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CONFLICT AND CLIMATE CHANGE: When former UN-Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon called the war in Darfur “the first climate war” he pointed to an increasing number of cases where climate change and security are connected.
Policy makers have also linked the 2006-2009 drought disaster in Syria to the onset of the civil war in 2011. Several other cases exist but many have also been criticized for not being scientifically robust enough in their evidence.
A paper published in the journal Global Environmental Change demonstrates a new way to identify when and how climate-related disasters contribute to armed conflict.
The paper, co-authored by centre researcher Jonathan Donges, combines statistical data with actual case studies to demonstrate the links. Their work shows that one third of all conflicts studied between 1980 and 2016 were preceded by a disaster within seven days.
Furthermore, and perhaps not surprising, the conflicts take place in countries or regions that are already vulnerable and exposed to political and social instability. It is a vicious circle, Donges and his colleagues argue.
Because armed conflict also increases vulnerability to disasters, a vicious circle could emerge where disasters fuel violence and violence increases risks for further disasters.
Jonathan Donges, co-author
The case studies demonstrate how climate-related disasters often trigger rebels to act violent and cause conflicts. For instance, a drought affecting Mali in June 2009 helped Al-Qaeda to recruit fighters and extend its area of operation in the country.
Similarly, severe landslides and cyclones in the Philippines set the stage for violent conflicts between the Communist Party and the Moro National Liberation Front.
Donges and his colleagues believe their work to have important policy implications. Strengthening state capacities to limit any negative impacts of a climate-related disaster could reduce the likelihood of armed conflicts, at least in the short term.
However, something else is more important, they conclude:
“Reducing political exclusion and raising levels of human development not only promote more inclusive societies, but also make countries more resilient to armed violence in a world with a rapidly changing climate."
The researchers combined three methods well established in environmental security research in our study: event coincidence analysis (ECA), qualitative comparative analysis (QCA) and case studies. Their sample includes all countries with sufficient data availability for the time period 1980-2016, thereby avoiding concerns about sampling biases (Adams et al., 2018).
The independent variable is the occurrence of a climate-related disaster according to MunichRE's (2019) NatCatSERVICE database, including the categories meteorological events (e.g., droughts), hydrological events (e.g., floods), and climatological/extreme temperature events (e.g., heat waves). They used the country as the level of analysis because disasters can impact conflict risks well beyond their specific location, for instance if the state is weakened or migration flows are triggered. In the case studies, they also considered the relationship between locations of disasters and conflict-related violence.
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