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Is climate change a major security threat? How has research on climate and conflict progressed in recent years? And where should it move forward? This brief essay reflects on some ways in which climatic changes could constitute a threat to peace and stability. Rather than assuming a direct causal link, the essay argues that climate change may exert an indirect and conditional effect on conflict risk, increasing the security gap between affluent societies well able to cope with climate change and societies already suffering from violence and instability, who are unlikely to achieve successful adaptation on their own. For this reason, peace building is quite possibly the most effective climate resilience policy in unstable corners of the world.
Peace Econ. Peace Sci. Pub. Pol. 2016; aop
Open Access
Halvard Buhaug*
Climate Change and Conflict: Taking Stock
DOI 10.1515/peps-2016-0034
Abstract: Is climate change a major security threat? How has research on climate
and conflict progressed in recent years? And where should it move forward? This
brief essay reflects on some ways in which climatic changes could constitute a
threat to peace and stability. Rather than assuming a direct causal link, the essay
argues that climate change may exert an indirect and conditional effect on con-
flict risk, increasing the security gap between affluent societies well able to cope
with climate change and societies already suffering from violence and instability,
who are unlikely to achieve successful adaptation on their own. For this reason,
peace building is quite possibly the most effective climate resilience policy in
unstable corners of the world.
Keywords: conflict, climate change, environment.
1 Introduction
After a remarkable and much-celebrated decline in armed conflict following the
collapse of the Cold War system (Gleditsch etal. 2002; Goldstein 2011; Pinker
2011), the trend now seems stabilized at around 35–40 active conflicts per year.
What is more, conflict casualties actually show a notable uptick in recent years,
with 2014 being the deadliest year since the late 1980s (Pettersson and Wallen-
steen 2015). With climate change and possible adverse knock-on consequences
for agricultural productivity, economic activity, and food security approaching,
fears are mounting that the future may see a reversal of the trend and bring more
conflict and instability (CNA 2014; US DoD 2015).
In this short essay I review recent progress in scientific research on climate and
conflict and, building on insights from that research, provide a few suggestions
for where the field should be moving in coming years. Before doing so, however,
a couple of clarifications are in order. First, while climate change may conceiv-
ably lead to a host of negative security outcomes, I will only consider the risk
*Corresponding author: Halvard Buhaug, Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO), P.O. Box 9229
Grønland, NO-0134 Oslo, Norway, E-mail: halvard@prio.org
©2016, Halvard Buhaug, published by De Gruyter.
This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 3.0 License.
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2     Halvard Buhaug
of armed conflict here. Intrastate conflict is the dominant and most researched
form of organized violence in the contemporary world, and while I am making no
claim about the representativeness of this form of conflict for the wider spectrum
of political violence, civil conflicts and wars are of particular concern as they
generate more casualties in a random year than all other forms of political vio-
lence combined. Second, while the policy debate on climate change and security
typically adopts a long-term perspective, much of the relevant empirical research
addresses how climate variability, or short-term variations in weather patterns,
affect conflict risk. This distinction is not trivial. Although the frequency and
amplitude of climate variability may shift with climate change, social responses
to short-term anomalies cannot be used to infer about future behavior in response
to a shift in normal conditions. Put differently, the fact that beer consumption
peaks during warm periods of the year (Uitenbroek 1996) need not imply that a
two-degrees warmer world will see lots of drunk people.
2 Climate change is bad
In case you have been absent-minded over the past decade or so, let me be clear:
climate change is bad. True, climate change and associated physical processes
will vary in their manifestation and severity across regions, but overall the doc-
umentation provided so comprehensively in the UN Intergovernmental Panel
on Climate Change’s (IPCC) Fifth Assessment Report (AR5) is unequivocal: (i)
the climate is changing at an unprecedented and accelerating rate, (ii) human
greenhouse gas emissions are a signification contributor to that change, and (iii)
the impacts of climate change “will amplify existing risks and create new risks
for natural and human systems” (IPCC 2014, 13). Among other things, warming,
shifting precipitation patterns, and more extreme weather events threaten to
undermine local and global food security by reducing renewable surface water
and groundwater resources in most dry and subtropical regions.
Adapting to and, in the longer run, mitigating climate change will require
political will, human ingenuity, and material resources. Although attempts
to estimate the aggregate cost of mitigation are fraught with uncertainty and a
source of some controversy (Tol 2016), scenarios considered in AR5 indicate an
annual loss of economic growth in the range of 0.04–0.14 percentage points (from
a baseline estimated global growth of 1.6–3% per year) over the course of the 21st
century (IPCC 2014, 24).
Societies vary widely in their exposure to current and future natural hazards.
While temperature increase will be most pronounced at higher latitudes, it consti-
tutes a larger threat to ecosystems in warmer and dryer climates, where extreme
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Climate Change and Conflict: Taking Stock     3
events, such as prolonged droughts and heat waves, may approach or exceed the
tolerance limit of plants and animal species (Bita and Gerats 2013). Projections
are less certain regarding precipitation changes though the majority of simula-
tions indicate that wet regions will get wetter while semi-arid and dry regions
will become dryer (IPCC 2014). Sea-level rise is a global phenomenon that primar-
ily affects low-elevation coastal zones and small islands. Just as climate change
exposure varies across space, so do societies’ abilities to deal with the challenges
imposed by climate change. For this reason, various international bodies have
been created to foster and coordinate concerted international action (e.g. the UN
Framework Convention on Climate Change, UNFCCC, and the annual Conference
of Parties, COP).
3 Climate change won’t cause armed conflict
Despite prophesies of “climate wars” (Dyer 2008; Welzer 2012), warnings that
climate change is “the mother of all risks” (TIME 2015), and assertions about how
“climate change is making our world more violent and less secure” (Levy 2014),
I dare say that climate change does not cause armed conflict. Societal actors, be
they state governments, military branches, political parties, civil society actors, or
communal groups, do not resort to force in an organized and coordinated fashion
only because temperature heats up or rainfall comes in unexpected ways. The
alternative would be a form of environmental determinism where societies are
tied to meteorological or ecological conditions in a mechanistic fashion. Indeed,
the empirical evidence base to support the notion of a direct and general climate-
conflict link is thin (Adger etal. 2014; Bernauer, Böhmelt, and Koubi 2012; Buhaug
etal. 2014; Salehyan 2014).
4 But impacts of climate change might
While shifts in climatic conditions do not cause armed conflict, climate vari-
ability and change may well influence the dynamics of interaction (including
violent contention) between societal actors. However, such an effect will occur
in conjunction and sometimes interaction with other prevalent conflict drivers
and always be shaped by the specific context. To give one example, the conflict
potential of drought depends on local land use (e.g. agricultural production, resi-
dential area, undeveloped rugged terrain), the affected population’s vulnerability
and coping capacity (e.g. access to ground water and irrigation systems, market
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4     Halvard Buhaug
forces, alternate modes of livelihood) and, of course, the response by the state
(relief aid, subsidies, price control, etc.).
The distinction between a general causal effect and an indirect and condi-
tional effect is more than mere semantics as it implicitly points to what must be
addressed in order to avoid or end conflict. Rather than discussing the risk of
“climate wars” – a term that should be avoided at all costs – scholars should
take the notion of climate change as a “threat multiplier” (CNA 2007) seriously
and investigate the conditions under which climatic changes may accentuate the
threat to societal stability and peace, and the mechanisms through which a desta-
bilizing effect might materialize.
The first wave of empirical climate-conflict studies relied almost exclusively
on simple meteorological indicators, such as temperature or rainfall anomalies, as
possible correlates of civil and intergroup conflict (e.g. Buhaug 2010; Burke etal.
2009; Couttenier and Soubeyran 2013; Fjelde and von Uexkull 2012; Hendrix and
Salehyan 2012; O’Loughlin etal. 2012; Raleigh and Kniveton 2012; Theisen 2012).
Although all of these analyses were limited to Africa or parts of the continent, by
design accounting for some contextual factors, few explicitly considered interac-
tive and conditional climate effects. As mentioned above, this body of work taken
together has failed to converge on a general and robust climate-conflict connection.
A second and more promising wave of studies seeks to model climate-con-
flict relationships in a multi-stage fashion, considering the conflict impact of
adverse socioeconomic changes assumed to be affected by rapid climatic shifts
(e.g. Buhaug etal. 2015; Caruso, Petrarca, and Ricciuti 2016; Koubi etal. 2012;
Schleussner et al. 2016; Smith 2014; van Weezel 2015; Wischnath and Buhaug
2014). The literature is not short on proposed indirect links from climate change
to conflict – among which intermediate implications for food insecurity, pro-
duction shocks, and migration feature most prominently – but more research is
needed along these lines before we are ready to conclude about the nature and
strength of such connections.
A third possible pathway from climate change to conflict that has received
less attention is the possibility of adverse side effects of implemented mitigation
policies. For example, some research highlights how dam construction and hydro-
power production carries significant conflict potential (between countries as well
as within them) by altering seasonal river flow and downstream water availability
(Kuenzer etal. 2013). Likewise, reforestation programs and the establishment of
conservation parks can uproot or in other ways negatively affect the livelihoods
of the local population (Ghazoul etal. 2010). In the longer term, increasing cost of
air travel due to, e.g. environmental taxation may significantly alter international
tourism patterns, hurting the economies of destinations that become much cost-
lier to reach (Scott, Gössling and Hall 2012).
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Climate Change and Conflict: Taking Stock     5
5 What about the reverse relationship?
Based on the best available scientific evidence it is clear that climate vari-
ability and change at most exert indirect and conditional effects on conflict
risk, although we do not yet know the pervasiveness and significance of these
effects. However, climate impacts and conflict are endogenous to one-another
(Gartzke and Böhmelt 2015), where the reverse association, from armed conflict
to climate risks, is many times more powerful. We know that conflicts and wars
cause enormous human suffering, destroy material goods and infrastructure,
trigger capital flight and brain drain, and deter investment in future develop-
ment. For this reason, civil war is development in reverse (Collier etal. 2003).
Low level of economic development, poor growth, and political instability in
turn are major contributors to environmental vulnerability. In the words of the
IPCC, “conflict strongly influences vulnerability to climate change impacts”
(Adger etal. 2014, 12).
Taken together, these insights give a glimpse of what we might expect in
the future. Stable and wealthy societies possess the skills and resources and
presumably also the political will to address climate change-related challenges
and impacts in an appropriate and peaceful manner. Conflict-affected societies,
however, many of which struggle with endemic political chaos, corruption, and
poor economic growth, are unable to adapt to and cope with these challenges on
their own, thereby reinforcing the vicious cycle of instability and underdevelop-
ment. In this sense – and absent international assistance – the future is likely to
further solidify existing conflict patterns [though see Hegre etal. (2016) for a more
sophisticated approach to modeling future conflict scenarios].
6 Discussion
Several conclusions can be drawn from this summary of the field. First, schol-
ars should continue the recent trend toward theorizing and investigating indirect
pathways from climate variability and change to conflict. An important part of
this work should be to better specificy the conditions under which such effects
might play out (Seter 2016). Second, there is a notable lack of knowledge on pos-
sible insecurity implications of climate change mitigation. Again, a direct causal
link is not very likely but indirect effects via adverse economic or livelihood
impacts are not inconceivable. Third, scholars, commentators, and policy makers
alike should shy away from sensationalism and the tendency to see events exclu-
sively through the scarcity lens [see Sneyd, Legwegoh and Fraser (2013) for an
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6     Halvard Buhaug
insightful analysis]. However, the other extreme, explicitly refraining from
attempting to rank the relative importance of various conflict drivers is no better.
Werell and Femia (2015) are correct in observing that “climate change is not an
exogenous threat, hermetically sealed from other risks,” but it does not follow, as
they contend, that we should “move away from [..] ‘ranking’ threats to national
security.” Seeking to avoid mono-causal explanations is commendable, but the
unweighted all-inclusive approach is equally problematic as it implicitly suggests
that peace-building strategies must pay equal attention to all identified issues in
order to solve a conflict. Such advice is not particularly helpful to those develop-
ing or implementing policy, nor is it likely to be successful. Conversely, robust
scientific evidence indicates that peace building probably is the most effective
climate resilience strategy in war-torn regions. Without peace and stable, well-
functioning political institutions it is hard to see how societies can address exist-
ing and future security challenges affected by climate change.
Acknowledgments: I would like to thank Raul Caruso and the steering committee
of NEPS for inviting me to give the 2016 Annual NEPS Lecture in Milan, Italy. This
work is funded by the European Research Council through grant no. 648291.
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... This, in turn, may further increase the duration of conflicts (Brzoska, 2018;Ghimire & Ferreira, 2016). A c c e p t e d M a n u s c r i p t At the end of this section it should be noted that several authors have criticized efforts aiming at establishing direct causal relationships between climate change and events that undermine peace, using large-N quantitative approaches, on the grounds that they are mechanistic and fail to consider the complex and multi-dimensional nature of the nexus (Buhaug, 2016;A. De Juan, 2015;Okpara, Stringer, & Dougill, 2016b). ...
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... Human-induced ecosystem degradation manifests in an overall and accelerating global warming of 1.1°C so far, rapid with glacial ice retreat and sea level rise, ocean acidification and more frequent/severe extreme weather events, land degradation and desertification, as well as the mass extinction of plants and animal species -the so-called 'sixth mass extinction' (IPCC 2018;WMO 2019;NASA 2018;UNCCD 2019;WAD 2018;Herring et al. 2018;IPBES 2019b;Ceballos et al. 2017). The interconnected human consequences of these phenomena are illness, starvation and death, economic and non-economic loss, as well as displacement and socio-political instability (DARA 2012;Mukerji 2019;WHO 2009;WMO 2019;Hsiang et al. 2017;Serdeczny et al. 2016;Warner et al. 2013;McAdam 2010;Warner et al. 2009;Buhaug 2016;Sellers et al. 2019;WMO 2020). These are not forecasts: they are happening already. ...
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Chapter
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"Civil war conflict is a core development issue. The existence of civil war can dramatically slow a country's development process, especially in low-income countries which are more vulnerable to civil war conflict. Conversely, development can impede civil war. When development succeeds, countries become safer―when development fails, they experience a greater risk of being caught in a conflict trap. Ultimately, civil war is a failure of development. "'Breaking the Conflict Trap' identifies the dire consequences that civil war has on the development process and offers three main findings. First, civil war has adverse ripple effects that are often not taken into account by those who determine whether wars start or end. Second, some countries are more likely than others to experience civil war conflict and thus, the risks of civil war differ considerably according to a country's characteristics including its economic stability. Finally, Breaking the Conflict Trap explores viable international measures that can be taken to reduce the global incidence of civil war and proposes a practical agenda for action. "This book should serve as a wake up call to anyone in the international community who still thinks that development and conflict are distinct issues." Source: Amazon -- https://www.amazon.com/Breaking-Conflict-Trap-Development-Research/dp/0821354817/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1550856279&sr=8-1&keywords=breaking+the+conflict+trap
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