Impact of climate change on conflict and migration

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ImageLast week the World Bank hosted a workshop on the social dimension of climate change, a good chance for insights from the dark side of the moon. Not only environment, not only the economic implications of mitigating greenhouse gases, but people affected, the poors' right to their lands and to natural resources. Many studies were presented. One rang my bell.

A whole session was dedicated to the role that climate change impacts and disasters may have on conflicts and migration in developing countries. These are some of the previous statements that called attention the most:

  • Climate change is an "all encompassing threat" to human health, to global food supply, and to peace and security" (Annan, 2006).
  • Climate change will "help produce insurgencies, genocide, guerrilla attacks, gang warfare and global terrorism" (Homer Dixon, 2007).
  • Climate change "may induce large-scale migration and lead to greater competition for earth's resources" which may result in "increased danger of violent conflicts and wars, within and between states" (Mjor, 2007).

But what do we _really_ know about environmental factors and armed conflicts?

The open speeches were from Halvard Buhaug and Clionadh Raleigh (both from the International Peace Research Institute, Oslo. Find their presentations in pdf here and here, and Buhaug's full paper here). They underlined a path that from climate change brings to reduction in livelihood and then to armed conflicts. Then they asked themselves: To what extent is the proposed link between environment and armed conflict supported by empirical evidence?

They started  evaluating the relation between climate change and contemporary trends in armed conflicts, tracing climate change and armed conflicts trends from 1946 to 2006 . They pointed out several theoretical possible links, then they evaluated the statistical evidence. Here are the results:

a) statistical, comparative analysis have not converged on a robust association between renewable resource scarcity and armed conflicts;

b) analysis of disasters and conflicts suggest a connection, but mostly for geological disasters, and the mechanisms are still unclear;

c) country-level population size is a powerful correlate of civil war, indicators of population pressure are not.

They concluded that, since prevailing research showed no robust link between climate change and conflict, we cannot argue that there is any link.

But they ended their presentation stating that not systematic link today need not to imply that no link materializes tomorrow.

Is this really true? Are we connecting any impacts to climate change? Are the link we are proposing robust enough or are we just looking for momentum and lighting up on climate change?


Federica Ranghieri

World Bank Program Leader for Sustainable Development for Egypt, Yemen, and Djibouti

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