Is climate change fuelling political conflicts globally?
There is increasing academic evidence that climate change is leading to conflicts but national governments are yet to come up with policy prescriptions
Last week, the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), the United Nation’s weather agency, released its annual report, State of the Global Climate in 2018. It is alarming. The earth, the report said, is nearly 1 degree Celsius warmer than it was when the industrial age started, and extreme weather events hit 62 million people worldwide and forced two million to relocate as the climate crisis worsened in 2018. The media reportage on the WMO study has been extensive. Yet, there is one aspect that needs more intensive coverage. That is the “clear link”, as the study puts it, that is now emerging between climate change and social instability.
A broad range of work has established the link between climate change and migration. For instance, Indian Institute of Management Ahmedabad’s faculty member Chinmay Tumbe’s new book, India Moving: A History of Migration, has a great deal to say on how environmental degradation/climate change-induced migration (due to its impact on agriculture, weather events, groundwater sources or rising sea level) could lead to more Bangladeshis migrating to India. But the research on climate-induced conflict and migration is still a work in progress.
There are two recent studies that throw light on the climate-social instability-migration challenge.
One is a study by the School of International Development, University of East Anglia, UK, Climate, Conflict and Forced Migration. According to the researchers, this is one of the first studies that has now conclusively established a link between severe droughts (made more likely by global warming) and conflict in Arab Spring countries early this decade, forcing people to flee.
The study, published in Global Environmental Change in January, used data from asylum applications in 157 countries from 2006-2015, together with an index that measures droughts, as well as figures tracking battle-related deaths, to establish a particular correlation between climate stresses and conflict in parts of West Asia and North Africa from 2010–2012, when many countries were undergoing a political transformation during the Arab Spring uprisings. Those countries included Tunisia, Libya, Yemen, and Syria.
Take the instance of Syria. The UK study found that long-running droughts and water shortages caused by climate change resulted in repeated crop failures, forcing rural families to move to urban areas. This, in turn, led to overcrowding, unemployment and political unrest, and then the civil war. They also established a climatic link with conflicts that triggered migration in sub-Saharan Africa over the same three years, but not during other time periods. “[This is because] climate change will not cause conflict and subsequent asylum-seeking flows everywhere. But in a context of poor governance and a medium level of democracy, severe climate conditions can create conflict over scarce resources,” co-author, Jesus Crespo Cuaresma, of the Vienna University of Economics and Business told Thomson Reuters Foundation.
The second report is a 2018 study, Climate Change and Violent Conflict: Sparse Evidence from South Asia and Southeast Asia, by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI). The study said that as the effects of climate change on livelihoods become more pronounced, especially for people involved in agriculture and fishing in South and South-East Asia, support for rebel groups, and the Maoist movement in India, is likely to shoot up. Their findings from India show that rebel groups and government forces both find recruitment easier when drought is around the corner.
The authors of the report, Pernilla Nordqvist and Florian Krampe, found that Maoists could use climate-related events to gain power in an ongoing conflict, and rebel groups more generally could increase their use of violence against civilians to ensure their groups’ food security. It also adds that as climate change pushes up migration, it introduces the possibility of riots in urban areas over resources.
To date, there is probably not much scientific evidence on the issue for national governments to put this at the top of their policy priorities’ list.
But with climate change becoming more and more pronounced, there is an urgent need to invest in research on climate-related violence because the challenge could be much graver than we think.