Peace Matters Index

climate change and conflict

ONLINE contents

- conscripting conscience
- to vote or not to vote
- climate science: a peace-studies lesson
- climate change and conflict
- unarmed resistance
- acts of conscience
- a sunny day in prague
- human abuse map

complete issue pdf

The interaction between climate change and conflict started thousands of years ago. The Neanderthals, Vikings, and Mayans all benefited and suffered from a changing climate that affected resources such as water, game, and agriculture.

In recent years, many foreign affairs experts have attempted to demonstrate the linkages between climate change and the social tensions that can lead to conflict. While critics may believe this is simply a fad in international affairs, history suggests otherwise. Over the last few millennia, climate change has been a factor in conflict and social collapse around the world. The changing climate has influenced how and where people migrate, affected group power relations, and provided new resources to societies while taking away others. Such circumstances cause large-scale alterations in lifestyles and illustrate pathways from climate change to conflict.

Because climate change can be a contentious subject, it's worth taking a moment to answer some basic questions and put forth a series of assumptions. First, what is climate change? The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the most authoritative source on the subject, assesses climate change by measuring changing temperatures and precipitation. Since trends in temperature often (but don't always) drive trends in precipitation, scientists consider temperature a more robust and stable measure of climate change. But in simplest terms, climate change is the long-term change in the patterns of these two meteorological characteristics. Second, does climate change affect the world the same everywhere? In fact, climate change is a heterogeneous phenomenon and produces different outcomes in different places. The subsequent case studies demonstrate that a changing climate can have acute regional effects such as near the equator or North Pole, the "hot" and "cold" zones, respectively. In both cases, "hot" and "cold" conflicts demonstrate how rising and falling temperatures have had different impacts on human survival and prosperity.

Finally, a fact: The relationship between climate and conflict isn't as simple as cause and effect. Instead, climate change events -such as temperature shifts of a few degrees or a precipitation change of a few inches - contribute to conflict gradually over the long term. Because the climate has been changing for millennia, it's possible to look at the past for examples. Do we see cases of climate-conflict interaction when rates of climate change have diverged? In fact, it's possible to assess historical events and records in order to construct pictures of how climate affects conflict. Historical case studies, therefore, allow us to identify three paths from climate change to conflict: sustained trends, intervening variables, and the need for conflict triggers.

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