Critical peace research

Is climate change the trigger for violent conflict?

with the author: Hovstein Kviseth

Halvard Buhag is Norway's leading peace researcher with climate as its main theme. He points out that Norway is on professionally insecure ground when "climate and security" is given such a high priority in the Security Council. He points out that there is great agreement among researchers that climate change is not a decisive cause of war and conflict. The basic causes of armed conflict in the Sahel, for example, are not climate change, but misgovernment, corruption, Islamist radicalization and mafia activity, in Buhaug's opinion. He also points out that Norway risks blurring the real causes of conflict by prioritizing climate change so highly in the Security Council's work (PRIO webinar 7.4.21).

Also with regard to climate change as a trigger for violent conflict, peace research seems reasonably clear. Of 14 studies in the field, published between 2009 and 2019, all but one conclude with «no causal relationship or no direct relationship», «weak causal relationship or limited context», «too little robust evidence to conclude», or «little effect compared to other causal explanations ». Only 1 of the 14 studies concludes that climate change is a clear cause of outbreaks of violent conflict (Oxford Climate Society webinar 9.11.20: Does climate cause conflict). The UN Climate Panel's special report for the 1,5 degree target is also clear that there is no such causal link. The Climate Panel concludes that the literature on the relationship between climate change, migration and conflict rather shows inconsistent relations (IPCC: «Global warming of 1,5 C», 2018). This means that there is no professional basis for claiming a causal connection.

In the Security Council, Norway states that 12 of the 20 countries that are most vulnerable to climate change are also in violent conflict. Therefore, Norway will invest in these countries' ability to adapt to climate change, as this will reduce their risk. This argument could also be presented in the opposite direction, so that one invests in conflict management to increase society's ability to adapt to climate change. A connection similar to that between climate vulnerability and conflict is also found when vulnerability to climate change is replaced by development. Correspondingly, it can then be argued that investing in achieving the sustainability goals will contribute to less violent conflict.

When Norway uses its voice in the Security Council to emphasize that our first-line defense is a climate cut, and that this must begin with the implementation of the Paris Agreement, this cannot be considered a particularly effective peace policy. The agenda for "climate and security" can thus override other peace policy approaches in the Security Council.

Conflict amplifies the negative effects

Norway's voice for "climate and security" also has elements that peace research supports. As is well known, the world is not entirely black and white.

One of the most important things is that war is a development in reverse. When countries threatened by climate change end up in violent conflict, their capacity for much-needed climate adaptation is also reduced. Conflict thus reinforces the negative effects of climate change, especially in the most vulnerable states, as Norway has put it in the Security Council. Does climate change undermine the ability to deal with conflict, or does armed conflict make societies more vulnerable to climate change? Such negative spirals are very real.

Although research in the field indicates that causes other than climate are more important in explaining outbreaks of conflict, this does not mean that climate change cannot be relevant underlying causes. On the contrary, it is very likely that many of the triggering causes of war are affected by climate change, but then in an indirect way. An academic article that addresses the views of social scientists on the causes of armed conflict,[1] shows that the vast majority say low socio-economic development, weak states, inequality, experience of violent conflict, dependence on natural resources and economic and political shocks are far more important than climate change. But climate change can of course also contribute to the causes mentioned here. The Norwegian position is thus that climate change must be recognized as an underlying cause of conflict, which is also not controversial to advocate in peace research.

Research in the field also seems to support that climate and conflict are linked in other ways. One element is that climate change can increase the risk of war breaking out in societies that already have a high risk of violent conflict. Furthermore, climate change may contribute to exacerbating the effects of violent conflict. War also contributes to increasing society's vulnerability to climate change. It may also appear that climate change is contributing to growing inequality between rich and poor societies in the world, which in turn is driving conflict.

The basic connection between climate and conflict, however, consists in the fact that conflict contributes to increased climate security, while climate security can in turn increase the risk of conflict. If one thus only looks at the connection with peace policy glasses, it gives the following conclusion: If peacebuilding is our goal, climate policy is in itself ineffective. If, on the other hand, resilience to a changing climate is the goal, peacebuilding is absolutely essential. By bringing this out in a clear manner, Norway will also be able to contribute more effectively to peacebuilding through its membership of the Security Council.

[1]   Katharine J. Mach et. al: "Climate as a risk factor for armed conflict", published in Nature, 2019.


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