Geopolitics Global Agenda Non-Military Security

Climate Change Effects: The Growing Risks of Conflict and Instability

Katarína Ďurďovičová

The current threat of climate change and its impacts is being felt in many parts of the world and presents a worrying view of the future of our planet.

Extreme heat waves hitting several continents in July 2023 have prompted the UN Secretary-General, António Guterres, to announce a new global crisis – global boiling. Cities such as Madrid and Athens have experienced scorching heat above 45 degrees Celsius, whilst the Arctic has been warming much faster than predicted. High temperatures have sparked forest fires over large areas, forcing communities to evacuate and leaving devastated areas on many Greek islands, in Dubrovnik, Sicily and North Africa. At the same time, the Baltic countries, Scandinavia and Germany faced droughts that threatened agriculture and strained water resources in these regions. But extreme weather events were not limited to record high temperatures. Slovenia and many provinces in China were hit by heavy rains, causing flash floods and landslides that devastated villages and infrastructure.

Among the often-discussed negative impacts of climate change on society are extreme weather events, the collapse of ecosystems, water scarcity or, conversely, flooding of low-lying and coastal areas. But one of the less discussed issues is the relationship between the effect of climate change on the emergence and intensification of conflicts in the world.

The Link Between Climate Change and Conflict

Existing studies on the causal link between climate change and conflict suggest that while there is a correlation, it is a relatively weak one, especially when compared to other causes of conflict, such as poverty, inequality and weak governance. However, climate change acts as a ‘risk multiplier’, exacerbating pre-existing tensions and creating new security challenges in fragile regions. This interplay between climate change and other socioeconomic factors increases the potential for conflict. Therefore, climate-related issues must be addressed as part of broader conflict prevention and resolution priorities.

The issue of climate change has rapidly evolved from a purely environmental problem to a complex and multifaceted challenge. The extreme weather events today disrupt infrastructure, displacing populations and straining already weak economies. In the Horn of Africa, for example, recurrent droughts and water shortages have led to significant infrastructure disruption and sparked conflict between communities relying on limited resources. These impacts, in turn, create conditions in which extremist ideologies can thrive, and communities are more vulnerable to recruitment by radical groups that promise stability and protection, such as in sub-Saharan Africa. The droughts of 2007-2010 in Syria, in turn, not only contributed to agricultural failure and economic hardship but also created the conditions for the outbreak of the subsequent civil war in the country. Rising sea levels and intensifying storms in the Pacific Islands have caused displacement, increasing tensions between host communities and climate migrants.

The Arctic

The melting Arctic has become a critical focal point for the rising tensions of the new Cold War, with significant implications for global security. The impact of climate change in the Arctic threatens to make the region ice-free in summer by 2050, opening up new shipping routes that will reduce costs and delivery times for tankers and cargo ships. At the same time, access to deposits of previously untapped natural resources in the region, such as oil or natural gas, is being facilitated, leading to increased rivalry between regional actors and increasing the risk of territorial conflicts. Russia now largely dominates Arctic shipping routes, and the ice-free Arctic could further strengthen its trade relations with China.

The militarization of the Arctic has also been accelerated by the ongoing conflict in Ukraine. NATO is conducting US-led military exercises there, along with regional partners, in an effort to increase the defences of Finland and  Sweden against the Russian threat. Unless Russia’s relations with the West improve, the rivalry and growing militarization of the region pose a serious security problem. Given how the Arctic is changing due to climate change and geopolitical upheaval, the possibility of future war in the region cannot be completely ruled out. Therefore, addressing potential problems and ensuring that the Arctic remains an area of cooperation rather than conflict requires active communication and diplomacy.

Sub-Saharan Africa

As far as sub-Saharan Africa is concerned, the link between the effects of climate change and conflict is already being confirmed, as water and agricultural land scarcity are already being used as a tool of manipulation and coercion. As seen, for example, in the Lake Chad region, where dwindling natural resources have increased tensions between local communities and refugees who have moved into the area because of the advance of the extremist organisation Boko Haram. Somalia is now facing a similar fate. As a result of the 2011 drought in East Africa, millions of people in Somalia are currently struggling with food shortages. Food instability caused by climate change and the illegal charcoal trade, which has led to land degradation and deforestation, is being used by the terrorist organisation al-Shabaab to recruit new members in exchange for access to food, protection or aid. A similar modus operandi – recruiting vulnerable people who have been adversely affected by environmental challenges  –  has also been used by terrorist groups in Mali, who have taken advantage of the water scarcity situation in this way. By combining humanitarian interventions with long-term development strategies, cooperation and efforts to counter extremist groups, the international system can seek to mitigate the effects of climate change and reduce the number of conflicts in Africa.

South Asia

The Himalaya-Karakoram-Hindu Kush (HKH) mountain range in South Asia faces a dual challenge of climate change and geopolitical tensions. Rising temperatures are already affecting the region and highly increasing the likelihood of future floods, droughts and water scarcity. In addition, the enormous local glaciers that store fresh water are essential for the survival of the region’s billions of people. As climate change continues to affect water resources, disputes over river basins and transboundary water sharing may escalate. In addition to climate change, the HKH region faces geopolitical tensions and territorial disputes between India, Pakistan and China. Disputes over claims to regions such as Jammu and Kashmir, Ladakh, Aksai Chin, and Gilgit-Baltistan have heightened overall regional tensions. The militarization of parts of the region and rising regional security concerns are contributing to environmental degradation – notably, the deterioration of mountain glaciers such as Siachen, which is a direct result of the tensions. Similarly, India’s recent revocation of Kashmir’s autonomous status in 2019 has exacerbated existing disputes and led to new claims, which in turn complicates regional cooperation. These long-standing disputes are an obstacle to joint climate initiatives in the future, as states prioritise their territorial sovereignty over sharing natural resources. Therefore, promoting strong environmental agreements is crucial for natural resource management, water sharing and conflict resolution. This promotes cooperation, demilitarisation and equitable allocation of natural resources, ensuring equitable access to water and sustainable practices for vulnerable communities.

The Future of Climate Change Efforts

The defence and security establishments of many countries now recognise climate change as a significant factor in national and global security. To address this, they are re-evaluating strategies and policies to anticipate and respond to the potential consequences of climate change-driven conflicts. Moreover, international collaborations and diplomatic efforts are being initiated to find collective solutions to the challenges posed by climate change. The idea that militaries are preparing for missions arising from climate change is not that far off from the truth. For example, the United States and the United Nations stopped viewing climate change only as a ‘threat multiplier’ but as something that can potentially alter the course of military action – especially regarding the entirety of the strategic landscape as it represents an urgent national security threat.

While the future remains uncertain and solution-focused dialogue is still very much absent, fast and radical transformations are needed to ensure future security. Strategies that prioritise meaningful and proactive dialogue adequately finance climate-related crises and help communities to adapt are crucial to managing the risks of climate-driven conflicts. Only through coordinated collective efforts and forward-thinking policies can we secure a more resilient world in the face of the changing climate.

Photo credit: flickr.com/Adaptation Fund

This brief is supported by

NATO’s Public Diplomacy Division

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