Climate change and conflict

(This piece was written in Fall 2008.)

Climate change is important to any analysis for the future, environmentally, socially,
economically, or politically. The IPCC projects that with rising temperatures, there will be a
global increase incidence of droughts, desertification, and extreme precipitation events (IPCC
2007). The increase in temperature will also allow range expansion and better survival or
overwintering rates of disease carrying vectors such as mosquitoes. Perhaps the more terrifying
outcome for human societies could be a great reduction of food production as a result of several
factors brought on by global climate change. Any combinations of these may threaten security
within and between nations. The impacts of climate change on future food availability and public
health may increase the likelihood of resource related conflict in the most vulnerable parts of the

Barnett and Adger (2007) discuss the idea that conflict can be stimulated by “changes in
social systems driven by actual or perceived climate impacts.” Their main arguments are:
1. climate change may affect human security by reducing access or quality of natural
2. human insecurity affected by climate change may increase risk of violent conflict,
3. climate change may affect the capacity of states to promote human security and
4. and that these direct effects on livelihoods and indirect effects on state functions
due to climate change may increase the risk of conflict (Barnett and Adger 2007).

Jones et al. (2008) suggest that emerging infectious diseases (EIDs) have a strong
correlation with socio-economic, environmental and ecological factors and have identified
several “hotspots” for EIDs. Vector-borne diseases made up 22.8% of the EIDs in their database
(Jones et al.). With rising temperatures due to global climate change, this percentage has the
potential to increase dramatically. Warmer temperatures and changes in rainfall and humidity
may allow for insect disease vectors to expand their range to areas where it historically did not
have the right conditions for them to survive. In some areas in Kenya, malaria has returned to the
highlands, where they were eradicated in the 1960s, and its reestablishment has been attributed to
increased temperatures that allow for mosquitoes to live to the life stage during which they are
infectious (Alsop). These climate changes may improve the survival, reproductive or
overwintering rates. These effects could lead to increased incidence of diseases such as dengue
and malaria in human populations. Other impacts may include changes in host-parasite and
disease-vector dynamics. Mapping of malaria risk in combination with socio-economic models is
an approach that has potential to predict future areas of risk (Huntingford et al.). Disease may not
be directly linked to conflict, but it may be an indicator of areas of the world that may be at risk
because of the stress that disease may add to already struggling communities. Knowing what
areas have a high chance of disease outbreak may be helpful in conflict prevention measures.

Among other predictions of the impacts of climate change is the increase in frequency
and intensity of extreme weather events such as drought, flooding, and severe storms. Any one of
these events could destroy communities, infrastructure and crops. It would probably claim many
lives or at least cause mass migration (Podesta and Ogden). Natural disasters on this scale could
be devastating enough to destabilize already weakened institutions if they are not able to respond
adequately, increasing the likelihood for conflict to break out.

On October 1st, 2008, SIPA hosted a panel on the global food crisis where Jeffrey D.
Sachs, Sir John Holmes, Thoraya Ahmed Obaid, and Ajaykumar Manubhai Vashee spoke about
the crisis that has been going on for decades and what must be done to alleviate some of the
pressure and solve the food problem. At the heart of the issue seems to be uncontrollable
population growth, land degradation, and lack of resources for farmers to climb out of poverty.
Jeffrey Sachs suggests that the solution will be to provide farmers with the right seed and
fertilizer so that they may be able to grow what they need as well as a massive voluntary
reduction in fertility. These types of solutions, however, do not account for long term climate
change impacts. Having seed and fertilizer is all fine, but what do the farmers do in times of
drought? Irrigation is an option only for those who have access to enough water. Especially in
areas where there is an unequal distribution of water resources, farmers have no way to cope
with drought and other severe events (e.g. plant disease wiping out crops, which can happen
partly because, with today’s ease of travel from one side of the globe to the other, pathogens can
travel large distances in short periods of time). Conflicts over resources could develop very
quickly and be difficult to deal with.

Foreign aid is one possibility, but it cannot be the long term solution. The independence
of a nation and of its inhabitants is important for sustainability. The speakers discussed how the
World Bank has changed their stance on the food crisis. After 25+ years of inaction, they have
decided that intervention is necessary. Part of their framework for action includes capacity
building and efficiency. An interesting argument that came up during the panel was the idea that
the demand for biofuels has also affected the amount of food produced. Dr. Vashee stressed that
energy independence is an important requirement to solve the food crisis because fields
otherwise used for food crops are being used to grow biofuels. It could therefore be imagined
that social conflict may arise from this clash between need for food and need for income.

Sir John Holmes stated that with current population growth rates, it is possible that we
will need 50% more in food production by 2050. However, if other predictions that there will be
a loss in productivity by up to 6%, that combined with population growth could mean a
worldwide food catastrophe. It is likely that many people in Africa will have to deal with these
problems at the same time as disease outbreaks are peaking. Families are already working day in
and day out just to have a decent harvest. If their health is compromised, the amount of labor
available will decrease and potentially affect the success of the crops. There are many other
issues that are inherently interconnected with these, and there are probably many more that we
will not be able to anticipate. It is certain, though, that any conflict prevention strategy should
account for the impacts of climate change, especially of those on spread of disease and future
food production potential.


Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. (2007). Climate change 2007: The physical science
basis. Summary for policymakers.

Alsop, Zoe. “Malaria Returns to Kenya’s Highlands as Temperatures Rise.” The Lancet 370.9591
(2007): 925-26.
Barnett, Jon, and W. Neil Adger. “Climate Change, Human Security and Violent Conflict.”
Political Geography 26 (2007): 639-55.
Huntingford, C., et al. “Impact of Climate Change on Health: What Is Required of Climate
Modellers?” Transactions of the Royal Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene 101
(2007): 97-103.
Jones, Kate E., et al. “Global Trends in Emerging Infectious Disease.” Nature 451.21 (2008):
Podesta, John, and Peter Ogden. “The Security Implications of Climate Change.” The
Washington Quarterly 31.1 (2007): 115-38.



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