A warmer world will be more dangerous. As the thermometer rises, so does the risk of conflict and bloodshed in more vulnerable regions.
If the world warms by 4°C this century, the climate factor becomes more dangerous – five times more dangerous, according to new research, which predicts a 26% increase in the risk of conflict, just because of climate change.
Even if the world sticks to a promise made in Paris in 2015, when 195 nations vowed to contain global warming to “well below” 2°C above pre-industrial levels by the end of the century, the impact of climate on the risk of armed conflict will double. The risk will rise to 13%.
US researchers report in the journal Nature that they quizzed a pool of 11 experts on climate and conflict from a range of disciplines. There is no consensus on the mechanism that links a shift in average temperatures and ethnic bitterness, migration, violence and outright civil war within any single nation. But there is a simple conclusion: whatever the process, climate change raises the risk of conflict.
And the study comes just as the latest publication of the Global Peace Index warns that 971 million people now live in areas with what is termed high or “very high climate change exposure”, and 400 million of these people already live in countries with “low levels of peacefulness.”
Making conflict likelier
The Global Peace Index issues the same warning: that climate change can indirectly increase the likelihood of violent conflict by affecting the resources available to citizens, to jobs and careers, and by undermining security and forcing migration.
And, the same study says, this comes at a colossal economic cost. In 2018, the impact of violence on the global economy totalled $14.1 trillion in purchasing power. This is more than 11% of the world’s economic activity and adds up to $1,853 per person.
Both studies reinforce earlier research. Social scientists, geographers and statisticians have repeatedly found links between climate change and conflict, between climate change and migration, and have warned of more to come, specifically in South Asia, and worldwide.
“Over this century, unprecedented climate change is going to have significant impacts … but it is extremely hard to anticipate whether the political changes related to climate change will have big effects on armed conflict in turn”
There is a debate about the role of drought in the bloodshed in Syria, but there is less argument about the proposition that climate change unsettles what may already be nations or communities vulnerable to conflict.
There have also been bleak warnings from prehistory: archaeologists think that climate change may have been behind the collapse of the Bronze Age Mediterranean culture and the fall of an ancient Assyrian society.
The point of the latest study was simply to find some consensus on the risks of conflict in a world in climate crisis. The theorists think that climate stresses over the last century have already influenced in some way between 3% and 20% of armed conflict risk.
They think the risks could increase dramatically, as normally productive agricultural regions face catastrophic crop failure, as extremes of temperature make crowded cities more dangerous, as people are driven off their land by sustained drought, and as climate impacts impoverish the already vulnerable, to increase global levels of injustice and inequality.
Armed with a sense of the scale of the future hazard, governments and international agencies could equip themselves with strategies that might help to increase global food security and provide other economic opportunities. Peacekeeping forces and aid agencies need to understand, too, that climate factors are, increasingly, part of the risk.
“Historically, levels of armed conflict over time have been heavily influenced by shocks to, and changes in, international relations among states and in their domestic political systems,” said James Fearon, a political scientist at Stanford University and one of the authors.
“It is quite likely that, over this century, unprecedented climate change is going to have significant impacts on both, but it is extremely hard to anticipate whether the political changes related to climate change will have big effects on armed conflict in turn. So I think putting non-trivial weight on significant climate effects on conflict is reasonable.” − Climate News Network
About the Author
Tim Radford is a freelance journalist. He worked for The Guardian for 32 years, becoming (among other things) letters editor, arts editor, literary editor and science editor. He won the Association of British Science Writers award for science writer of the year four times. He served on the UK committee for the International Decade for Natural Disaster Reduction. He has lectured about science and the media in dozens of British and foreign cities.
Book by this Author:
Science that Changed the World: The untold story of the other 1960s revolution
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