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Can climate change cause conflicts?

  • Published at 07:33 am April 28th, 2020
threat multiplier
Photo: Pixabay

Exploring the understanding of climate change impacts and conflicts

Climate change as the ultimate “threat multiplier”

Climate change is a global threat to security in the 21st century. The United Nations climate panel, the IPCC, gave the world just 12 years to make the drastic but necessary changes. Its report said emissions had to be cut by 45% before 2030 if warming was to be restricted to 1.5-degree Celsius. At 1.5 degree Celsius, 10 million fewer people would be affected by rising sea levels, and the proportion of the world’s population exposed to water stress could be 50% lower. However, a scenario where the temperature is 2 or 4 degree Celsius the scenario is much more different. It is also vital when small islands, drought-ridden countries and coastal countries like Bangladesh are highly vulnerable to climate change. 

Climate change will stress the world’s economic, social, and political systems. Where institutions and governments are unable to manage the stress or absorb the shocks of a changing climate, the risks to the stability of states and societies will increase. Experts call these states fragile. The sharpest risks emerge when the impacts of climate change overburden these fragile states. Climate change is termed as the ultimate ‘threat multiplier’, meaning it will aggravate already fragile situations and may contribute to latent conflict (social disturbance) and even violent conflict. While all will feel the effects of climate change, the people in the poorest countries — and the most vulnerable groups are the most threatened. In places affected by fragility and conflict, people face especially challenging obstacles to successful adaptation. If they fail to adapt to the effects of climate change, the risk of instability will increase, trapping them in a vicious cycle. The most recent example could be from the Dharavi slum in Mumbai, which has seen multiple environmental migrants who are now at risk of contracting COVID-19. Most of the slum dwellers moved to that slum because they lost their cropping lands to adverse climate variability. 

However, it is a tricky topic that has divided scientists for a very long time. In 2007, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon described the conflict in Sudan’s Darfur region as the world’s first event where it was proven conclusively that climate change can lead to violent conflicts. The assumption was that water scarcity from changed rainfall patterns  from climate change contributed to this conflict. Regions that are likely to receive less rainfall have a higher chance of conflict. Moreover, the Syrian conflict started in the year 2011. However, experts have debated regarding the causes of the Syrian conflict, and it would be a misnomer to relate the conflict to climate variability in lights to economic instability or vice versa. 

What are the thoughts regarding this topic?

The IPCC has not touched on this topic since 2014. But recently, the research on the topic has surged; however, it should be noted that different disciplines take different approaches and there is a lack of information about regions beyond sub-Saharan Africa and Asia. Experts don’t agree on how to study the effects of climate change on conflict. Some argue that climatic factors such as increased temperatures and erratic rainfall have a strong effect on violence at all levels, from the individual to between national armies. Other researchers challenge this view and stress how non-climate factors raise conflict risk.

What has changed?

Since 2017, experts came to a consensus regarding what was working and what was not in this particular field. The task was to gain an understanding over climatic and non-climatic factors that have caused conflicts in the past century and effectively understand the changes in these scenarios of a world that will see a two- and four-degree Celsius temperature rise, as mentioned by the IPCC.

The findings were published in the 2019 peer-reviewed journal article “Climate change as a risk factor for armed conflicts” authored by various experts in the field of climate change, economics and politics under the Nature Research Publications. 

The experts came up with the following conclusions: In the current climatic scenarios, a state with limited capacity, inequality, experiences economic shocks, population pressure, civil conflicts, or a state that can no longer depend on natural resources will be more likely (certain) to face conflicts. In contrast, those states with low socio-economic development, climate variability will face an unlikely (uncertain) scenario regarding conflicts. 

However, things will not look good for a state that faces multiple such factors coupled with a climate change as a threat multiplier. In such scenarios, the scientists predicted that if the world does not reduce emissions and continue on the same path of business as usual, the risk of seeing climate-induced violence like that of Darfur will increase by fivefold.

What can be  resolved?

It would be wrong to say that climate change alone causes conflict. Climate change is a threat multiplier which can act as a catalyst for a fragile state. The association of climate and conflict is a mixture of multiple factors, and it can be adequately concluded under the new joint consensus that a state with those multiple factors coupled with climate variability can lead to a scenario of violent conflict. 

What does it mean for Bangladesh?

The country’s geography makes environmental vulnerability inescapable. Bangladesh is a flat country surrounded on three sides by India and the fourth by the Bay of Bengal. It is a delta, a massive drain for three mighty rivers that flow through the Indian subcontinent (the Ganges, Brahmaputra, and Meghna), for the Himalayan glacial melt, and the area’s annual monsoon rains.

 Waterlogged land loses 18-75 per cent of its area to temporary flooding each year, which kills some 5,000 Bangladeshis annually, causes homelessness for many more, and disrupts the lives of the rural dwelling majority. Rising waters will mean losing habitable land. Bangladesh is also vulnerable to devastation by cyclones. Scientists have predicted more frequent and intense storm occurrence with warmer oceans, increased storm surges, and more intense storms. With the country already facing large-scale migration to the capital city Dhaka, it is evident that a likely scenario with other factors can see a scenario where climate change can be a catalyst for conflicts.

Adnan Qader is an activist and working as a Senior Research Officer at ICCCAD. His research interest lies in water and climate security.

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