July 20, 2023

IntelBrief: Are We Entering an Era of Climate-Related Conflict?

AP Photo/Eric Gay

Bottom Line Up Front

  • Several shattered heat records last month serve as a reminder of how climate change will contribute to increased international strife and conflict.
  • Droughts, floods, and other extreme weather events will increase competition over dwindling natural resources while making significant portions of the Earth uninhabitable.
  • Boko Haram’s expansion in the Lake Chad region offers a case study of how drought can create opportunities for terrorists and non-state armed groups.
  • In the years ahead, climate migrants fleeing both within and beyond their borders could create more of the political pressure that has given rise to nationalist ideologues and far-right political parties in recent years.

Broadly speaking, extreme climate change is manifesting in different ways around the world – from scorching heatwaves, raging wildfires, and droughts to massive flooding, rising ocean temperatures, and melting polar ice caps. In a preview of what is to come, a European Union climate change data program found last month to be the hottest June on record. That same month saw single-day global temperature records broken twice in two consecutive days, according to global climate agencies. All of this is projected to give rise to climate-induced migration and both inter-state and intra-state conflict over dwindling natural resources.

In its most pessimistic scenario, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change – a UN climate science body – assessed that ten percent of global crop and livestock areas could become unusable by 2050 due to climate change, noting these impacts will be “particularly acute and severe for people living in sub-Saharan Africa, Asia, small island [nations], Central and South America and the Arctic and small-scale food producers globally.” A 2018 World Bank report found that in three regions which host more than half the global population – Sub-Saharan Africa, Asia, and Latin America – unchecked climate change could cause 143 million people to migrate within their own countries by 2050. The majority of those migrants are projected to be in Sub-Saharan Africa. In many cases, this could lead to increased urbanization as small-scale farmers abandon their non-viable rural agriculture plots. This could be a further driver of instability, as many of these regions are projected to host a far greater share of the global working-age population by 2050, yet their economic prospects could be strongly undermined by climate change. Historically, the combination of a high prevalence military aged males and high unemployment has not been a good indicator for local peace and stability.

While under one percent of the Earth’s surface is currently uninhabitable due to extreme heat – most of it in Africa’s Sahara Desert – that number could reach up to one-fifth of all land on Earth by 2070, according to a 2020 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The areas expected to be most prominently affected by this change are sub-Saharan Africa, Central America, the Middle East, South and Southeast Asia, and northern Australia. Beyond the immediate impacts on these areas that could become unsuitable for human life, rising temperatures will also likely have serious implications for neighboring countries, as migrants fleeing unlivable home states seek food, water, shelter, and employment. Beyond containing government resource allocations, it is easy to imagine that this will also exacerbate xenophobia, populism, and political tensions driven by anti-immigrant sentiments. While this has been a well-documented phenomenon in many European nations as well as the United States, it has also occurred in parts of the Global South, observed in North African countries like Tunisia. Either as a result of or to prevent such a far-right domestic political surge, some countries may harden their border policies to restrict climate-based migrants from entering.

Even today, the tragic and often deadly cost of these restrictive border policies are readily apparent. In Mexican border towns, Central American immigrants with asylum claims pending in the United States languish and make easy prey for cartels and criminal organizations. Meanwhile, some 500 people are feared dead after a ship sank on its route from Libya to Italy last month, where evidence continues to mount that calls into question whether the Greek Coast Guard could have done more to prevent the tragedy. On the other hand, more accommodating policies in places like Germany following the Syrian Civil War have created fertile ground for anti-immigrant narratives issued both by domestic political parties as well as foreign adversaries using disinformation to undermine liberal, inclusive societies.

Already a hotbed for terrorist activity and political instability, the Sahel region has experienced several climate-related incidents resulting in mass casualties and displacement. This is at least in part due to the fact that the population is agriculture-dependent and, therefore, highly susceptible to deteriorating weather and environmental conditions. A single water dispute between a cattle-raising community and a group of fishermen in Cameroon in December 2021 reportedly led to over 150 deaths and 30 thousand people displaced into neighboring Chad. As water availability per capita in the Sahel decreases by up to 77 percent by 2080 compared to its availability circa-2000, “violence is expected to continuously erupt across the region unless …. resilience to climate change is strengthened,” according to August 2022 report by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and the UN Office of the Special Coordinator for Development in the Sahel. Recent fighting between Iranian and Taliban forces along the countries’ borders over water reserves also demonstrates how drought can foster interstate conflict.

Where climate change threatens the lives and livelihoods of many, some armed groups and states see an opportunity. The shrinking of Lake Chad, for instance, has offered Boko Haram a growing staging area for its operations, according to a 2020 report by the U.S. Marine Corps University.  And several northern nations – including the United States and Russia – hope to take advantage of rising temperatures by capturing newly available land, sea lanes, and mineral resources that will be exposed by melting Arctic ice caps. Nonetheless, the obvious threat here is clear: governments that fail to meet the essential needs of their populations – particularly those that fail due to corrupt practices or other internal shortcomings – also risk losing the political ground war to insurgent groups more capable of managing and serving their local communities.