- Claims that climate change has led to human conflicts remain a matter more of belief than fact.
- Even the more plausible claim that water shortages due to lack of rainfall is a contributing factor to conflict remains both hypothetical and disputed.
- It is far more likely that conflict and war cause drought than the other way around.
Similar to their claims about poverty, many climate policy advocates argue that conflict is driven by climate change. But again, the data pertaining to this hypothesis does not show it to have a solid basis in reality.
Data shows that the world entered a much more peaceful phase at the end of the 1980s – when the Soviet Union collapsed and geopolitical tensions eased. Though some conflict did make the 2010s more violent than the previous decade, and hostilities are now rising again between East and West, sparked by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, there exists no valid climate related explanation for this, or the relative peace that preceded it, in climate change. Globally, there is a clear trend towards less conflict.
Nonetheless, climate researchers have devoted much time, energy and money to finding a link between individual conflicts and global warming. And some of these historical claims have been extraordinary. In 2004, The Observer/Guardian newspaper published a leaked ‘secret report’ from the Pentagon, which claimed that by 2020, ‘Nuclear conflict, mega-droughts, famine and widespread rioting will erupt across the world‘. According to the logic of these claims, countries would ‘develop a nuclear threat to defend and secure dwindling food, water and energy supplies’.
The link between climate change and conflict drives many public statements and security policymaking. But it remains more a matter of belief than fact according to the IPCC, which states in AR6 WGII that, ‘Violent conflict […] in the near-term [to 2040] will be driven by socio-economic conditions and governance more than by climate change’, and that ‘Compared to other socioeconomic factors the influence of climate on conflict is assessed as relatively weak (high confidence)’ adding that if the world continues the historical trend towards peace, ‘Along long-term socioeconomic pathways that reduce non-climatic drivers, risk of violent conflict would decline’, but that ‘higher global warming levels […] will increasingly affect violent intrastate conflict’.
But that caveat remains hypothetical. A somewhat more plausible claim argues that climate change may increase tensions around water to the extent that it might produce changes in rainfall. The IPCC reports ‘reduction of water availability due to climate change as having the potential to exacerbate tensions […] especially in regions and within groups dependent on agriculture for food production’, and attributes high confidence to the claim. However, the civil conflicts in Syria, which has become the go-to example to illustrate the issue in the news media and activist literature, are clouded by uncertainty. The civil conflict seemed to follow drought. But, points out the IPCC, ‘whether drought caused civil unrest in Syria remains highly debated’, and that ‘there is no consensus on the causal association between observed climate changes and conflict’.
This is not to split hairs. The green argument is profoundly misleading. Conflicts arise within and between states for many complex reasons. In the case of Syria, for example, a population is unable to hold the government – a dictatorship – to account through democratic means, such that it is forced to respond to needs such as water management problems. Moreover, the civil war in the country began as a spill over from the excesses of the War on Terror, chiefly in Iraq and Afghanistan, but which created power vacuums throughout the wider region, and the Western backing of seemingly moderate rebels in Syria, resulting in the creation of ISIS. Ideologies, long histories of warlordism, dictatorship, western foreign policy, and geopolitics are far more important factors in the descent to war than rainfall patterns.
Furthermore two recent studies looking into the possibility of climate being a significant contributing factor to the Syrian conflict, whilst not unsympathetic to the possibility, nevertheless fairly clearly find no such cause. One argues that ‘Societal drought vulnerability and the Syrian climate-conflict nexus are better explained by agriculture than meteorology’ not least because this is the title of the paper. The other even more emphatically finds:
is there clear and reliable evidence that climate change-related drought in Syria was a contributory factor in the onset of the country’s civil war?; and, if and where yes, was it as significant a contributory factor as is claimed in the existing academic and expert literature? On each step of the claimed causal chain, our answers are no. We find that there is no clear and reliable evidence that anthropogenic climate change was a factor in northeast Syria’s 2006/07–2008/09 drought; we find that, while the 2006/07–2008/09 drought in northeast Syria will have contributed to migration, this migration was not on the scale claimed in the existing literature, and was, in all probability, more caused by economic liberalisation than drought; and we find that there is no clear and reliable evidence that drought-related migration was a contributory factor in civil war onset. In our assessment, there is thus no good evidence to conclude that global climate change-related drought in Syria was a contributory causal factor in the country’s civil war.
And again, it seems almost callous to ask if slightly different rainfall patterns, in a historically drought-prone region is a factor in brutal civil conflicts, as if the other factors, such as a violent religious ideology, were incidental. Rather than drought producing conflict, it seems much more plausible that conflict produces drought, since democratic governments in arid regions are able to manage limited water resources. And this, too, raises the question of the intention of attempts to link conflict to climate, in particular leading to the claim that a world that has solved the climate ‘crisis’ will have solved the problem of conflict. How? At best, the claim is mystical. But it is more likely a glib lie.