a greater number of casualties than international wars. Civil wars are dangerous, and climate change is making them more common. 

Syria has been engulfed in a civil war since 2011. Experts agree that a detrimental drought played a major role in triggering the war. Climate modeling at UC Santa Barbara shows that greenhouse gas emissions made the drought two times more likely than it would have been with natural fluctuation. Drought and famine still plague the country. While acknowledging that factors such as economic hardship, corrupt leadership, and inequality factor into Syria’s uprising, the severe drought played a significant role. It was worsened by climate change, and as farmers were forced to flee to cities to find food for their starving families, tensions continued to amass. A climate change fueled drought coupled with Syria’s weak economy, poor governance, and social inequality made the perfect breeding ground for civil war. 

Syrian Refugees.
Photo: UNHCR/M. Hofer

A decade-long drought in the late-1900s caused Lake Chad, then the sixth-largest freshwater lake in the world, to shrink. The drought was attributed to rising greenhouse gas emissions mixed with natural environmental factors. On the edge of the Sahara, Lake Chad is a life source for those populating Niger, Nigeria, Cameroon, and Chad. As the lake began to shrink in the 1970s, the surrounding population was forced to move towards it and began competing for access. As the people became concentrated in a significantly smaller area, there was a measurable rise in confrontations between local farmers and herders. As climate change altered the landscape, the competition for access to Lake Chad and its precious resources rose, and so did the conflict. 

Experts point to Sudan’s civil war as the first example of a modern climate change-induced conflict. The United Nations linked desertification and dwindling rainfall caused by rising temperatures to food and water insecurity; the insecurity then resulted in a rebellion that the Sudanese government reacted to with a campaign of violence. Famine plagued Sudan, as rains dwindled and fertile land became arid. The lack of food paired with deep-rooted social and political tensions exacerbated the risk of conflict until the country broke into civil war. Climate change heightened the competition for invaluable resources, further intensifying the preexistent tensions between ethnic groups. Average temperatures are  expected to rise if the amount of carbon in the atmosphere is not significantly reduced within the next few years. The high temperatures will lead to more drought, which has the potential to be an impetus for more conflict. 

Climate change is threatening not only people’s livelihoods but also their lives. Its adverse effects on global temperatures and rainfall result in increased competition for necessary resources, such as food and water. As competition for life-sustaining resources continues to rise, so does the potential for violent, deadly conflict. In Syria, climate change’s adverse environmental effects on top of existing instability sparked civil war, resulting in hundreds of thousands of deaths. The shrinking of Lake Chad forced communities to compete for precious resources, and conflict arose between previously friendly neighbors. The continuous rise of global temperatures has induced food and water insecurity in Sudan, and violence has broken out as people fight for control of life-sustaining resources. While climate change itself does not cause war, with a mix of economic, social, or political tensions the ground is ripe for conflict to grow.