Climate change will do more than just raise the temperature

The path from climate change to conflict will not be a direct one. For that matter, most roads to conflict are indirect and lie in structural and behavioral patterns that make the path easier to travel. There are three structural pathways from climate change to armed conflict: sustained trends, intervening variables, and the need for conflict triggers.

First, conflict only emerges after a sustained period of divergent climate patterns. People can survive aberrant, short-term climate change through exploitation of saved resources, but this strategy has temporal limits. The issue is not one of surviving a particularly fierce rain or a harsh winter, but the accumulation of many rain events and many harsh winters. Human society is capable of enduring events and seasons, but as these events and seasons accumulate over many years or even decades, accumulated wealth begins to draw down and eventually dissipates. Without renewal of society's wealth, human health and well-being decline, and over time the society itself may collapse.

Societies with few savings will be more vulnerable to adverse impacts from climate change. Societies that already heavily exploit their environment will be closer to possible conflict than those that do not. Brian Fagan offers a context for climate-induced conflict in places where people already live on the edge of survival:

In a telling analysis on nineteenth century droughts, the historian Mike Davis has estimated, conservatively, that at least 20 to 30 million people, and probably many more, most of them tropical farmers, perished from the consequences of harsh droughts caused by El Ninos and monsoon failures during the nineteenth century, more people than in virtually all the wars of the century.

(Fagan 2008: 235)

Second, climate change alone will not cause conflict, but along with other factors, will contribute to it and shape it. With sustained climate change, social wealth will decline and the social fabric will weaken with each passing year, becoming more vulnerable to future challenges. It is not to say that societies are incapable of responding to changes and adapting to create conditions for survival. Adaptation is not a linear survival strategy. Rather, adaptation is part of a complex network of social interactions.

The complex of human experiences embeds adaptation within a whole range of social experiences that contain a wide variety of intervening variables. Adaptation becomes part of the political system, religious customs and rituals, patterns of demography and economic subsistence, types of social structures, locations of settlements, and modes of habitation, to name a few. Jon Barnett describes these multiple impacts:

It has not been shown that environmental factors are the only, or even important factors leading to conflict. Other factors such as poverty and inequities between groups, the availability of weapons, ethnic tension, external indebtedness, institutional resilience, state legitimacy and its capacity and willingness to intervene, seem to matter as much if not more than environmental change per se.

The complex network of intervening variables has an enormous impact on the transmission of climate change to conflict. In human history, climate change has been a factor that fostered important breakthroughs in technology. It has also been a reason for the collapse of civilizations in orgies of killing and widespread savagery. Ability to adapt may make conflict less likely, allow countries to suffer fewer adverse consequences, or alternatively may serve to avoid conflict altogether. On the other hand, a mistaken or errant adaption may actually hasten and exacerbate conflict.

It is not the point here to suggest or claim that there is a type of environmental determinism at work in the climate change and conflict relationship. The idea of environmental determinism was dispelled long ago, and there is no intention of giving it new life here. But within the mix of these intervening variables, climate change is a strong and potent factor in determining the destiny of societies, and may in some cases serve as an essential piece to explaining conflict.

Some argue that assertions of climate change as a threat to human lives are a simple extrapolation of Malthusian treatises. They are not. The two frameworks have a considerable difference in dynamics. Malthus saw conflict between the exponential growth patterns in human population juxtaposed against the linear advances in agricultural production. In climate change models, population growth is assumed to eventually level off and perhaps even decline. The former is a static model, the latter dynamic.

Third, climate change can create structural conditions for conflict, but a trigger is required to set off strife. Triggers have historically included assassinations, extreme natural events, or random acts of group violence. As climate-induced stresses are sustained over time, and as they mix with intervening variables to create a social construct, there still needs to be a spark that completes the link to conflict and sets off the fire.

Rwanda in the 1990s is one example of a spark that set off a brewing conflict. The country had a dense population of livelihood farmers. During a generally drier climate period, coupled with extensive land-use change, there was a sus tained period of deterioration in the carrying capacity (the resources needed by people compared to those available).

Against this backdrop was a colonial legacy and a society divided along ethnic lines, between Hutus and Tutsis. Rapidly increasing populations needed fertile land, and there was little available. In this structural milieu, many events could have set off the conflict. The Rwandan genocide was sparked by the assassination of the country's President, whose plane was shot down under mysterious circumstances.

Given the fulfillment of these three conditions (structural incongruity over time, intervening variables, and the existence of triggers), along with some delays in timing, conflict emerges with changes in climate. The manner in which conflict occurs is, however, a different matter. It is possible to imagine three differing behaviors that can lead from climate change to conflict: scarcity, abundance, and issues of sovereignty.

First, climate change can lead to conflict due to scarcity. Suppose drying conditions and melting glaciers lead to loss of arable land, imposing extreme stress on vegetation and animal life, and causing a decline of fresh-water resources. Competition and conflict will increase as these resources become increasingly scarce. This will be especially true as demand grows and exceeds a region's carrying capacity.

Scarcity can also be broken down into four differing types. First, physical scarcity usually pertains to limits on the availability of finite resources. Second, geopolitical scarcity involves the distribution of resources between countries, both finite and renewable. Third, socio-economic scarcity describes distribution differences within countries. Finally, environmental security refers to the availability of renewable resources, like rivers and forests (Rees 1991).

Global warming can cause displacement of people. In extreme examples, a desiccated ecosystem may cause entire populations to evacuate an area. Displacement, however, can be either a prolonged or a sudden event.

The growth of the Sahara Desert was a prolonged trend over many millennia. Drying and desert conditions thousands of years ago slowly nudged people out of the inland region of northern Africa and into great river valleys like the Nile and the Niger. The current degree of climate change will again threaten the ecological and social stability of these great river systems and the people who live there. Incremental but prolonged rises in sea levels will also slowly uproot hundreds of millions of people.

Examples of sudden displacement are the 2005 hurricanes "Katrina" and "Rita" in the southern United States. Together, the two events forced millions of people to suddenly leave Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas, with several thousand dead. Some researchers believe that climate change will lead to more severe extreme weather events, and cite Katrina as an example of things to come. Consider these hurricanes in a different geographic context. In 1991, a cyclone in Bangladesh displaced two million people and killed 138,000.

Whether rapidly or slowly, persons displaced by sudden events will eventually stop and settle down. For most of human history, a reservoir of unclaimed lands served as a "pressure valve" that tamped down conflict. Today, this reservoir no longer exists except in the very least hospitable parts of the planet. Areas now largely uninhabitable because of cold temperatures may eventually become habitable due to warming. Displaced persons will move into these places, provoking conflict. In the first millennium, for example, invading Mongols pushed Germanic tribes further west in Europe, where their conflict with the Roman Empire was inevitable. Rapid climate change exacerbates migration trends.

Migration is, however, a complicated phenomenon. There are internal and external dynamics, as well as differences between patterns in developing and developed countries. Jon Barnet notes that "Most migration is not international but rather occurs within individual countries, and most international migration occurs between developing countries" (Barnet 2001: 9). Today, most migration is cyclical. In the future, it is more likely to be a permanent condition. Like conflict, causes for migration are complex: "People rarely migrate for environmental reasons alone. A range of factors, including economic opportunity, operate in unison, and these are in flux as a consequence of the economic and cultural effects of globalization" (Barnet 2001: 9).

Migration of displaced persons on a short-term basis may not seem significant. However, as migrants accumulate over an extremely long period, perhaps half a century, there will be substantial demographic impact. Shifting demographic patterns due to climate change will eventually force realignments in domestic, regional, and global power relations.

Climate change may cause resources to be more or less available, thereby altering relative wealth of individuals and countries. It is during these periods of change in relative power, driven in part by climate change, that conflict is often more likely. Scarcity, therefore, is not an absolute calculus, but a relative one.

Second, climate change may also lead to conflict due to an increase in abundance. Again, this will need to be a relative rather than an absolute measure. Suppose a resource becomes more available because of climate change. For example, the warming of extremely cold areas may allow resource extraction that was previously non-economic. Oil and gas fields in northern Canada, Alaska, and Siberia are likely to become accessible with warming, and thus economically viable. Both energy and mineral resources underlie Antarctica. Competition over newly available resources may lead to conflict, especially when these resources turn up in places where boundaries are not clearly set. New arable lands will emerge which will quickly become sought-after property.

Abundance will also impact migration, in this instance acting as a "pull" factor. New economic resources will create new jobs. The availability of fertile land for people whose only skill is farming may serve as an enormous enticement.

The idea is that the relative importance of resources accelerates and deepens with climate change. A change of a few degrees of temperature can accentuate the difference between a hospitable and an inhospitable climate. Likewise, a small relative change in resource volatility may accumulate over time and subsequently produce much higher levels of conflict.

Third, changing climate will invite national interest and issues of sovereignty. The Northwest Passage in Canada is becoming an ice-free corridor from Europe to Asia during summer months. Canada claims some portions as sovereign waters, while the United States argues that they are international waters. (The differences reflect average versus maximum distances between points of land.) The more the sea levels rise due to melting of glaciers and ice caps, the more international law (under the UN Law of the Sea or UNLOS Treaty) favors the American position. Canada also proposes extending the reach of its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) from 200 to 500 miles.

In polar areas now covered by thick ice sheets, human habitation may become possible. Warming may expose land areas on the continent or on offshore islands. The value of such small islands would not be in the small rocks that might arise a few feet above the ocean. Rather, the value would be in the EEZ around it. There are also disputes over continental shelves. Denmark claims large parts of the North Pole because it is allegedly on the same continental shelf as Greenland (BBC News 2004).

Rising seas will slowly dislocate people. Remote islands, especially in the Pacific and Indian Oceans, are at risk. These islands include Tuvalu, Kiribati, the Marshall Islands, Tonga, the Maldives, and many others in the Alliance of Small Island States.

What are the sovereign rights of countries and their people for homes that are under water? Many questions would arise over the legal status of the people and government in such an eventuality. Do they lose their sovereignty if their territory disappears? Governments in exile have maintained sovereign rights in the past without a physical presence. After Germany conquered France and Poland in World War II, they maintained governments in exile. This situation was limited to a few years. Would the same principle apply to islands submerged by a warming climate?

With this brief construction of the behavioral mechanics and structural dimensions, it is now possible to discuss how climate change and conflict will be regionalized into Hot and Cold Wars. These wars will be spread out over swathes of the planet and create two global "tension belts."

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