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Climate-conflict link claimed in new research

26 July 20160 comments

Climate-related natural disasters can increase the risk of armed conflicts, according to new research that claims up to a quarter of all conflicts in ethnically divided nations were preceded by extreme weather events.

The controversial research by Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany examines the role of heatwaves, floods and storms in increasing the risk of war.

The researchers looked in particular at the relationship of the long drought in Syria with the violence there. They claim to have found strong links between climate and conflict in places where the population is already fractured along ethnic lines.

Previous studies had shown a correlation between climate disasters and fighting but this new report says the disasters precede the conflict and suggests one leads to the other.

As a result, the researchers warn that an increase in natural disasters due to global warming constitutes a “threat multiplier” for armed conflict.

And they say climate change data could be used to predict where future violence might occur, allowing the international community to step in before.

Lead researcher Professor John Schellnhuber said that armed conflicts were among the biggest killers of people and creators of refugees.

John Schellnhuber

John Schellnhuber

“People have speculated about climate links with conflict: some people say yes, some say no. But we find a really robust link,” Prof Schellnhuber said.

“Economic and social disruption caused by climate disasters are in general not significantly linked to the outbreak of armed conflict, except in one class of countries or regions: where you have pre-fracturing by ethnic difference.

“The analysis also shows clearly the shock precedes the conflict era and so this is the first step to unravel the causal tangle involved in this environment-conflict relationship.”

The research, published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, found that 23 per cent of wars or the armed conflicts in ethnically divided places were linked to climate disasters, compared to just 9 per cent of all armed conflicts.

Prof Schellnhuber said that ethnic divisions might mean that the impact of a climate disaster would disproportionately impact one group more than another, due to their location or poverty level.

“People immediately start scapegoating then,” he said.

“This has important implications for future security policies as several of the world’s most conflict-prone regions, including north and central Africa as well as central Asia, are both exceptionally vulnerable to manmade climate change and characterised by deep ethnic divides.

“Recent analyses of the societal consequences of droughts in Syria and Somalia indicate that such climatological events may have already contributed to armed conflict outbreaks or sustained the conflicts in both countries.”

Prof Schellnhuber said the climate-conflict link will become even more important in the future.

“In 50 years from now, under a business-as-usual scenario, 80-90 per cent of natural disasters will be driven by climate change. Then the whole thing really explodes,” he said.

Prof Schellnhuber said cross-referencing predictions of where extreme weather is likely to increase with places that are ethnically divided could provide a way to predict conflict.

“You could construct a conflict ‘radar’ system to anticipate hotspots where the probability of armed conflict is high. Then you could try to diffuse certain things, or say, given the current migration debate, see where the potential sources of emigration are,” he said.

Prof Schellnhuber said earlier research had focused on linking conflicts with meteorological data, such as temperature and rainfall.

The new analysis used the economic impact of climate disasters, which takes into account the vulnerability of the nation affected.

“Both Syria and California have now experienced the biggest droughts on record, but there is no civil war in California,” Prof Schellnhuber said.

He said the new work showed another significant, benefit of action to halt global warming: “Our study adds evidence of a very special co-benefit of climate stabilisation: peace”.