Today’s big question

Will climate change lead to war?

Environmental disruption can ‘load the dice’ and increase risk of conflict, experts warn

Cop26 comes to a close tomorrow, bringing to an end many weeks of warnings for the planet on the repercussions of climate change.

The diplomatic meetings held in Glasgow over the past 11 days have been touted as some of the most important in human history. Inside and outside of the SEC Centre there have been calls for climate justice for the communities on the frontlines of extreme environmental harm.

Others have also warned of the impact on stability for nations around the world. 

Ahead of the summit, the UN’s top climate official said a failure to tackle greenhouse gas emissions could lead to migration crises and food shortages bringing conflict and chaos, reported The Observer

Patricia Espinosa said a “catastrophic” climate scenario would “provoke very serious problems” for populations across the world. “It would mean less food, so probably a crisis in food security. It would leave a lot more people vulnerable to terrible situations, terrorist groups and violent groups. It would mean a lot of sources of instability,” she said.

Espinosa’s warnings, described as “unusually strong” by The Observer, point to the severity of what is at stake for human populations’ safety as temperatures rise.

A 2015 research paper by American academics at Stanford and California universities found that a temperature increase of 1C results in an 11.3% rise in conflict, such as riots and civil war, between different groups. At this level of warming, a 2.4% increase is also seen in the level of interpersonal crimes, such as abuse or even murder.

Despite “the lack of a single, simple causal pathway linking climate and conflict”, the researchers concluded that to ignore the “causal relationship” between the two would be “a dangerously misguided interpretation of the inevitable evidence”.

However, multiple studies have since concluded that no single trigger can be identified as the root cause of climate conflict because the former does “not directly” result in the latter, explained the International Growth Centre’s head of communications Emilie Yam earlier this year. 

Changes in climate are rather “threat multipliers”, meaning sudden or severe changes in temperature or rainfall, for example, can exacerbate the vulnerability of certain communities or countries to further dangers. As a result, extreme weather events can “intensify existing conflict patterns” that threaten livelihoods, health and personal safety, in some cases leading to violent clashes over access to resources or services. 

Climate change is perhaps best thought of as “loading the dice”, said The Washington Post, “making conflict more likely to occur in subtle ways across a host of different country contexts”. 

Communities in conflict zones are also “less able to cope” with climate crises, making them among the most vulnerable to the worsening environmental situation, a report published by the Red Cross found last year. Efforts to adapt areas to better manage climate risks also “tend to be limited in times of war”, with security priorities elsewhere. 

A “first of its kind” report published by the US National Intelligence Council last month painted a “dire picture” of the growing security risks “as countries compete for dwindling water and food supplies”, said NBC News. It named Afghanistan, Myanmar, India and Pakistan among the countries most at risk from climate change “if trends continue”. 

“We assess that climate change will increasingly exacerbate risks to US national security interests as the physical impacts increase and geopolitical tensions mount about how to respond to the challenge,” it said.

The report predicted that the intensifying physical effects of climate change would “exacerbate geopolitical flashpoints”, particularly after 2030, the year pinpointed as a deadline to curb the worst effects of warming temperatures. At the same time, international tensions are likely to grow “as countries increasingly argue about how to accelerate the reductions in net greenhouse gas emissions that will be needed to meet the Paris Agreement goals”, it said.

If an agreement between all 197 “parties” (196 countries and the EU) is reached in Glasgow this week, it could clarify how severely these risks and threats are being taken. But with the difficult discussions ongoing, it could be that international tensions, as well as temperatures, continue to rise before the next Cop conference.

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