Climate change is the long-term modification of the Earth’s climate resulting from atmospheric changes and interactions among the atmosphere and other geological, chemical, biological, and spatial factors within the Earth’s powerful energy system. Climate scientists who collect and analyse information about our planet and climate on a global scale report an accelerating global rise in average temperature from the late 19th century to the present, nearing one degree Celsius. Leading scientists view this temperature change, accompanied by sea ice losses, sea level rises, longer, more intense heat waves and other increases in extreme weather events, as robust evidence of climate change.
West Africa is particularly vulnerable due to its high climate variability, heavy reliance on rain-fed agriculture and limited economic and institutional capacity to offset the consequent scarcity and conflict effects. This paper identifies evidence linking climate change and conflict, traces the impact on the population of the West African region, and describes a case, set in West Africa, of conflicts arising from climate change. Finally, the author proposes a model to guide stakeholder interventions intended to minimize the extent of such conflicts.
Evidence linking climate change and conflict
Formal evidence of causal links between climate change and violent conflict is mixed. The dominant view is that climate change potentially contributes to political instability and resource insecurity across the world, and thus poses a threat to peace (see Figure 1). However, critics argue there is no evidence of a direct relationship between climate change and violent conflict. They acknowledge that in some circumstances, and in association with other factors, climate change can induce or worsen conflict – for example among pastoralists and farmers competing for land and water. The circumstances cited by researchers include deteriorating livelihoods, increased migration, changes in the movement patterns of pastoralists, and opportunism by merchants of violence and the political and business elites.
The arrows in Figure 1 trace the path from climate change to conflict, while the letters mark potential opportunities for intervention. Reducing the impact of climate change on resource scarcity (A) is a task well beyond the scope of even a large individual nation. At best, nations within a region may be able to cooperate to minimize the impact of resource competition (B) on market prices, thus reducing resource and political conflicts.
Examples of institutional interventions at the resource scarcity stage include water rationing, more efficient irrigation methods; pasture management, and natural resource rejuvenation and protection. Interventions in markets, such as resource rationing (C) or price controls are often unpopular, and the resulting conflict may result in political intervention (D).
The consequences of climate change vary with the context. As climate change impacts the world’s physical landscape, it alters our geopolitical structure. For example, drought will increase competition for a diminishing amount of fertile land. Combined with other market forces, scarcity leads to price rises that generate conflict among supply and demand resources, which may result in resource and political conflict (E), especially when prices rise faster than incomes.
Rising sea levels will inevitably force coastal dwellers to migrate inland (F), further adding pressure to what are likely to be increasingly scarce land and water resources. When social and political institutions are strong, they can address these conflicts through community leaders, ombudsmen, and other dispute resolution mechanisms. When they are weak, institutional breakdown opens the door to violent conflict (G).
One 2018 Stockholm International Peace Research Institute report finds “there is context-specific evidence that climate change can have an effect on the causes and dynamics of violent conflict in the region when: (a) it leads to a deterioration in people’s livelihoods; (b) it influences the tactical considerations of armed groups; (c) elites use it to exploit social vulnerabilities and resources; and (d) it displaces people and increases levels of migration.”
Several studies find evidence of strong links between climate shocks and conflict. One reports that the risk of armed conflict increases when water is scarce. Another researcher finds that a standard deviation increase in temperature raises the risk of interpersonal conflict by 2.4 percent and intergroup conflict by 11.3 percent.
Severe drought and water variability owing to climate change are found to cause conflict among farmers and pastoralists in several African countries. Across Africa, researchers report a strong linear relationship between temperature and civil war, with a 1 degree Celsius increase raising the risk of civil war by 4.5 percent within a one year span.
Hsiang et al. contend that El Niño events bring hotter and drier weather and therefore serve as a model of future climate change. Examining the tropics between 1950 and 2001, they found that civil conflicts were twice as likely to commence in El Niño years as in cooler, wetter La Niña years. They estimate that El Niño may have contributed to 21 percent of civil conflicts during this period.
Other research links the recent conflict in Darfur to climate change, exacerbating pre-existing tensions between farming villagers and pastoralists as rainfall and vegetation declined, and suggests that the government exploited these tensions to foment conflict and bolster its support among specific ethnic groups it favoured. This conflict was marked by violence directed at civilians, with reports of poisoned wells.
A recent study, authoritative in light of the pedigree of its unprecedented number of authors for a scholarly article, concludes that “climate has affected organized armed conflict within countries” and “intensifying climate change is estimated to increase future risks of conflict.” Consistent with other findings, the authors also conclude that low socioeconomic development, intergroup inequality, and weak states worsen already difficult situations.
The research cited above links the environmental impacts of climate change to their impacts on people, identifies the knock-on effects of climate change on the population, and identifies the propensity for these effects to act as sources of stress that may lead to conflict, especially where institutional weaknesses come into play.
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