17 May 2018

Climate change: A source of conflicts or a catalyzer for them?

Can climate change be the source of conflicts or is it merely one among several catalyzers that worsen the pre-existing condition on the ground in some cases? And how can we avoid climate change mitigation and adaptation policies not to become a new source of tensions between groups in society?

Despite climate change having been widely acknowledged as a threat multiplier especially in fragile areas suffering from ongoing conflicts and inefficient governance, the debates among scientists on whether or not climate change caused, or at least contributed to the war in Syria, makes it difficult to develop an evidence-based policy response that tackles the cause of conflict. Perhaps even more difficult for climate researchers is to acknowledge that interventions may also be a cause or aggravate conflict.

A new publication by the UK-based Grantham Institute unravels the scientific contestation regarding the (causal) relationship between climate change and conflict. It points to the divergence among the natural and social sciences and across different sectors, which results in highly fragmented and contested evidence linking climate change, low carbon transition and conflicts. A lack of mutual understanding creates challenges for policymakers and practitioners to articulate responses and actions that are inclusive and sensitive to environmental adaption and conflicts. 

In general social scientists are more open to qualitative case study research, whereas natural scientists prefer quantitative data approaches. However, there is more to it with also political scientists increasingly using quantitative research methods and some natural scientists sometimes overemphasising the contribution of natural phenomena bringing in a bias in their research. There is also a difference between those looking at hard or (inter)national security focused on conflict risk caused by climate change and those looking at the impacts on human security.

Those interested in national security, generally assume an imminent risk of national and international security threats as a result of climate change. They tend to promote quantitative studies and statistical models that promote correlation between climate and security factors. This has been effective in compelling policymakers to take the climate-security relationship seriously. The national security approach, because of its ability to mobilise resources and political attention, has been most compelling, but its findings have also been most politicised and contested.

The human security approach argues that the national security perspective is too deterministic about the relationship between climate change and security resulting in an inadequate approach and/or misguided responses. It emphasises that change occurs in a political and socio-economic context. Therefore, they tend to focus in on historical, small or medium-scale case studies, which provide a significant amount of contextual detail but are criticised for failing to link to the wider national/regional context. A focus on national security would hardly allow to address the root causes of several climate-related security risks especially those that develop on a long-term scale or are not inherently linked to immediate risks such as livelihood deprivation.

Nevertheless, a path might be developed to bring a more holistic approach to between the two fields. Indeed, an openness exists under the auspices of the concept of vulnerability that could develop an integrated understanding of the relationship between climate change and insecurity.[1] Adding a vulnerability aspect into low-carbon development planning and implementation can promote peacebuilding and transition/adaptation to environmental change. Since low-carbon transitions have complex social and technical considerations they tend to be cross-sectoral in nature. A wide panorama of multi-faceted factors must be understood and accounted for, in order to promote peace. In practice, the integration of legal mechanisms and international norms aimed at protecting vulnerable citizens must account for local contexts and power dynamics of marginalisation to offer efficient and equitable low-carbon development.

Consequently, this study recommends pathway for government official and researchers to promote more sensitive approaches:

  • Engage in ongoing multilateral processes that aim to build government capacity on the relationship between climate and security (such as the Planetary Security Initiative).
  • Promote an institutional home for Climate-Security at the United Nations.
  • Support multidisciplinary collaborations among civil servants, researchers and civil society.
  • Plan ahead by broadening the research on security risks around climate change and low-carbon development to areas beyond those that have recently suffered from conflict.
  • Be more proactive in crossing academic silos by applying for joint funds or projects that would allow bridging disciplines.
  • Develop multi-disciplinary, grounded, research projects on the security impacts of LCD – producing outputs which are relevant to policymakers and practitioners.

Sawas, A., Workman, M., and Mirumachi, N. 2018. Climate change, low-carbon transitions and security. London. Imperial College London: Grantham Institute.


[1]“Vulnerability is defined as the susceptibility to suffer damage from environmental, political and socioeconomic hazards or extremes, and the ability to recover. “