Climate Change and Conflict by Olivier Rubin, NIAS

7. Dec 2009

In 2007, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and Al Gore received the Nobel Peace Prize. The Nobel Prize Committee noted that their work could ‘contribute to a sharper focus on the processes and decisions that appear to be necessary to protect the world’s future climate, and thereby to reduce the threat to the security of mankind.’ Yet, in spite of this prestigious award, surprisingly little academic evidence has been produced within IPPC or elsewhere that point to a strong link between climate change and conflict. In fact, most peer-reviewed studies based on statistical cross-country analysis find no robust link between climatic factors and conflict.

The limited empirical support can be ascribed the fact that effects of climate change work through a complex web of multiple and often interrelated channels, some of which have not yet received enough academic scrutiny. Whereas the effects of climate change are local, dynamic, and multidimensional, the existing studies rely strongly on aggregate-level effects of environmental scarcity on conflict.

One of the few ‘iron laws’ of the Social Sciences is that a situation of change, regardless of whether the shock is climatic or political, is conducive to conflict. Change produces winners and losers, and it introduces opportunities to mobilize groups to contest existing social orders. Thus, what should matters from a conflict perspective is not necessarily the many adverse consequences of climate change (rising sea levels, environmental scarcities, vector-borne diseases, and melting glaciers) but rather the fact that change entails a phase of transition; a phase of increased transaction costs; and a phase of shifting power-relations. Therefore, instead of stressing the adverse impacts of climate change, one should place more emphasis on these broader political economy issues. In order to avoid underestimating the impact of climate change on conflict, I would suggest an increased emphasizes on

–        Disaggregation. The lack of strong, unequivocal findings in many studies linking climate change with conflict is the use of country-level data, which do not reflect the fact that both environmental degradation and conflict often take place locally; the most common type of violent conflict, internal conflict, usually engulfs a few provinces or municipalities rather than entire states.


–        Dynamics. The change in key variables might be more important than a stable state of deprivation. Deprivation itself seldom produces strong grievances, but where people perceive a gap between the situation they believe they deserve and the situation they have actually achieved, they are more likely to feel aggrieved. Increasing scarcity is therefore more dangerous than a situation of chronic scarcity; and fluctuating scarcity patterns that upset existing power relations could be even more conducive to conflict. For example, studies indicate that transient poverty is a stronger determinant of war and conflict than is chronic poverty. This is important because global warming changes environmental variables and increases their variability-which in turn causes power relations to shift and perceptions of fairness and envy to be recalibrated according to the new situation.

–        Opportunities. Future impacts of global warming on conflicts are likely to be triggered as much by changes in opportunities as by scarcities and grievances. Some of the most elaborate cross-country studies of conflict conclude that proxies for greed (or opportunity) all do well at explaining conflict, while most proxies for grievances turn out to be less significant. For instance, the studies have shown that having a dispersed population, or having a mountainous terrain, appear to increase the risk of conflict, since these two factors work to the advantage of rebel groups that are capable of operating beyond the government’s reach. The effects of climate change could mimic these variables by undermining state logistics, making the terrain impassable, or dispersing vulnerable populations.

–        Cumulative effects. Most studies have only focused on one or two dimensions of climate change, and historical data have not yet been able to mimic the cumulative consequences of simultaneous changes on several environmental fronts: ecological scarcity, rising sea levels, more floods, extreme climate, environmental migration, use of climate change to mobilize groups for conflict, and so forth. Large exogenous shocks to society (in the form of large-scale reforms or financial instability) appear to perpetuate conflict, and cumulative, coinciding shocks from climate change might do the same.

–        Political mobilization. Existing studies do not address the fact that the perception of the explanatory variable, climate change, has developed. Natural hazards that used to be blamed on nature are now increasingly blamed on humankind. Today, the blame for drought and flooding can, at least in part, be placed at the doorsteps of the social groups and societies emitting greenhouse gases. This is an important difference considering the vital aspect of mobilization. It is difficult to mobilize against Mother Nature-and easier to mobilize against someone who can be held accountable for the disasters. Droughts and famines are increasingly blamed on the effects of global warming by governments eager to avoid being held culpable. Climate change could thus broaden the cleavage between the poor (who bear the brunt of the adverse consequences of climate change) and the wealthy (who are mainly responsible for global warming) locally, nationally, and globally. This could lay the grounds for climate change to be used politically as a tool for conflictual mobilization. Thus, rather than arguing that environmental factors might have causal impacts on the risk of conflict, it might be fruitful to look at climate change as a potential tool for mobilization-in much the same way that other major societal transformations (political reforms, financial crises, etc.) might mobilize different groups for violent purposes.  Studies using historical data fail to fully capture this vital perceptional change in the explanatory variable. 

The impact of climate change on conflict is likely to be indirect, weak, and strongly dependent on the country-specific political economy context. Thus, instead of mainly continuing down the path of seeking to determine the impact of environmental scarcities on violent conflict, one should turn to more context-specific studies capable of encompassing dimensions of political mobilization and the multiple channels through which climate change impacts different social groups. Area-Studies Institutes, such as NIAS, have a unique advantage in being able to conduct this type of context-specific research that is both multidimensional and disaggregated.

The content of this blog was based on a forthcoming article in Social Development Issues (Lyceum Books) entitled ‘Social perspective on the symbiotic relationship between climate change and conflict’ by Olivier Rubin.