Climate Change Causes Conflict? Climate Change Doesn’t Matter? Don’t Rush to Conclusions Either Way

Mayan Ruins and Climate Change

Some assume climate change will lead to increased conflict. Some believe it doesn’t matter at all. But which is true? I spoke to both climate and political scientists to get the full picture. It turns out, the story is much more complex than we think. Climate change is certainly a threat to the well-being and livelihoods of people around the world, but the relationship between climate and violent conflict is not as straightforward.

To understand the basics of climate science, I called Dr. Carrie Morrill from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). She studies abrupt climate change events that happened thousands of years ago to understand how current climate change might unfold.  She told me, “you have to understand the past to understand the future. If we only look at recent human history, we miss a lot of things.” So, what are we missing?

Climate change has significantly impacted ancient societies in the past.

Mayan and Akkadian empires collapsed in part due to prolonged droughts that affected food supply. While we don’t know the details of how climate change affected these civilizations, environmental stress definitely played a large role in contributing to their demise. Archeological research suggests the Mayan empire collapsed due to a vicious cycle of warfare and environmental decline.

You might be wondering, why is this important? After all, many still argue climate change isn’t even real.

Dr. Mark Serreze, director of the National Snow and Ice Data Center stresses that our understanding of climate change is mature and solid. And it is happening much faster than we anticipated. We still don’t know precisely how weather patterns will be affected around the globe and which parts will suffer the most societal consequences. Nonetheless, we already see how climate change is affecting societies today.

Coastal erosion due to climate change is forcing villagers in Alaska to relocate inland. In the future, permafrost melt could affect infrastructure, such as the Alaskan pipeline. New transportation routes have already opened up in the Arctic, making the mythical ice-free Northwest Passage a reality. Sea level rise has prompted the Pacific island nation of Kiribati to buy land from Fiji in order to relocate its citizens to higher ground.

But, while many have already been able to adapt to climate change and even benefit from it through increased trade such as in the case of an ice-free Northwest Passage, the most vulnerable countries and populations are likely to struggle. 

Will we see communities collapse in the future due to climate change, like ancient civilizations of the past?

The world is very different today, and global markets, in theory, can alleviate climate change pressures by distributing resources across the globe to those affected by climate change. But, the famine in South Sudan and Somalia show us that international markets and global governance systems do not by default support societies vulnerable to climatic impacts.

Dr. Cullen Hendrix, an associate professor at the University of Denver stresses: “the same global economy that has lifted people out of poverty has radically changed and increased the vulnerability of people in the developing world. We shouldn’t be surprised if it creates instability.”

What kind of instability are we talking about? From civil wars, to urban unrest, researchers have investigated how and when climate change might contribute to political violence.  So far, researchers have not found uniform relationships across cases. “A climate shock in the Netherlands has a different effect than in rural Kenya. These things are highly context-specific” says Dr. Hendrix. For example, studies demonstrate that both abnormally dry and wet conditions can precipitate conflict. It really depends on where extreme dry or wet spells occur.

Are we already seeing conflict caused by climate?

The country on everyone’s mind is Syria. A recent Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) paper showed that an abnormally severe drought preceded the outbreak of war in the country in 2011. Authors suggested agricultural pressures resulting from drought contributed to violence. Many have labeled Syria to be one of the first conflicts caused by climate change. But many, including Dr. Hendrix, argue that we should get these stories right.

“I will doubt that historians will make an argument that it was all about drought. Migration to urban centers [due to drought] was there, but it was really compounded by exclusionary ethnic rule and stress on social services.” For example, Jordan and Lebanon also experienced the same drought. But, no civil wars as in Syria followed. Factors such as ethnic exclusion, marginalization, and poor governance were key in producing the conflict.

Climatic shocks can also promote conflict a world away. We know food price spikes contributed to Arab Spring uprisings. But food price increases were caused by draught and wildfires in Russia–a major supplier of food staples to the region. It doesn’t mean there is no cushion against such events. Ultimately, it was the low capacity of the states to respond to social stress which resulted in violence.

These nuances often go unnoticed in popular media.

But Dr. Hendrix stresses: “the worst possible thing for addressing climate change is that the example everyone is using is completely bunk.”

According to the Institute of Development Studies, “the understandable desire to identify a clear casual path between climate change and conflict misses the point that each is a complex phenomenon in its own right.” Climatic shocks can affect political conflict often in ways we don’t expect. Simple explanations are often wrong and drastically simplify the complexity of conflict and climate change.

Climate change can aggravate conflict by being an additional stressor on struggling governance systems.

However, we will not see societies collapse simply due to climate change. A myriad of factors, such as global food markets and exclusionary policies can determine whether a climate shock will be absorbed or will contribute to an outbreak of political violence. Ancient civilizations collapsed under environmental pressure, but ultimately, other political and social factors were at play.

“Climate change is here. It is now. It is unfolding before our own eyes,” says Dr. Serreze. While the job of climate scientists is to figure out how to slow or reverse climate change, the political scientist’s task is to recommend governance solutions to prevent violent outcomes. But to do this we must really understand the relationship between climate change and conflict.  We must figure out precisely when, where, and under what conditions its impact will be most destructive around the world. If we don’t understand the nuances and contexts of stories like Syria, we cannot apply the right solutions at the right place and the right time. It’s time to get the story right.