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Fari Awade draws water from a well in the community of Natriguel, Mauritania.

Armed conflict risks could be heightened by future climate impacts, study shows

Climate change could heighten the risk of future outbreaks of armed conflict and civil war, a study has said.

Conflict and civil wars have been driven over the past century by levels of poverty, inequality among groups in countries, and illegitimate governments.

But environmental impacts and climate shocks have played a role in some historical conflicts, according to the new study.  Crucially, the study suggests that climate change may heighten the risk of future outbreaks.

An international team of experts, including Professor Neil Adger from the University of Exeter, has examined why conflicts, such as civil war, occur and the past and future role of climate change.

The study, which includes experts in political science, environmental science and economics, is published in leading journal Nature on Wednesday, June 12th 2019.

Professor Adger, who researches climate change at Exeter said: “We know that there are a host of well-established issues that can bring about the onset of armed conflict and civil war, and climate change is only one part of that.

"The rates of poverty, food insecurity and the ability of states to look after their citizens in times of crisis are implicated in the scores of civil wars since the mid-20th century. But these factors themselves are very sensitive to future climate change.

“These findings give further reasons to rapidly reduce emissions and decarbonise the global economy to avoid climate change impacts. The last thing we want is to amplify risks for those regions prone to conflict and facing potentially devastating climate impacts.”

Some of the most detrimental effects of climate change, such as the impact on agricultural production, economic development and stability, and social inequities, have been thought to interact with other conflict drivers to potentially increase the risks of violence.

In the study, the experts looked at outbreaks of organised armed conflicts worldwide in recent decades. They then studied the localised affects that climate change had played on stimulating environmental and socio-economic impacts in these areas.

The experts suggest that between 3-20 percent of the risk of violent armed conflict within countries over the past decade was influenced by climate change.

Crucially, if global warming increases by 4°C over the course of this century – the rate scientists predict if no significant policy changes are undertaken -  the influence of climate on conflicts increases more than five times, according to the study.

Even in a scenario of 2°C warming beyond preindustrial levels – the stated goal level of the Paris Climate Agreement– the influence of climate on conflicts would still more than double, the experts claim.

“Disagreement on climate and conflict has been stark,” said Katharine Mach, Director of the Stanford Environment Assessment Facility and study lead author. “Our analysis represents a strong foundation for figuring out the strengths and limitations of current understanding and reasons for disagreement.” 

Marshall Burke, professor of earth system science at Stanford University and a co-author on the study added: “Knowing whether environmental or climatic changes are important for explaining conflict has implications for what we can do to reduce the likelihood of future conflict, as well as for how to make well-informed decisions about how aggressively we should mitigate future climate change.”

“Historically, levels of armed conflict over time have been heavily influenced by shocks to, and changes in, international relations among states and in their domestic political systems,” said James Fearon, professor of political science and co-author on the study.

“It is quite likely that over this century, unprecedented climate change is going to have significant impacts on both, but it is extremely hard to anticipate whether the political changes related to climate change will have big effects on armed conflict in turn. So I think putting non-trivial weight on significant climate effects on conflict is reasonable.”

Reducing conflict risk and preparing for a changing climate can be a win–win approach. The study explains that adaptation strategies, such as crop insurance, postharvest storage, training services, and other measures, can increase food security and diversify economic opportunities thereby reducing potential climate–conflict linkages.

Peacekeeping, conflict mediation and post-conflict aid operations could incorporate climate into their risk reduction strategies by looking at ways climatic hazards may exacerbate violent conflict in the future.

However, the researchers make clear there is a need to increase understanding of the strategies’ effectiveness and potential for adverse side effects. For example, food export bans following crop failures can increase instability elsewhere.

Date: 12 June 2019

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