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Rethinking the Climate-Conflict Relationship

The following analysis is from Volume 3, Special Issue “Climate Change, Security, and Conflict” of the Peace Science Digest

Citation: Branch, A. (2018). From disaster to devastation: Drought as war in northern Uganda. Disasters, 42(S2), S306-S327.

In 2016 and 2017, Eastern Africa experienced a drought that most experts believe to be linked to global climate change. Uganda, hit especially hard by dry weather, also experienced unseasonal flooding, a further indication of the abnormal weather patterns commonly attributed to climate change. These climate incidents, coupled with Uganda’s history of violent conflict, provide an opportunity for some researchers to suggest that climate change causes violence—a relationship cited by many as one of the most dangerous consequences of our changing climate. This relationship, however, is not so straightforward. According to the author, arguments over whether or not climate change causes violence draw our attention to problems of the future and distract from current realities and the events that led up to them. They may also lead us to ignore a cyclical pattern between the two occurrences—namely that conflict can contribute to climate change just as profoundly as climate change can contribute to violence.

The author challenges the tendency within scholarly research to discuss climate change with a sharp distinction between past and future, as well as between global and local, natural and social. When “disasters” are discussed in terms of climate change, the focus tends to be on future disasters, on the global causes and ramifications of disasters, and on their relationship with nature—even when nature is shaped by human activity. The author argues that focusing on one end of these paired distinctions to the exclusion of the other prevents us from understanding the complex ways in which climate change is experienced in the very parts of the world declared as the most vulnerable. Instead, what is required is a rethinking of the concept of climate disasters by starting not from the common “climate change causes conflict” framework but “from the lived experiences and the histories of climate change and disaster in specific parts of the world.” To help illustrate his argument, the author suggests using the concept of devastation to help reach beyond the limitations imposed by the future/past, global/local, and natural/social understanding of climate change and disaster. “Devastation” can better illuminate the events that are typically seen as comprising climate change and climate disaster.

Devastation: a term used in an attempt reframe climate disasters as not just a byproduct of climate change but also the result of longstanding forms of violence that exist within a complex environment spanning past and future, global and local, natural and social.

The author illustrates how political violence can be bound up with destructive environmental change in ways that demonstrate the limitations of future/past, global/local, and natural/social binary thinking by examining the case of drought and violence in Uganda. The particular climate hazard in the case of Uganda is drought and uncommon rainfall. This hazard, the author argues, is produced locally by social forces just as much as it is produced by global, natural forces. International investors have relentlessly advanced the political economy of East Africa’s urbanization. Much of the land and energy required for urbanization comes from the large-scale destruction of local forests, which compounds environmental disasters like flooding, in turn contributing to local and state violence. The drought in northern Uganda should not be viewed as an isolated climate phenomenon but rather as part of a broader context of war, where climate change can also be conceived of as a form of violence—whether through decades of extractive, unequal capitalism or through the vast amount of pollution generated directly by the military-industrial-complex. Additionally, the author argues that conflict must viewed as a product of future climate change or something that contributes to local vulnerability. Instead, it should be seen as spanning both issues. Even though there might be connections between climate change and an increasingly vulnerable population, it is clear that the climate change disaster conversation privileges the future, the global, and the natural but often disregards the need to take the past, the local, and the social into account. Climate disaster response thus must fully and justly engage with past and current forms of violence.

Contemporary Relevance

This article makes the case for being more cognizant of past and present structural conditions to help us understand the climate-conflict relationship. We are experiencing a planetary crisis, where climate change, environmental degradation, and resource scarcity need to be viewed in connection with past and present structural conditions. That entails the analysis of colonial history, global inequalities, and resource extraction in our assessment of current conflicts. Today one can speak of so-called “extractive imperialism,” where extractive industries pillage resources in the Global South (where the effects of climate change are most keenly felt) with little or no concern for the social and environmental costs.   

When considering the relationship between climate change and conflict, we must examine violent conflicts within a global war system that is inherently destructive to the environment. The advocacy organization World Beyond War has highlighted a series of statistics regarding the environmental toll of violent conflict and the defense industry:

• Military aircraft consume about one quarter of the world’s jet fuel.

• The U.S. Department of Defense uses more fuel per day than the country of Sweden.

• An F-16 fighter bomber consumes almost twice as much fuel in one hour as a high-consuming U.S. motorist burns in one year.

• The U.S. military uses enough fuel in one year to run the entire mass transit system of the nation for 22 years.

• By one military estimate in 2003, two-thirds of the U.S. Army’s fuel consumption occurred in vehicles that were delivering fuel to the battlefield.

• The U.S. Department of Defense generates more chemical waste than the five largest chemical companies combined.

• The majority of the Superfund sites in the U.S. are on military bases.

Talking Points

  • The climate disaster conversation should start from “the lived experiences and the histories of climate change and disaster in specific parts of the world.”
  • Uganda’s recent drought is part of a broader context of environmental devastation and violence, revealing how political violence is connected to destructive environmental change in ways that highlight the limitations of future/past, global/local, and natural/social thinking. 
  • Climate disaster response must fully and justly engage with past and current forms of violence.

Practical Implications

There is an ongoing debate over the relationship between climate change and violent conflict. Recently, however, many have argued that a rapidly changing climate, warming temperatures, and the resulting decreased access to resources can lead—and have led—to violence. In 2007, the United Nations Secretary General labeled Sudan’s Darfur region the world’s “first climate change conflict.” Since then, researchers from a variety of fields have suggested further ties between climate and conflict, leading to important analysis and needed insight. One study measured the conflict occurrence and local temperatures in sub-Saharan Africa, finding an increase in conflict during warmer years. When climate patterns were projected into 2030, their predictions translated into a 54% increase in armed conflict on the continent.[1] Armed conflicts have many contributing factors, however, and in most cases it is impossible—and certainly not recommended—to talk about a single effect. As this research points out, any examination of climate-related conflict must also include analysis of global asymmetries based upon colonial histories, extractive industries, and unequal trade relationships.

Continued Reading

[1] Warming increases the risk of civil war in Africa By Burke, M. B., Miguel, E., Satyanath, S., Dykema, J. A., & Lobell, D. B. (2009). Proceedings of the national Academy of sciences106(49), 20670-20674.

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