Framed the right way, the question contains a sense of Hollywood inevitability — climate change brings drought to a region, different factions struggle for precious water sources and end up clashing. Or a storm made considerably more violent by climate change wrecks the infrastructure of a coastal country, inviting chaos and conflict. Or rising tides set loose waves of migrants that spark brutal tensions.
These plots might be suitable for a big-budget script, but do they bear any resemblance to reality?
Military experts seem to think so.
“Rising global temperatures, changing precipitation patterns, climbing sea levels and more extreme weather events will intensify the challenges of global instability, hunger, poverty and conflict,” former Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said two years ago in a statement.
In his Senate hearing two months ago, US Secretary of Defense James Mattis said that “instability breeds conflict” and that events like droughts create instability.
In fact, the Syrian Civil War was preceded by a severe drought that caused 75% of Syria's farms to fail and 85% of livestock to die between 2006 and 2011, according to the United Nations. That drought also triggered a wave of migrants searching for jobs in urban areas.
The revolutions that erupted across the Middle East known as the “Arab Spring” were accompanied by similar environmental hardships.
For years, the Pentagon has maintained that climate change is a “threat multiplier,” meaning that it can put pressure on existing tensions until they explode into armed conflict. This idea has become so mainstream that it was even mentioned by presidential hopeful Sen. Bernie Sanders in a Democratic primary debate.
A joint analysis by UC Berkeley and Princeton that reviewed 60 climate change studies supports this theory.
“There’s no conflict that we think should be wholly attributed to some specific climatic event,” a press release on the analysis read. “Every conflict has roots in interpersonal and intergroup relations. What we’re trying to point out is that climate is one of the critical factors [that] affect how things escalate, and if they escalate to the point of violence.”
Currently, discussions of climate-induced conflict revolve around two main pressure points.
Scarcity of resources
Climate change can diminish access to resources in many ways, which can, in turn, increase the possibility of conflict.
Droughts are becoming more extreme around the world as air currents are altered through climate change. This new breed of extreme droughts has the potential to destabilize societies in various ways. A severe drought can ravage agriculture, depriving people of food sources and economic activity. It can also dry up reservoirs, wells, and lakes, making it hard for people to access water.
If these events take place in fragile societies that already have existing political tensions, then the prospect of conflict could increase as different factions vie for necessary resources.
Similarly, the extreme flooding and precipitation that is becoming a hallmark of climate change could overwhelm crop systems and lead to widespread water contamination. This could be a tipping point in a particularly vulnerable and divided environment that is already on the brink of conflict.
In the past several years, storms of enormous strength have battered countries from Haiti to the Philippines, wrecking physical and political infrastructure. If such storms continue to occur and intensify, then, in the right, fragile environment, conflict could be provoked as different groups vie for power.
These are some of the ways climate change can injure societies, opening the door for conflict. It doesn’t mean that they are in any way a guarantee of conflict, rather than they “multiply” the risk.
The world is currently experiencing the worst refugee and migrant crisis since World War II, with more than 65 million people displaced from their homes and more than 21 million people seeking refuge in other countries.
At the same time, countries around the world are clamping down on their borders under the mantle of nationalism, refusing to accommodate the neediest people in the world and creating a vast global underclass.
Displacement caused by climate change is an emerging phenomenon that will rapidly accelerate in the decades ahead as coastal communities are eroded by rising sea levels and catastrophic environmental events force people from their homes.
The pressure this will put on the countries in the world could, in conjunction with many other factors, incite conflict.
As gripping as these situations are, not all conflicts can be linked back to climate change, and often climate change-induced situations do not lead to conflict. All around the world, destabilizing climate-driven events such as desertification in China, drought in the western US, and severe coastal erosion in Bangladesh have not caused conflict.
In fact, the reverse is more common — conflict causes famine and other environmental hardships. The war in Syria, for example, caused far greater water and food insecurity than the drought that preceded it by destroying infrastructure, forcing people to flee their livelihoods, and, more fundamentally, destroying the country's social compact. The other major wars in the world right now — in South Sudan, Somalia, Yemen, and elsewhere — are all causing massive famines without the assistance of climate change. Nearly 20 million people are at risk of dying from lack of food in the next few months alone because of conflict.
And conflict also happens to be a major driver of climate change. The US military, for example, is widely considered the “world’s biggest institutional consumer of crude oil.” Militaries around the world use fossil fuels, consume resources, and destroy environments at staggering levels.
“There should be an emphasis on the reverse direction of the connection between climate change and conflict,” Halvard Buhaug, PhD, research professor at the Peace Research Institute Oslo, told Global CItizen. “There is very little mention of how contemporary conflicts harm their environments and make populations much more vulnerable to environmental consequences.”
“Probably the most effective means to reduce the level of hunger in the world and the number of people vulnerable to climate change would be to end conflicts and instability,” he said. “That would be so much more efficient than the opposite thinking.”
And there are other problems with climate change being cast in military terms.
As David Livingstone writes in Foreign Policy, this argument makes war seem like destiny, clearing away the responsibility of different individuals, groups, and governments, which are all capable of making decisions that reduce the likelihood of conflict.
“I do think is that by linking [conflict and climate change], the impression is generated that conflict can be too easily reduced to climate’s agency,” Livingstone told Global Citizen.
“A sense of historical inevitability, even apocalypse, can easily take over. And the sense that conflict is simply the consequence of climate change can tend to diminish human responsibility for violence,” he said.
In other words, when people are blaming climate change for violence, other, more determining factors, may be overlooked.
Adding conflict to the calculus of climate change, an issue that has languished on the global stage for decades, could give it traction by making the stakes seem higher. This could then, potentially, motivate political action.
But, according to Livingstone, this political action could be in the wrong direction. Rather than seeing climate change as an opportunity to heal the planet, this militarized view could cast the issue as one more foe to build a weapons and defense system against. The militarization of climate change could prolong the status quo, extending the use of fossil fuels by claiming wars need to be prepared for and invested in.
When Mattis spoke to the Senate, he didn’t emphasize the need to invest in renewable energy or sustainable infrastructure. Instead, he warned of the consequences of climate change. He said how changing environments will make it harder for troops to move around and for missions to be carried out.
“That battlefield is in constant change,” he said. “It is right now, but it will be under considerably more change under climate change. We already know, for example, that we have more intense rainfall events. ... The rivers will flow with greater volume, and that will cause problems for river crossings. We see there are problems in the seas. The storms are more intense. We'll have more frequent storms — all of the sorts of things that make uncertainty reality on the battlefield.”
It’s helpful that Mattis and the military acknowledge the reality of climate change — this helps return the science of climate change to the realm of objectivity where it belongs. But he’s not advocating to mitigate the problem. Instead, he’s calling for the military to be prepared to deal with the effects by developing more machinery and equipment and training soldiers for emerging environmental conditions.
“That climate change is taking place is beyond doubt,” Livingstone said. “My problem is that casting it in the language of national security – rather than say justice, international cooperation, and equity – can lend legitimacy toward militarizing the subject.”
“What I’m appealing for is more careful scrutiny of the nature of the arguments on offer, and a sense of their moral dimensions,” he said.
Advocating for climate action and advocating for military action are two different things that don’t need to be lumped together.
Climate change will most likely destabilize parts of the world, potentially creating unrest. But removing the military dimension from future discussions of how to deal with this opens up more room for constructive engagement and cooperation.
“One of the things missing [from this discussion] is the cooperation potential,” said Halvard Buhaug, research professor at the Peace Research Institute Oslo.
“Climate change may lead not only to increased insecurity,” he said. “it could bring societies together, it could contribute to a North-South transfer of technology and competence, and that would potentially be a huge contribution to development in the South.”
Instead of droughts and storms driving mayhem and destruction, they could create a greater sense of shared responsibility, agreements that lead to peace rather than divisions that lead to war.
After all, climate change is not some inevitable natural phenomenon. Neither is war.