Global Policy Forum

Climate Change: A Cause of Conflict?


By Kate Johnston*

Global Politics Magazine
January 2008

The environmental consequences of climate change are now firmly on the political and public agenda. The security consequences are not. Little attention has been given to the possibility of increased conflict due to resources scarcity and migration. Is conflict the real threat from climate change?

In April 2007, 55 delegations to the UN met at the Security Council to discuss the security implications of climate change. Led by the then UK Foreign Secretary, Margaret Beckett, states shared their concerns about the security implications of climate change. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon talked of scarce resources, 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". [1]

A decline in water supplies for drinking and irrigation, a decline in agricultural productivity as a result of changes in rainfall, temperature and pest patterns, and large economic and human losses attributable to extreme weather events will all take their toll on the global system as a whole.

Some western governments are concerned that these conditions will create an unstable world and may lead to a subsequent rise in terrorist activity. What is more likely, I argue, is a potential rise in conflict in the most environmentally and politically vulnerable states. International Alert, a peace-building organisation, has identified 61 countries they perceive as being at risk from the ‘double-headed' risk of climate change and conflict. [2]

This article will specifically examine the potential rise in three types of conflict as a result of climate change:

• Political violence

• Inter-communal violence

• Interstate warfare

This article does not argue that climate change will directly cause conflict in the future. It argues that the environment (as a result of climate change) will become a more prominent factor in the outbreak of conflict.

Changes in the environment alone will not result in conflict. They need to be combined with existing divisions within society, be they ethnic, nationalist or religious. As Idean Salehyan [3] argues, there is much more to armed conflict than resource scarcity and natural disasters. However, that doesn't mean that resources and changes in the environment should be excluded as potential factors in the outbreak of conflict.

1) Political Violence

An April 2007 report by the Military Advisory Board of the CNA Corporation, a US-based think tank, seeks to make explicit the link between climate change and terrorism. In the report, retired Admiral T. Joseph Lopez states that "climate change will provide the conditions that will extend the war on terror". [4] This statement is based on the premise that greater poverty, increased forced migration and higher unemployment will create conditions ripe for extremists and terrorists. [5] Although there is a well-established link between economic disadvantage and civil unrest, this does not necessarily manifest itself through terrorism.

The likelihood of increased terrorism

There are a number of reasons why it is unlikely that climate change will lead to an increase in terrorist activity, at least in the short-term. Firstly, terrorism tends to be a response to a perceived and visible injustice committed by a tangible group or government against a particular group of people. In addition, individuals or groups tend to resort to violence if other avenues are unavailable or perceived as not working.

Environmental change will be difficult to attribute to a specific group of people or a state, and the changes will take place over such a timescale that they won't be instantly visible. This may not stop organisations and states from being targeted, however those involved may merely want to bring attention to issues, knowing that they will not be able to solve the problem through violent action.

Secondly, varied and diverse aims of groups affected by climate change make organised international terrorism as a response to climate change is highly unlikely. The actions of a group in the Middle East campaigning for access to water will be unlikely to improve the situation for those suffering severe flooding in Asia. If terrorism and civil unrest do occur they are likely to be on a local, perhaps regional scale.


There is a possibility that the sub strand of terrorism known as ecoterrorism may increase as a result of climate change. Defined by the FBI as "the use or threatened use of violence of a criminal nature against innocent victims or property by an environmentally-orientated, sub national group for environmental-political reasons" [6], ecoterrorism was identified as one of the top domestic terror threats in the US in 2005. [7] Since 1996 the Animal Liberation Front (ALF) and the Earth Liberation Front (ELF) have committed over 600 criminal acts in the US, resulting in damages exceeding $43 million.

There always tend to be extremist groups at the fringes of special interest movements, but there is little evidence ecoterrorism is spreading further than the US. In the UK, protests against the expansion of Heathrow airport in August 2007 were mainly peaceful and only a handful of arrests were made.

Although the frequency and intensity of ‘ecoterrorist' protests may increase it is unlikely that we will see terrorism as a result of climate change on a scale of the Irish nationalist or radical Islamist terrorism the UK has previously known. The links between climate change and terrorism are tenuous at best.

Instead of focussing on environmental groups and tightening anti-terrorist laws, governments should be focussing on ways to both curb and mitigate the effects of climate change. Their attention should also turn to less developed countries, who stand to suffer the worst of climate change and who lack the capacity to be able to respond effectively. Climate change in less developed countries is not likely to lead to terrorism, but to conflict.

2) Inter-communal conflict

At the most basic level, we all depend on the natural environment for our survival. It is the sole provider of the most basic of human needs: food, water and shelter. Global warming and the resulting changes in the environment will affect our ability to meet these needs. Conflict as a result of climate change is likely to emerge if a) the carrying capacity of the land is overwhelmed, or b) as a result of competition over specific resources.

Carrying capacity

Carrying capacity is defined as the maximum number of people an area can support without deterioration. Climate change will alter the carrying capacity of many vulnerable areas of the world either as a result of land degradation (flooding, drought and soil erosion) or the pressures of migration. "If there is a choice between starving and raiding, humans raid," according to Harvard archaeologist Dr. Steven LeBlanc. The most combative societies are therefore often the ones that survive. [8]

Many climate change scientists predict that there will be a "significant drop in the carrying capacity of the Earth's environment" [9] which could potentially lead to the sort of Hobbesian state which LeBlanc describes.


There is already growing evidence to support the theory that the current conflict in Darfur is partly due to land degradation as a result of climate change. Less than a generation ago, Africans and Arabs lived peacefully and productively in Darfur. More recently, desertification and increasingly regular drought cycles have diminished the availability of water and arable land, which has in turn, led to repeated clashes between pastoralists and farmers.

Dr. John Reid, then British Defence Secretary, speaking in March 2006 stated that "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." [10]

Rainfall has declined by up to 30pc in the last 40 years and the Sahara is currently advancing at over a mile per year. The potential for conflict over disappearing pasture and evaporating water holes is huge. The southern Nuba tribe have warned they could restart the half-century war between North and South Sudan because Arab nomads (pushed into their territory by drought) are cutting down trees to feed their camels. [11]


Environmental-related migration between and within states may increase existing tensions and/or create new ones, potentially leading to conflict. This issue will primarily affect underdeveloped states as weak infrastructure, resource scarcity and income disparity increase the risk of migration-related conflict. Poverty and resource scarcity are exacerbated by an influx of immigrants, especially if environmental migrants worse existing tensions and divisions within society (ethnic, national or religious).

In Bangladesh, the past few decades have seen major migration to India as a result of environmental changes. The explosion in Bangladesh's population and the precarious natural environment have led to a steady decline in arable land per capita and a subsequent drop in agricultural productivity, leading to the migration of Bengali's to the neighbouring Indian states of Assam and Tripura.

The migrants have altered the economy, land distribution and political power in both receiving areas, leading to serious civil unrest. In Tripura, violence broke out between 1980 and 1988 as the original residents, now a minority in their own state, became increasingly resentful of the migrants' presence.

However, conflict will only occur if the receiving area is unable to deal with the migrants. Although there is speculation that Northern Europe could receive vast numbers of environmental migrants from Southern Europe and Africa, it is unlikely that this would cause conflict as these developed states have the capacity to deal with migrants. However, politicians in some Western European states need to tackle the underlying issues of climate change and racial tensions to prevent a large influx of migrants provoking an increase in racially motivated political violence.

3) Interstate warfare

Environmental-based conflict can also erupt as a result of competition over an abundance of a commercially valuable resource located in a particular area. Resources are not distributed evenly and do not follow internal or external boundaries and resource-based conflict can happen between states as well as within them.

61pc of the world's proven oil reserves, for example, are currently located in the Middle East, but almost all of the developed countries in the world rely on this oil to meet their energy needs. [12] As countries rely increasingly on Gulf oil supplies, the chances of regional conflict involving both local and international actors will increase. The US in particular, will go to great lengths in order to secure a continuing supply of oil.

Conflict over resources is not confined to oil, however. ‘Water wars' are set to increase as water levels decline and rapidly growing populations place increasing pressure on water supplies. The potential for conflict over water is huge, with over 200 river basins touching multiple nations. [13] Israel, the Palestinian Territories and Jordan all rely on the River Jordan for their water supply, but it is largely controlled by Israel. Palestinian access to the water is severely restricted and has been cut by Israel in times of scarcity. In this already volatile region any significant change in water supply could lead to renewed tension and conflict.

Bangladesh is also vulnerable to changes in water supply. Lying in a low-level delta area, sea level rises would devastate the country, reducing the available drinking water and agricultural land and causing thousands of refugees to flee across the border into neighbouring India. So concerned are Indian officials about this that they are building a large fence along the Assamese border with Bangladesh. [14]

Sharing a water source does not always lead to conflict however; water access between India and Pakistan has been an important feature of conflict resolution negotiations, and in Latin America, interdependence among states who share the Lempa Basin has encouraged the development of regional mechanisms to manage supplies. [15]

These examples offer some hope that we may be able to successfully resolve and prevent resource-based conflict if we begin to take the risk of environmental conflict seriously, and explore the ways that resources can bring groups and communities together rather than divide them.

Forewarned is forearmed

This article paints a grim picture of disputes over precious resources, the erosion of fragile ecosystems and a world dominated by conflict. The real question to ask is not how likely is this to happen, but what can we do to prevent it happening and how can we mitigate the effects.

Margaret Beckett, then UK Foreign Secretary, argued in a speech at the Royal United Services Institute that in the world of military security, planners prepare for the worst-case scenario; they don't wait to see what might happen. [16] The same approach is required for climate change. Preparing for the security implications of climate change means both acting to make these events less likely and also strengthening state capacity to deal with the effects.

This doesn't mean (as some analysts have suggested) adopting a ‘fortress mentality', shoring up our borders and increasing our defensive capacity, but instead focusing on ways in which resources can be effectively managed and distributed.

We also need to ensure that the socio-economic resilience of those states most vulnerable to the direct effects of climate change is strengthened and that the global system as a whole is prepared for potentially huge global changes. The meeting at the UN held in April was a step in the right direction. Climate change needs to be permanently placed on the UN's agenda. Many states in attendance were in support of the Security Council addressing the issues, citing Resolution 1625, concerned with the prevention of armed conflict, in support of the meeting.

Many more states, particularly the powerful and developed nations, need to be convinced of the importance of the issue and to act on climate change before it creates global conflict. The irony of climate change is that although the more developed states are the main polluters, less developed states will suffer most and have the least capacity to respond effectively to climate change. Many already suffer from poverty, resource scarcity, health crises and ethnic/religious/national tensions and are dependent on the natural environment. These factors make them more prone to conflict as a result of climate change and lessen their ability to adapt to environmental change.

First steps to avoid climate conflict

To mitigate the effects of climate change we need to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels, thus cutting back harmful emissions. The emphasis must be on acting now rather than later: the longer we leave the situation the harder it will be to extricate ourselves from positive feedback loops and the spiralling effects of climate change.

New technology needs to be developed and then exported to developing countries who see fossil fuel dependence as a route to development but whose environments are being slowly destroyed as a result of the West's dependence on these polluting fuels.

Secondly, we need to reconceptualise ‘security'. The threat of climate change is not one that can be met or managed through traditional military security. Armies cannot be amassed, barriers cannot be built and weapons cannot be deployed against a threat that is indiscriminate and global in its scope. We need to move towards the idea of ‘sustainable security'. [17]

We need to look at tackling the root causes of climate change and conflict, instead of responding to the symptoms. As well as reducing our reliance on fossil fuels we need to reduce competition over resources and address the growing socio-economic divisions which are set to fuel environmental conflicts. Tackling the root causes of conflict and instability is much harder than responding to the symptoms, and requires cooperation among a much wider group of actors. But it will ultimately be more successful and will prevent the next few decades from being dominated by spiralling climate change and conflict.

About the Author: Kate Johnston is moving from an internship at the global security think tank Oxford Research Group to the British Civil Service. She has a Masters in Conflict, Security and Development from King's College, London and completed a BA in Modern History and Politics at Oxford University.


[1] SC/9000, 5663rd Meeting (AM & PM)

[2] Dan Smith, The Double-Headed risk of Climate Change and Armed Conflict (International Alert, March 2007),

[3] Idean Salehyan, The New Myth About Climate Change (Foreign Policy, August 2007) ,

[4] National Security and the Threat of Climate Change, (CNA Corporation, 2007), p.17.

[5] Ibid.

[6] The Threat of Eco-Terrorism, testimony of James F. Jarboe, Domestic Terrorism Section Chief, Counterterrorism Division, Federal Bureau of Investigation, before the House Resources Committee, Subcommittee on Forests and Forest Health (12 February 2002),

[7] Oversight on Eco-terrorism specifically examining the Earth Liberation Front (ELF) and the Animal Liberation Front (ALF), statement of John Lewis, Deputy Assistant Director, Federal Bureau of Investigation (18 May 2005),

[8] Peter Shwartz and Doug Randall, An Abrupt Climate Change Scenario and its implication for United States National Security (Global Business Network, 2003)

[9] Ibid.

[10] Josh Braun, "A Hostile Climate? Did Global Warming cause a Resource War in Darfur?", Seed Magazine (2 August 2006),

[11]Julian Borger, op cit.

[12] Chris Abbott, Paul Rogers and John Sloboda, Beyond Terror: The Truth About the Real Threats to Our World (Rider, 2007), p.34.

[13] Peter Shwartz and Doug Randall, op cit.

[14] RUSI Homeland Security and Resilience Monitor, Vol.6, No.4, pp.12-13 (May 2007).

[15] International Crisis Group, Climate Change and Conflict (July 2007),

[16] The Case for Climate Security, lecture by the Foreign Secretary the Rt. Hon. Margaret Beckett MP, Royal United Services Institute (10 May 2007), /info:public/infoID:E4643430E3E85A/.

[17] Chris Abbott, Paul Rogers and John Sloboda, op cit.

More Information on the UN Security Council
More Information on Water in Conflict
More Information on the Dark Side of Natural Resources
More Information on Climate Change
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