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Analysing the climate change – conflict relation

For every complex problem there is an answer that’s simple, clear and wrong.

– H.L. Mencken

The link between environmental degradation and conflict, including climate change and conflict, has been in the news and in reports for a while now. For instance, the last IPCC report states that climate change can indirectly increase the risk of violent conflict. This link has also been made in press articles; in the recent show ‘Years of Living Dangerously’ which attribute the Syrian war to climate change; or Overseas Development Institute recent Working Paper on ‘Conflict, climate change and politics’.

The history of environmental conflicts starts in the 1980s, when scholars such as Westing aimed to extend the security thinking to include other areas (Westing, 1986). The end of the Cold War fostered the search for alternative paradigms, which led to the study of the possible relationship between environment and global security (Hagmann, 2005). Empirical tracing emerged in the 1990s, and causal links between environmental scarcity and conflict were investigated.

During the first decade of the 21st century, great attention was placed not only on environment in general, but more precisely on the implications of climate change on security. In 2003, the United States Department of Defence presented a Pentagon-funded report with a future scenario which showed climate change to be a potential cause for war and social disruption, which could pose a challenge for the country’s national security’ (Schwartz & Randall, 2003). Some years later, in 2007, a group of retired US military personnel, produced a report arguing that climate change will cause instability in many regions of the world (CNA, 2007). Many other countries have promoted the narrative of climate change increasing the potential of conflict, such as the German Environment Ministry (GME, 2002), or the United Kingdom’s push for the issue to be taken up by the United Nations Security Council (UN, 2007). Some argue that one of the turning points was in 2007 (Nordas & Gleditsch, 2007; Hartmann, 2007), when Christian Aid released a report called ‘Human tide: The real migration crisis’, which presented a scenario of millions of displaced climate refugees (Christian Aid, 2007). That same year, the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, linked the conflict of Sudan’s Darfur region to a combination of demographic pressures, resource scarcity and climate change (Ban, 2007).

Cattle herders in East Africa (Source:

The environmental scarcity narrative

The mainstream narrative on which all this research is based , is the idea that environmental scarcity will have direct correlation with violent conflict. It argues, based on a Neo-Malthusianist idea, that population will grow steeply in the coming decades, reaching nine billion by half-century. This will put more pressure on renewable resources, decrease agricultural land, deplete forests, aquifers and other water resources and result in a decline in fisheries, added to the threat of climate change. This is found to contribute to violent conflict in many parts of the developing world, and will increase in the coming decades (Homer-Dixon, 1994). This contribution to conflict will be direct, through competition for scarce natural resources, or indirect, through the generation of environmental refugees (Barnett, 2000).

This same correlation of degradation with conflict is applied to climate change. The last IPCC report states that climate change “is projected to increase displacement of people” and “can indirectly increase risks of violent conflicts […] by amplifying […] drivers of these conflicts such as poverty and economic shocks”, and adds that this could influence national security policies (IPCC, 2014, 20). However, a great part of the literature finds a direct correlation of climate change consequences with the outbreak of conflicts, not indirect as the IPCC report suggests. For example, Hendrix & Salehyan (2012) study the correlation between changing rainfall patterns and disruptive activities, from demonstrations to violence, in Africa. A positive relation was found between both, linking extreme deviations in rainfall with political conflict, especially with abundant rainfall events. Another study by Burke and colleagues (2009) does a similar analysis in the African continent, linking climate warming and the risk of civil war. They provide a relationship between past internal armed conflicts with variation in temperature, and build projections under the effects of climate change, finding a 54% increase in armed conflict incidence by 2030.

The counter-narrative

Some authors such as Hagmann (2005) findthe methodology and the theoretical basis of the environmental conflict research inconsistent, arguing that they violate principles of research design or the lack of ex ante definition of research questions. Moreover, the environmental determinism that arises from the environment-conflict link is one of the most repeated in the arguments against this theory (e.g. Hagmann, 2005, Salehyan, 2008; Nordas & Gleditsch, 2007), as it neglects the political and social variables and the role that governments, political institutions and social actors may have in mitigating resource pressure and conflict (Salehyan, 2008; Nordas & Gleditsch, 2007). The Neo-Malthusianism perspective can be counter-argued by pointing out different examples where food and water scarcity did not lead to large-scale violence (Salehyan, 2008). Instead, equating famine with warfare is denying the responsibility of the industrialised world to the affected regions, ignoring real causes of poverty, such as economic disadvantages of the developing world when entering global markets (Barnett, 2000). Finally, a more profound issue is the North’s ethnocentric perspective that the environment-conflict narrative has at its core. The literature is based on the premise that people in the South will use violence in times of scarcity, while this argument is rarely applied to the developed North (Barnett, 2000). To Barnett (2000), the North is creating its own fiction, projecting its own violent rationality into the South, assuming the South will respond with aggression to threats, as the North would. Therefore, we are creating a barbaric Other that appeals to our sensationalist and militaristic culture which is, in turn, naturalising political conflicts and presenting the South’s poor people to the uncontrollable forces of Nature (Barnett, 2000; Hartmann, 2007).

The securitization of the environment

The danger in viewing the South as a primeval Other, is the consequent suggestion of the North imposing order (Hartmann, 2010). This, first of all, denies the possibility of peaceful dialogue and justifies violence. Secondly, it justifies the intervention to the affected areas, entering the ‘environment’ in the Northern security agenda, thus obscuring the northern complicity in the generation of environmental problems, for example, the role of commercial agriculture and extractive industries or the lack of land reform (Barnett, 2000; Hartmann, 2007).

An illustrating example of this is the climate change and conflict discourse. Climate change is presented as a natural threat that will exacerbate conflicts in the South. This hides the huge responsibility that the North has in the generation of greenhouse gases, and legitimizes future interventions to prevent so-called climate conflicts. Therefore, it is framed as a national security issue rather than one of human security, and an issue of sovereignty rather than a global commons problem (Barnett, 2000), focusing on issues like territorial losses due to sea level rise, or climate migration (Barnett, 2001). This leads to the disregard of the domestic causes of environmental change, and to the militarisation and securitisation of climate change (Ibid.).

One of the most contested issues under the climate change and conflict literature is the creation of climate refugees (Barnett, 2001). It is true that climate change is predicted to cause displacement of populations (IPCC, 2014), but migration also depends on the coping capacity of communities, which in turn depends on the adaptation measures put in place, which are directly related to the local, national and international political economy (Hartmann, 2010). Furthermore, the causes of migration are too complex to be named only “climate refugee” (Barnett, 2001), and this label can undermine the rights and protections of traditional refugees (Hartmann, 2010). Despite its controversy, the concept of climate refugees is widely used to drive policy attention, but in turn it legitimises more strict immigration controls and depoliticizes the causes of displacement (Hartmann, 2007).

All these “crisis narratives” are indirectly justifying certain kinds of development interventions, such as the expansion of commercial agriculture and forestry (Hartmann, 2010), but most importantly, they are legitimizing the defence of the status quo (Barnett, 2001). Such narratives are a reflection of the Northern interests rather than a deep analysis of the root causes of environmental degradation (Barnett, 2000). This discourse can lead to military “stability operations” to ungoverned spaces that are more prone to suffer environmental conflicts (Hartmann, 2010), to greater border restrictions to protect the North from “waves of immigrants” (Schwartz & Randall, 2003) and, in general, protect the interests of the Western world from the Others that might undermine their stability (Barnett, 2000).

The example of the Darfur war



Picture: Darfur (Source:

One of the most used examples to illustrate climate conflicts, is the Darfur war that began in 2003, especially after the declarations of Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in 2007 (Ban, 2007). In an article in The Washington Post, he stated “Amid the diverse social and political causes, the Darfur conflict began as an ecological crisis, arising at least in part from climate change”. In this same post, it was detailed how a decline in rainfall in Southern Sudan, which reached an average decrease of 40% since 1980, correlated with a rise in temperature in the Indian Ocean, proving that this precipitation change was man-made. Then, this meteorological change was thought to affect nomad cattle herders’ livelihood, creating conflicts between them and the settled farmers, escalating into the warfare.

However, this perspective ignores the Sudanese political economy that helped create and sustain the conflict. As Hartmann (2007) argues, when the conflict started, Sudan had major inequalities in wealth and power between rural areas and cities, elites and rural population. Furthermore, the government’s agricultural policies favoured large industrialised farms and irrigated crops, over rain-fed, small farmer agriculture, leading to political grievances, land degradation and migration. The nationalisation of land in 1970 also had a significant impact that cannot be disregarded. Under the new law, customary laws were overturned, and access could only be obtained through lease agreements with the government, which led to the accumulation of land by elites and the marginalisation of pastoralists (Manger, 2005).

The mainstream perspective of the Darfur war only perpetuates the idea of a barbaric Other, in this case in Africa, that is affected by unpredictable forces of nature and that generates conflict and warfare, thus legitimating a securitization of climate change.

© Anna Pérez Català

Suggested citing:

Pérez-Català, A., 2014. Analysing the climate change – conflict relation [Online]. Available at: [accessed + date when the website was accessed].


About Anna Pérez Català

4 comments on “Analysing the climate change – conflict relation

  1. vernonhuffman
    April 30, 2014

    “…when the conflict started, Sudan had major inequalities in wealth and power between rural areas and cities, elites and rural population. Furthermore, the government’s agricultural policies favoured large industrialised farms and irrigated crops, over rain-fed, small farmer agriculture, leading to political grievances, land degradation and migration.”

    Major inequalities in wealth & policies favoring industrial farming sounds like a perfect description of the USA.

  2. Edison
    July 3, 2014

    Hmm is anyone else encountering problems with the images on this blog loading?
    I’m trying to find out if its a probblem on my ennd or if it’s the blog.
    Any responses would be greatly appreciated.

  3. Anna
    July 5, 2014

    Thank you Edison for your comment, I will try to solve the image problem right now. Thanks again!

  4. Pingback: 2003, the CIA and the Pentagon commissioned a report which they presented to President Bush, and President Bush, as an agent of the oil, coal and gas industry, buried it. The report said that in two decades, the biggest threat to peace, security and stabi

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