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Climate Change: A Catalyst for Conflict?

Climate change has undoubtedly become a global concern in the 21st century. Multilateral efforts, such as the annual United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) Conference of the Parties event where nations gather to discuss ways to address climate and assess progress, attests to some of the efforts being implemented to manage the impacts of climate change.

Despite these efforts, many climate activists and environmentalists such as Bill McKibben and Greta Thunberg feel that current efforts are insufficient. The concern for climate change is also met by apathy, contempt and even disbelief from others. As the world battles over appropriate measures to address this concern, the consequences of climate change are manifesting in various ways—declining water sources in some regions in Central Asia, the melting Arctic Ocean, rising sea levels in the Pacific and tensions over fisheries in China.

A main concern linked to climate change is the risk of conflict. While the impact of climate change varies in different regions, it has been noted that climate change seems to increasingly have some degree of influence on violence and conflict. Climatic change may alter the world’s physical landscape and this changes the world’s political landscape. For example, extreme change in weather patterns is causing population displacement in areas such as the Horn of Africa. As different groups move within the region, this risks instability and opportunity for extremist groups. There may be local tensions over resources that can spread to other regions.

Lake Chad, a freshwater lake in west-central Africa which sustained roughly 20 million people, is a prime example of the severe impact of climate change. Due to climate change and a high demand for agricultural water, Lake Chad contracted immensely by 95% between 1963 and 2001 and became an oasis turned into a desert. Conflict in northeastern Nigeria, near Lake Chad, has been linked to climate change and even crossed into the bordering country of Cameroon.

The Islamist militant, Boko Haram, group has been known to fight authorities in the region and terrorize the civilian population. In March 2017, the United Nations Security Council passed a resolution which recognised the security crisis and humanitarian emergency resulting from the violence by terrorist groups Boko Haram and the Islamic State in the region. The resolution also recognised the “adverse effects of climate change and ecological changes among other factors on the stability of the Region, including through water scarcity, drought, desertification, land degradation, and food insecurity”.

In addition to that, there have been cases of water weaponization, the controlling of water sources for political motives in conflict settings. In 2011, for example, the jihadist group, Al-Shabaab, cut off cities from their water supply in in Somalia to demonstrate their power. At the time, Somalia was facing a severe drought that would go on to kill roughly 260 000 people.

Climate change is expected to continuously create stress on natural resources such as water and agricultural production in the future. This may negatively affect government capacity to meet the needs of their citizens in areas such as energy and food security. It could also lead to dissatisfaction among the local population which can evolve into civil unrest and conflict.

While the link between climate change and conflict is not clear in some cases, it worsens fragile situations in conflict-ridden regions. In the Horn of Africa, coastal cities such as Mombasa in Kenya and Mogadishu in Somalia may be vulnerable to a rise in sea level that could reduce arable land and contaminate freshwater supplies. There are also concerns that this may lead to an increase in piracy off the coast in the Gulf of Aden. Changing ocean temperatures and ocean acidification may be causing the depletion of fish stocks or their migration to other regions. Consequently, vessels may trespass on neighbouring waters, leading to a potential for conflict over the fish resources.

Despite its impact on resources, there is a lack of concrete evidence that climate change is a direct and linear cause of conflict and violence. The extent of influence of climate change on conflict and violence is a constant question as other factors such as corruption, bad governance and ethnic tensions are more prevalent in conflicts. Most conflicts are started by economic and political tensions. In some cases, a reduction in natural resources may even lead to increased peaceful cooperation among different groups to share the resources.

Consequently, climate change is described as a ”threat multiplier”. This means that it may create instability and humanitarian disaster. Under certain circumstances it can fuel conflict in areas where there are tensions over resources being shared by different groups. It affects the livelihoods of populations, creating vulnerable households. This can be worsened by other factors such as tribalism and an absence of a legitimate governing authority.

What makes it difficult to manage the risks of climate change is the uncertainty and unpredictability. Using higher temperatures and drought predictions to measure the possible impact in the future is difficult. However, continuing to monitor trends is important for climate change adaptation— an adjustment in response to expected climatic change effects. Continued efforts to reduce carbon emission and protecting natural resources are still important. The failure to minimise the impacts of climate change will worsen violence and conflict and hinder conflict prevention efforts.


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