Climate change and conflict: respecting complexity

The climate deal won’t happen at Copenhagen in December. The work will continue. And as more people become aware of and motivated by the links between climate change on the one hand and conflict, peace and security on the other, both the possibility and the necessity of clarity about those links increase. It is an area of discussion where making an extra effort of care and precision is justified.

The risks of imprecision

There are three basic issues at stake in the need for this precision. They all hinge round the precarious state of debate on climate change at present. Denying the reality of climate change so far and its likelihood into the future has become an article of faith for some very vocal people. Putting up arguments that are difficult to sustain is an unwise strategy.

The particular risks in the security, conflict and peace dimension of the issue seem to me to be:

  • First, security fears can mobilise people but apocalyptic scenarios demobilise, especially when on closer examination they turn out not to justified by the evidence.
  • Second, treating the conflict and security issues as if they will produce direct threats from one country against another, or even one group against another, which is the language of military security will distort the debate and the policy response; at worst, the response will be militarised, inappropriate and wasteful.
  • And third, basing the argument on an over-simplified linkage could generate policies that miss their targets in other ways and simply lead to confusion and uncertainty about what the problem is and why anyone should care.

No simple cause-and-effect

There is little point in even trying to base policy on a straightforward cause-and-effect relationship between climate change and violent conflict or political instability. To begin with, there is a striking lack of research findings on the topic. What there is does not offer robust conclusions. Nor are there reliable findings about parallel linkages between conflict and other environmental changes (such as deforestation or deteriorating freshwater supply) that could be used to make a proxy argument about climate change.

And there are some good reasons for this lack of a ready made body of research findings, reasons that taken together tell us not to put much energy into looking for a neat cause-and-effect explanation.

  • First, the evidence base is necessarily weak; there has been too little time since the effects of climate change began to make themselves felt for adequate research data to have accumulated of the kind needed for large-scale quantitative studies that can reliably depict trends. It seems likely that there will always be methodological difficulties in completing such studies because, at present, the state of knowledge in the natural sciences does not let us attribute a specific event such as a hurricane or typhoon to climate change. Trends in frequency and intensity of natural events will form a relatively soft foundation in a potential database on conflict and climate. Similarly, the slow onset changes in climate such as changes in growing seasons and more extensive droughts do not easily lend themselves to use in a large scale quantitative study.
  • Second, given these problems in constructing large scale studies of trends over time, there is a case for turning instead to case studies. These, however, while individually suggestive, do not offer much by way of establishing causal connections except against a reasonably well established quantitative background, which brings us back to the first problem.
  • Third and, in my view, most importantly, causality is always complex. Normally, armed conflicts not only have several different causes but several different types of causes. These are often conflated, obliterating the differences between background or root causes (e.g., regional poverty and a history of discrimination), the aims of the conflict parties (e.g., secession or national power), the immediate trigger (e.g., the assassination of a respected leader of a minority group or increased world food prices), and influences on how the conflict is fought out (e.g., ‘blood diamonds’ or other illicit trade, or the role of the UN or regional powers). The fact is that simple cause-and-effect is rarely if ever enough to explain the genesis of violent conflict.

Faced with all of this, the very sparse research literature on the theme contains some that happily declares that no link can be proven, earning approving reference from climate change sceptics. But the fact that no link can be proven is not the same as saying none exists. And the real limitation of positivist social science approaches is that, bound by evidence, they necessarily work by reflection on the past – whereas the key point to understand about climate change is that the future will be different from the past.

The complex causes of Darfur

The tragedy in Darfur during this decade has often been attributed to climate change. In fact, the conflict and the scale of the tragedy exemplify the complexity of causation and the importance of understanding how different factors interact and jointly lead to conflict.

Satisfactorily explaining the violence in Darfur necessitates reference to a wide range of factors including historical grievance, local perceptions of racial difference, group power dynamics in the region, the proliferation of small arms in the context of long-lasting civil war in Sudan, the weakness of state institutions and the arbitrary way in which power is taken, held and wielded, and decades of disputes and violent conflicts between pastoralists (herders) and agriculturalists (settled farmers) over access to and control of fertile land fresh water. An analytical narrative must also include the impact of 20 years of drought, placing this alongside the political and economic marginalisation of the area. Such an analysis needs to explain how these factors interacted to destroy so many lives and cause so much misery.

Interaction and risk

In short, what is necessary in order to understand the conflict dimension of climate change is to understand how the pressures of climate change interact with other features of a country’s social, economic and political landscape to increase conflict risk. Absent climate change, those other features of the national landscape also generate risk of violent conflict and could lead its eruption; climate change makes a bad problem worse.

The uncomfortable fact is that many countries – especially in Africa but also in other regions – are already at the brink of failure in the fulfilment of basic needs such as food, water, shelter and, above all, peace and stability. Climate change will generate pressures on already weak systems of government and perhaps push them over the edge. The pressures will be transmitted via linking mechanisms such as harvest failures and food insecurity, depletion of fresh water supplies, migration from non-viable areas to locales that are barely viable. These pressures will produce conflict and a state whose capacity is weak and whose authority is arbitrary will be unable to contain those conflicts except through coercion, likely generating a responding violence and leading to sharp conflict escalation.

This scenario is not inevitable in any one place but is, rather, a generic risk across the board of fragile and conflict-affected states.


Faced with a problem based on risk and interaction of different factors, the appropriate policy response is risk management by addressing the inter-linkages. The issue in Nepal, for example, is not floods alone, but floods and the difficulty the government has in generating an adequate level of preparedness for and resilience against the impact of predictable flooding. The response is not only to put improved flood preparations in place but to develop greater capacity in government and greater trust between government and governed – between the authorities and the people. And Nepal is not unique in this regard.

Even more when we look at issues such as migration from areas made non-viable by climate change, the response cannot be developed in purely technical terms. There is an enormous task of information dissemination, sensitive awareness raising about shared problems, exploration of what problems could be generated if migrants move into a given area, and an imaginative search for creative solutions to problems that the discussion identifies.

Adaptation to climate change is always social; sometimes climate change generates a need for social adaptation to a new and largely social development, such as migration, but potentially also others such as the need to learn new skills for new types of farming or altogether new skills.


The further issue to be considered here is that this response cannot be up to the task if it is centrally generated, dictated and owned – and far less if it is generated, dictated and owned by an international body. Adaptation to climate change will be local or it will not happen.

It is at local level – in villages, towns, provinces, neighbourhoods – that the interaction of the different risk factors will be addressed. It is there, locally owned, that effective interventions will be made to break the perilous linkages. Of course, that local action must also be coordinated within a national framework of policy and it will often need to be internationally supported with money, hardware, skills and knowledge.

Local action, coordinated by national policy, internationally resourced as necessary.

2 thoughts on “Climate change and conflict: respecting complexity

  1. In light of your main thrust about the need to respect complexity, I’d be interested in hearing more about your views on the relationship between, local, national, regional and international. You’ve framed it as ‘local action, co-ordinated by national policy, internationally resourced as necessary’, which takes a statist, government-led approach.
    What happens when the national policy has no room for local (as in fragile states)? And how can international policy facilitate local action without being interventionalist? What can we really agree at international level that will be sufficient to address this complexity?

    Even if we get the necessary climate funding through international agreement at Copenhagen, there is still the challenge of distributing that funding in an equitable, fair and timely manner, so it remains just one piece of the puzzle.

    In your Nepalese floods example, you highlight the difficulty that the government has in generating preparedness; and your solution is to develop greater capacity and build trust. Granted, this is a major part of the solution, but what about the role of other actors in increasing resilience? If we need to respect complexity, then our responses must also be complex and integrate non-government agents (e.g. private sector, or indeed international NGOs based in Stockwell 🙂 ) .

    What are the risks of and for non-government actors? How do you ensure coherence? How do you stimulate constructive non-government action?

    Sorry, a bit of a train-of-thought response and a barrage of questions – feel free to pick-and-mix in response!

  2. A barrage of questions but a good barrage! The key question is, OK we need local action to be coordinated by national policy and internationally resourced as necessary, but what happens if national policy isn’t effective and/or denies the legitimacy of local action and tries to block it?

    If there is no way of compensating for the inadequacy of national-level action the answer to the ‘what happens’ question is that people will will suffer more than they otherwise need to and in all probablility there will be increasing risk of violent conflict, presaging a further increase in human suffering.

    So the question then becomes, how might it be possible to compensate for lack of proper action at the national level? NGOs (both local and international), private companies and inter-governmental organisations at both regional level (such as ASEAN in Southeast Asia, ECOWAS in West Africa) and global (primarily the UN) are the potential sources for both filling in where the national state’s action is inadequate and nudging the state to be more effective. The work that is required of this triangle of actors (inter-governmental, private sector and voluntary sector) is a combination of implementation, training, funding and advocacy. Each has a different role to play and the combination will pan out differently in different contexts.

    Rather than go into detail at this point let me underline the key point: there are alternatives if the state cannot or will not step up. Even in fragile, war-torn states, there is something that can be done. Only in the most extreme circumstances – such as Iraq, though not all of it and not for the whole time since the occupation began, and Afghanistan, though again only in parts – is action for adaptation so dangerous as to be wholly impossible.

    And as long as there an authentic invitation to international actors to support local action, and as long as the outsiders do act in support and not in substitution of the local actors, then I do not think the spectre of coercive intervention raises its head.

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