A wide array of research reveals that climate change plays a salient
role in social change, violence and war. This research summary is one of
the most comprehensive surveys of the social impacts of climate change
Climate change and conflict
The relationship between climate change, social tensions and conflict is well laid out by Kate Johnson.
She provides a good overview of many of the ways in which climate
impacts human behavior. She explains how climate change has the
potential to increase conflict in environmentally and politically
Johnson does not believe that climate change will necessarily lead
directly to conflict, rather, she suggests that climate is a factor in
the outbreak of conflict. According to this author, climate change will
exploit preexisting ethnic, nationalist and religious divisions.
Johnson does not share the view that climate change is a causal
factor in terrorism. She states that, “Climate change in less developed
countries is not likely to lead to terrorism, but to conflict.” Climate
change will cause inter-communal conflict when communities cannot meet
their basic needs as a function of the Earth’s diminished carrying
capacity or as a result of competition over specific resources.
She expects competition for water resources to be a major source of
strife. With over 200 river basins touching multiple nations, “The
potential for conflict over water is huge.” Johnson predicts that we
will see “water-wars” as demand from growing populations outpace supply.
One example could involve Israel, the Palestinian Territories and
Jordan, all of which draw their water from the River Jordan.
Violence may also occur as a consequence of states or groups within a
given state who wish to draw attention to life threatening climate
change impacts. In eco-terrorism environmental extremists may use
violence to demand ecological actions and safeguards.
As resources become more scarce due to climate change, people will be
forced to migrate to meet their basic survival needs. These migrations
between and within states may increase existing tensions and/or create
new ones, potentially leading to conflict. The Bangladeshi migration to
India in the 1980′s is a good example of how such movement can cause
civil unrest. As far as migrations to Western European states are
concerned, racial tensions could lead to racially motivated violence.
International Alert nations at risk
In a 2009 report titled “Climate Change, Conflict and Fragility,”
the peace-building organization known as International Alert explores
the relationship between climate change and conflict. It highlights the
ways in which social and political realities interact with the impacts
of climate change.
Policy makers are urged to look beyond technical fixes and to address
the interlinked political, social and institutional aspects of the
The report identifies a total of 61 countries at risk from climate
change and conflict. However, more recent research suggests this
estimate may be low.
AAAS statistical research
According to an August 1, 2013 study titled “Quantifying the Influence of Climate on Human Conflict”
published in The American Association for the Advancement of Science
(AAAS), there is a clear statistical link between climate change and
conflict. This research indicates that increases in temperature and
precipitation are correlated with higher risks of social upheaval, as
well as personal violence.
These researchers drew on a wide array of disciplines from
archaeology, criminology, economics, geography, history, political
science, and psychology. They assembled and analyzed the 60 most
rigorous quantitative studies and document a “substantial” correlation
between climate and conflict. These studies explored the connection
between weather and violence around the world from about 10,000 BCE to
the present day.
The study showed that climate change exacerbated existing social and
interpersonal tensions. Extreme rainfall, drought and hotter
temperatures increased the frequency of interpersonal violence and
Going forward the researchers anticipate more conflict as the world
is expected to warm 2 to 4 degrees C by 2050. They estimate that a 2C
(3.6F) rise in global temperature could see personal crimes increase by
about 15 percent, and group conflicts rise by more than 50 percent in
Climate change has been specifically correlated with a rise in
assaults, rapes and murders, as well as group conflicts and war. These
researchers point to the observation of an increase in domestic violence
in India and Australia during recent droughts, and a spike in assaults,
rapes and murders during heat waves in the US and Tanzania. They also
report a relationship between rising temperatures and larger conflicts,
including ethnic clashes in Europe and South Asia as well as civil wars
It would appear that changes in the economic conditions caused by
climate change are one of the main mechanisms at play. There may also be
a physiological basis to the relationship between warming and conflict
as higher temperatures appear to cause people to be more prone to
These research findings are succinctly summarized by Solomon Hsiang, one of the scientists that contributed to the research:
“[T]here is a causal relationship between the climate and
human conflict…People have been skeptical up to now of an individual
study here or there. But considering the body of work together, we can
now show that these patterns are extremely general. It’s more of the
rule than the exception…Whether there is a relationship between climate
and conflict is not the question anymore. We now want to understand
what’s causing it. Once we understand what causes this correlation we
can think about designing effective policies or institutions to manage
or interrupt the link between climate and conflict.”
United Nations Security Council
As noted in Resolution 1625, the UN Security Council is concerned
with the prevention of armed conflict. Climate change is increasingly
under scrutiny as a salient factor in the genesis of conflict.
In 2007, the United Nations Security Council was meeting to discuss
the security implications of climate change. UN Secretary General Ban
Ki-moon talked about resource scarcity, fragile ecosystems and severe
strains placed on the coping mechanisms of groups and individuals,
potentially leading to “a breakdown of established codes of conduct, and
even outright conflict.”
In 2011, the Security Council agreed to a statement expressing
“concern that the possible adverse effects of climate change may, in the
long run, aggravate certain existing threats to international peace and
Extreme weather in 2012 added a sense of urgency to UN discussions
leading to the following statement, “The impacts of climate change, such
as sea-level rises, drought, flooding and extreme weather events, can
exacerbate underlying tensions and conflict in part of the world already
suffering from resource pressures.”
Information presented to the Security Council earlier this year
explicitly made the link between climate change and conflict. A February
2013 Bloomberg News article
reviews the research presented by Joachim Schellnhuber to the security
Council. Schellnhuber is the director of the Potsdam Institute for
Climate Impact Research and Angela Merkels’ chief climate advisor.
Schellnhuber’s research shows the connection between climate change and
global security challenges.
The Security Council session was evidence of the increased focus on
the link between climate change and global security. As articulated in
notes prepared for diplomats at the council’s session, “There is growing
concern that with faster than anticipated acceleration, climate change
may spawn consequences which are harsher than expected.”
Either rich nations will find a way to supply needy nations suffering
from damaging climate effects “or you will have all kinds of unrest and
revolutions, with the export of angry and hungry people to the
industrialized countries,” Schellnhuber said.
Center for American Progress on migration and security
The Center for American Progress
has released a series of reports on how climate change, migration and
security factors will play out in different regions of the world. This
series of reports examines the relationship between climate change,
security and conflict.
A January 2012 report titled “Climate Change, Migration, and Conflict,” reviews the growing evidence of links between climate change, migration, and conflict.
An April 2012 report called “Climate Change, Migration, and Conflict in Northwest Africa,”
explores the overlays and intersections of climate change, migration,
and security create an arc of tension in Northwest
Nigeria, Niger, Algeria, and Morocco.
A December 2012 report called “Climate Change, Migration, and Conflict in South Asia,”
analyzes South Asia through the prism of climate, migration, and
security. The report details the underlying trends shaping the entire
region and elucidates the risks posed by current long-term trajectories.
A June 2013 video titled, “Climate Change, Migration, and Security in South Asia,”
shows how climate shifts have the potential to create complex
environmental, humanitarian, and security challenges in South Asia.
US Intelligence Community on Security Threats
In the U.S. intelligence communities, there is an emerging consensus
that conflicts ensuing from global warming constitute a bonafide threat
to American security.
A February 2012 National Intelligence Assessment titled Global Water Security
indicates that over the next two or three decades, vulnerable regions
(particularly sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East, South and Southeast
Asia) will face the prospect of food shortages, water crises, and
catastrophic flooding driven by climate change.
In addition, the depletion of groundwater in agricultural areas will
pose risks to national and global food markets in the next decade,
threatening “social disruption.” The U.S. intelligence community has
also identified water management, particularly the mitigation of
trans-border riparian risks, as a source of major concern in the next
A November 2012, National Research Council (NRC) report commissioned by the CIA, titled “Climate and Social Stress: Implications for Security Analysis”, found that climate change causes considerable stress to the people of affected areas.
“Security analysts should anticipate that over the next
decade, droughts, heat waves, storms, or other climate events of
surprising intensity or duration will stress communities, societies,
governments, and the globally integrated systems that support human
According to a December 2012 National Intelligence Council report titled “Global Trends 2030,”
climate change will force migration and exacerbate existing social
tensions surrounding resources and other environmental factors, which
will in turn lead to conflicts.
The report notes that critical resources of food, water and energy
will be adversely impacted. Climate change along with water shortages
will impact agricultural production at the same time as increased energy
demands may limit the amount of raw materials available to make
Climate change will constrain natural resources, drive migration, and
exacerbate tensions globally. The report says that climate change and
extreme weather will be key factors fueling tensions over access to
food, water, and energy.
“…many developing and fragile states-such as in
Sub-Saharan Africa- face increasing strains from resource constraints
and climate change, pitting different tribal and ethnic groups against
one another and accentuating the separation of various identities.
Ideology is likely to be particularly powerful and socially destructive
when the need for basic resources exacerbates already existing tensions
between tribal, ethnic, religious, and national groups.”
According to the report, the impacts of climate change will be
particularly acute in Asia where monsoons are crucial to the growing
season. The report further predicts that increasing global temperatures
could provoke conflict between Europe and Russia.
A March 2013, Worldwide Threat Assessment of the US Intelligence Community, reiterates the idea that a changing climate and competition for natural resources can fuel tensions and conflicts. The report reviews how competition for scarce resources (food, water,
minerals, and energy) “are growing security threats.” It also explores
how extreme weather events can cause a host of problems ranging from
disruptions in the food and energy supply, human migrations, riots,
civil disobedience and vandalism, all of which can exacerbate state
Not only can climate change increase the price of food, when combined
with population growth it can also increase the risk of conflict
between farmers and livestock owners. This is especially true in
sub-Saharan Africa and Central Asia. We can also expect to see more
disputes over fisheries as water scarcity becomes a growing problem in
major river basins, and as marine fisheries are depleted.
The growing scarcity of freshwater due to climate change and extreme
weather are expected to combine to harm the economic performance of
important US trading partners. As noted in the report,”many countries
are using groundwater faster than aquifers can replenish in order to
satisfy food demand.”
Global population increases, a burgeoning middle class and an
increased proportion of the world’s population living in urban areas
will put intense pressure on food, water, minerals, and energy.
DoD, Military and National Security
A number of leading U.S. Defense officials have declared that climate
change is a national security issue including Thomas Fingar, the former
chairman of National Intelligence Council and Leon Panetta, the former
Secretary of Defense. Another former Secretary of Defense, Robert
Gates, said “Over the next 20 years and more, certain
pressures-population, energy, climate, economic, environmental-could
combine with rapid cultural, social, and technological change to produce
new sources of deprivation, rage, and instability.”
Other top military officials that have also directly linked climate
change to instability. This includes General Gordon Sullivan, Vice
Admiral Dennis McGinn, General Anthony Zinni, Brig. General Bob Barnes
and General Chuck Wald.
Brig. General Steven Anderson, USA (Ret.), former Chief of Logistics
under General Petraeus and a self-described “conservative Republican
added, “I think that [climate change] increases the likelihood there
will be conflicts in which American soldiers are going to have to fight
and die somewhere.”
The relationship between climate change and conflict is not new in military circles. A 2007 report titled “National Security and the Threat of Climate Change”
by a U.S. based think tank known as the Military Advisory Board of the
CNA Corporation, links climate change and terrorism. As stated by
retired Admiral T. Joseph Lopez, “climate change will provide the
conditions that will extend the war on terror”. This statement is based
on the premise that greater poverty, increased forced migration and
higher unemployment will create conditions ripe for extremists and
A 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review
report called climate change a threat to national security that “may
spark or exacerbate future conflicts.” This report indicated that
climate change could have significant geopolitical impacts around the
world. As reviewed in the report, climate change was expected to cause
devastating droughts, crop failures, and mass migrations, all of which
will coalesce to create the kind of dangerous conditions that breed
On June 21, 2013, the University of Maryland announced
that the Department of Defense (DoD) is providing a $1.9 million grant
for a new 3 year research project that will model the relationship
between climate change and conflict.
The research is being led by a team of researchers from the
University of Maryland. They are at the head of a team of policy experts
and scientists that are developing new models based on the relationship
between conflict, socio-economic conditions and climate. These
statistical models and case studies will identify the best predictors of
climate-related conflict. These models will also be used to project
future conflict and develop military and policy interventions.
“It’s likely that physical and economic disruptions
resulting from climate change could heighten tensions in sensitive areas
of the world,” says lead researcher Elisabeth Gilmore, an assistant
professor in the University of Maryland’s (UMD) School of Public Policy.
“We hope to develop an integrated model to help researchers and policy
makers better anticipate civil conflict under a range of climate change
In regions with ongoing conflicts such as sub-Saharan Africa,
additional changes in food and water availability, public health crises,
and disruptive migration could further destabilize civil order.
PNAS Research on Africa
The notion that climate change can lead to tension and even war is
not a matter of speculation. In Africa, climate already drives armed
conflict. What could be described as the world’s first war caused by
climate change has already occurred in Darfur, Sudan.
In Darfur land degradation (drought and desertification) as a result
of climate change has led to protracted conflicts. As explained in 2006
by former British Defense Secretary Dr. John Reid, “the blunt truth is
that the lack of water and agricultural land is a significant
contributory factor to the tragic conflict we see unfolding in Darfur.”
These climate conflicts can take a terrible toll on human life.
According to UN figures, the war in Darfur has killed 200,000 people and
forced two million from their homes.
A comprehensive examination bears out a strong link between climate
change and armed conflict in sub-Saharan Africa. According to 2009
research from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences
(PNAS), titled “Warming Increases the Risk of Civil War in Africa,” warming causes war.
The report notes that conflict was about 50 percent more likely in
Africa in years when it was unusually warm. Overall, this research
demonstrates how conflict arises in conjunction with scarce food
supplies and warm conditions.
The research revealed “strong historical linkages between civil war
and temperature in Africa, with warmer years leading to significant
increases in the likelihood of war.”
Over the last two decades, conflicts have increased by 50 percent.
Even smaller skirmishes have been linked to food scarcity and warmer
temperatures in Africa. The research reveals that even if we see
economic development and more responsible governance, we can still
expect to see a rise in strife from climate change.
“We were very surprised to find that when you put things like
economic growth and better governance into the mix, the temperature
effect remains strong,” said Dr Marshall Burke, one of the studies
As temperatures continue to rise on the continent, the research shows that conflicts are also expected to increase.
“When combined with climate model projections of future
temperature trends, this historical response to temperature suggests a
roughly 54 percent increase in armed conflict incidence by 2030, or an
additional 393,000 battle deaths if future wars are as deadly as recent
Center for Climate & Security on Syria
As reviewed in a March 2012 report from the Center for Climate & Security titled “Syria: Climate Change, Drought and Social Unrest,”
the current conflict in Syria has been linked to climate change.
According to the hypothesis put forth by these authors, climate change
has caused internal displacement, rural disaffection and political
unrest that ultimately contributed to the state of civil war we have
today in Syria.
“Syria’s current social unrest is, in the most direct
sense, a reaction to a brutal and out-of-touch regime and a response to
the political wave of change that began in Tunisia early last year.
However, that’s not the whole story. The past few years have seen a
number of significant social, economic, environmental and climatic
changes in Syria that have eroded the social contract between citizen
and government in the country, have strengthened the case for the
opposition movement, and irreparably damaged the legitimacy of the
al-Assad regime. If the international community, and future
policy-makers in Syria, are to address and resolve the drivers of unrest
in the country, these changes will have to be better explored and
This research cites water shortages, drought, crop-failures and
displacement as contributing factors to Syria’s civil war. Syria’s
farmland has collapsed due to climate change.
As explained in the report from 2006-2011, up to 60 percent of Syria
suffered from “the worst long-term drought and most severe set of crop
failures since agricultural civilizations began in the Fertile Crescent
many millennia ago.” In the northeast and the south nearly 75 percent of
crops failed. Herders in the northeast lost around 85 percent of their
livestock, and 1.3 million people were directly impacted.
Over 800,000 Syrians have lost their entire livelihood as a result of
the droughts. A total of one million Syrians were made “food
insecure”and two to three million were driven to extreme poverty.
Overuse of groundwater is seriously depleting the aquifer stocks which
further complicates the issue.
In response to these events, there has been a massive exodus of
farmers, herders and agriculturally-dependent rural families from the
countryside to the cities. In the farming villages around the city of
Aleppo alone, 200,000 rural villagers left for the cities.
The fact that the rural farming town of Dara’a was the focal point
for protests in the early stages of the Syrian civil war illustrates how
climate change induced drought was a central issue in the initial
Of course, there were other factors adding to Syrian instability,
they include Influxes of Iraqi refugees which have added to the strains
and tensions of an already stressed and disenfranchised population.
Over-grazing of land and a rapidly growing population also compounded
the land desertification process. However, climate does appear to have
been a factor leading to the civil war we see in the country today.
Climate models predict that the situation in Syria will worsen as
climate change impacts intensify. Yields of rainfed crops in the country
are expected to decline between 29 and 57 percent from 2010 to 2050.
Taken together, these reports provide irrefutable evidence that
climatic events can increase social tensions and conflict. From the dawn
of human civilization to the present the research shows a clear causal
link between climate and strife. Climate change not only fans the flames
of social tensions, it is a pivotal catalyst in the dynamics of
Source: Global Warming is Real
Climate Change and Conflict: Excerpts from a 2013 US Intelligence Report
Environmental Regulations Shaping Today’s Sustainable Supply Chains
Water as a Weapon of War
Alarming Facts About Water
Investing in Water
Environmental Collaboration Transforming Government
15 National Security Officials on the Threat of Climate Change
How to Get Through to Climate Deniers
The DoD’s Climate Change Adaptation Roadmap (CCAR)