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Beyond the hype of 'climate wars'

A man on horseback rides through a sandstorm in Niger’s Tillaberi region in the southwest
A man in horseback rides through a sandstorm in Niger’s Tillaberi region in the southwest (March 2012) (Jaspreet Kindra/IRIN)

A new study set in East Africa, one of the most detailed yet to examine the links between conflict and climate change, calls for a more balanced view on the issue - beyond the widely hyped “climate wars” said to be erupting over dwindling natural resources. The study’s authors are among a chorus of emerging voices warning against viewing climate change exclusively through the lens of security.

The study, led by researchers at the University of Colorado (CU) Boulder in the US, shows that the risk of conflict in East Africa increases somewhat as the climate gets hotter and drops a bit with more rainfall, but concludes that “socioeconomic, political and geographic factors play a much more substantial role [in conflict] than climate change”. 

It is well-established that climate change affects the availability of resources like water and food, but this fact has led to often alarmist stories and studies on the potential rise of conflicts over these resources, a tendency described as the “securitization” of climate change.

John O’Loughlin, the lead author of the study and professor of geography at CU, said the study was an attempt to clarify the “often contradictory debate” on whether climate change is affecting armed conflicts in Africa. “We wanted to get beyond the specific idea and hype of ‘climate wars’. We were interested in the debate and wanted to see if the alarmist views about climate change on conflict risk were accurate.”

''The simplistic arguments we hear on both sides are not accurate, especially those by pessimists who talk about ‘climate wars’. Compared to social, economic and political factors, climate factors adding to conflict risk are really quite modest''

Unlike previous studies on the climate-conflict nexus, this new study paints a more nuanced picture of the linkages between climate, resources and conflict. Moderate increases in temperature were found to reduce the risk of conflict slightly, after controlling for the influence of social and political conditions, but very hot temperatures were shown to increase the risk of conflict, said O’Loughlin. Unusually wet periods also reduced the risk of conflict.

A variety of factors

“The relationship between climate change and conflict in East Africa is incredibly complex and varies hugely by country and time period,” said O’Loughlin in an online news report published by the university. “The simplistic arguments we hear on both sides are not accurate, especially those by pessimists who talk about ‘climate wars’. Compared to social, economic and political factors, climate factors adding to conflict risk are really quite modest.”

The research team considered climate data from 1990 and 2009 in nine countries in East Africa: Burundi, Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, Somalia, Tanzania and Uganda. The team also used data from 16,000 violent conflicts in those countries during that period, including information on the location of each conflict and the political, social, economic and geographic conditions under which each incident took place.

“As we show, the temperature effect varies a lot by country,” said O’Loughlin via email. “There is now some work on climate change, food security and violence appearing - and we think that this is a valuable path to follow.”

The study was undertaken with the US-government funded National Center for Atmospheric Research and published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

One example of the climate-conflict relationships examined was an incident on 3 July 2004, when more than a 100 farmers’ homes in Tanzania’s Arusha District were burned by herders who had been pushing authorities for years to turn the land into grazing area.

“Such a link between violence and resource availability may be an outcome of climate change on livelihoods in sub-Saharan Africa, but the event must be analysed in the context of political, social, economic and geographic considerations - variables that are often ignored as key controls,” write the authors in the study. “By doing so, we address a common complaint levelled by social scientists against the existing conflict-climate literature that finds associations but does not consider other explanations.”

Read more
 SUDAN: Climate change - only one cause among many for Darfur conflict
 AFRICA: Climate change and conflicts
 KENYA: Politics, pastureland and conflict
 SUDAN: Watermelons, conflict and climate change
 Climate change in-depth

Securitization debate

Recent papers from social scientists like Corinne Schoch, a climate change researcher with the International Institute for Environment and Development, have been sceptical about the linkages between climate change and conflict, saying it is a distraction that shifts focus from helping the vulnerable. 

Schoch acknowledges that studies of climate change and conflict “have played a vital role in raising the much-needed awareness of climate change as an issue that deserves global action.”

But, she asks, “at what cost?”

Schoch reasons,“ Focusing on climate change as a security threat alone risks devolving humanitarian responsibilities to the military, ignoring key challenges and losing sight of those climate-vulnerable communities that stand most in need of protection.”

In a 2007 paper published in the Journal of International Affairs, Oli Brown, Anne Hammill and Robert McLeman from the International Institute for Sustainable Development said there was little empirical research to back the linkages between climate change and security threats in Africa. 

“The present securitization of climate change is supported for the most part by anecdotal research into developing regions, where conflict has been triggered by chronic scarcity caused by environmental change, over-consumption of resources or the combination of both,” the researchers wrote.

That year, a paper by the UN Environment Programme portrayed climate change-related environmental degradation as one of the root causes of the conflict in Darfur, Sudan . Many experts on the Darfur crisis responded critically, saying undue emphasis on climate change was an attempt to oversimplify the crisis. 

“[The] Darfur crisis has been shown not to be a result of climate change but of local political and social circumstances,” O’Loughlin told IRIN.

O’Loughlin says he agrees with Schoch on the danger of considering climate change solely as a security threat. The CU study also acknowledges the threat of oversimplification, as O'Loughlin points out, “The topic is not so much under-researched as it is relatively devoid of detailed data analysis [when there is]...adequate data available for examination. We tried to provide these.”


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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