October 4, 2016

TSG IntelBrief: A Global Climate of Conflict

• While the causes and remedies of climate change remain locked in political stasis, the real life impacts of climate change are exacerbating current global conflicts.

• In countries such as Yemen, Iraq, and Syria, unprecedented drought is compounding already deplorable conditions of unfettered war.

• Persistent drought, sudden floods, and other abnormal environmental phenomena weaken societal resilience and facilitate the rise of the many drivers of conflict.

• The speed with which the planet is warming has significant ramifications for both near and long-term global security and stability.


Though a complex variety of factors contribute to the persistence of the world’s current conflicts, accelerating climate change has significantly exacerbated all of them. The ongoing Syrian civil war had many ignition points, but the country’s worst drought in almost a thousand years certainly made matters far worse. Politicized arguments over the causes of climate change have been notoriously unproductive, and such arguments have obscured the impact on the ground of persistent environmental stressors—such as severe drought—in war-torn countries like Syria, Iraq, and Yemen. While the global climate has always changed, never before has it changed so rapidly. Further complicating matters, accelerating climate change has forced the world’s 7 billion people to become increasingly dependent on vulnerable infrastructure and resources.

If current trends hold, within about a decade, Yemen’s capital city of Sana’a could be the first world capital to run out of water. Such an event would be a disaster and an enormous challenge in the most prosperous of countries; Yemen—a country that has been torn apart in a vicious civil war—has no ability to proactively address this eventuality, nor mitigate the dire consequences should it occur. Due to the entrenchment of extremist groups such as al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), as well as a nascent Islamic State presence, Yemen already faces a highly uncertain future. With severe droughts that are predicted to worsen, interspersed with infrequent but devastating storms and floods, the situation in Yemen will only get worse.

While the U.S. Navy worries about the effect of rising sea levels on bases such as Norfolk, VA, countries such as Bangladesh are exceedingly vulnerable to catastrophic flooding and storm surges up the Bay of Bengal. While the populations of India and Bangladesh—which suffer from high levels of poverty—have proven relatively resistant to widespread extremism, the long-term impacts of flooding and unpredictable monsoonal rains will test the resiliency of such countries already struggling to meet the needs of their people.

Lost in the rhetoric and arguments over climate change is that the speed of change exceeds most policy plans and remedies. In September 2016, the level of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere reached 400 parts per million (ppm)—during a month that should have experienced the lowest levels of the year. As noted in a recent article in the Christian Science Monitor, scientists have stressed that it took millions of years for the planet to previously reach a level of 400 ppm CO2 in the past, and millions of years to get back to 280 ppm just before the Industrial Revolution. It has only taken 200 years for levels to rise back up to 400 ppm. Unlike the last time the world experienced such CO2 levels, the Earth now has a human population, which has a massive dependency on fuel, air conditioning, water, and other resources that are exceedingly vulnerable to the effects of rapid climate change. 

As the international community struggles to resolve persistent conflicts in places such as SyriaIraq, Sudan, AfghanistanNigeria, and elsewhere, droughts, record high temperatures, and unpredictable flooding expands the vulnerability of all countries experiencing conflict or instability. Currently, the countries that are most adversely affected by accelerating climate change are those least able to respond effectively, adding unbearable stress to societies already in danger of collapse. If trends continue, these negative impacts will expand, with further ramifications for global stability.


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