When high profile ‘climate events’ occur– be it Cop26, a particularly strong cyclone, or an especially harsh drought– we start to hear questions about how the changing, and increasingly unpredictable climate will affect our future. And when this happens, it is not uncommon to start to hear questions like: ‘will climate change make war more likely?’
I think this type of question is important to be asking, and worth nuanced exploration. Yet somehow, in Peace and Conflict studies, it is not uncommon to hear responses that seem to belittle and dismiss the impact of environmental factors. When this occurs, the line of argument often focuses on there not being clear evidence that climate change is able to cause war. However this limits our understanding of the relationship between the environment and conflict to one of direct, linear causality.
It may well be true that, to date, few wars have had environmental events as their conflict spark. But this doesn’t really tell us very much at all. Conflict-sparks are never able to start violence on their own, they need to occur in a context that is ready to catch alight. In short, it must occur in a place where there is an abundance of conflict risk-factors .
So in many senses, ‘will climate change cause war?’ is the wrong question to be asking, because the answer isn’t going to be very useful. We are likely to get a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no ‘ , which doesn’t give any one interested in pursuing peace much to work with. Instead, perhaps we should ask how humans and the earth are connected, and how this interconnection may impact on war and peace.
And the answer to that question is a complicated one. Our lives are necessarily influenced by the environment we live in. Given that conflict risk-factors incorporate many aspects of human life, we shouldn’t be surprised to see environmental factors reflected here too.
Take this as an example. Deforestation and poor farming practices can lead to desertification. This in turn can lead to drought and famine, which are potential risk-factors on their own, as forms of ‘resource scarcity’. But drought can also push farmers off their traditional lands and into urban centres. Sudden mass migration like this can make it difficult to find work, which is a potential risk-factor as a form of ‘lack of opportunity’. This situation is further exacerbated if these farmer/migrants are unable to pay off loans they had been relying on harvest income for. This lowers their access to financial resources even further (resource scarcity), and if it is widespread enough, can create an ‘unstable economy’ by disrupting the banking sector. Further complicating all of this, climate change is making such droughts more likely.
We can see here just how connected our lives can be to the environment. It can have an impact on migration, employment, banking, and the price of food, just to list examples from this brief scenario. If we simply stopped seeing the environment as significant for war and peace because the drought didn’t directly spark a war, then we would be blinding ourselves to the inter-twinned relationship we have with the Earth.
And this is important, because if we were to do this, we would also be blinding ourselves to the other side too. Proactive Peace Work can incorporate preventing or reversing desertification through things such as tree-planting, alternative farming methods, or lobbying for environmental regulations to halt climate change. Actions such as this can make droughts and thus famine less likely. In so doing, they also address the risk-factors above, and thus contribute to supporting peace.
In these ways, the relationship humans have with the Earth is significant for both peace and conflict, not because environmental factors ‘cause’ war, but because humans cannot be understood outside of our environment.
Our understanding of peace and war needs to avoid simplistic debates of causal factors, and start to acknowledge the relationship we are necessarily in with the Earth. We live on the Earth, depend on it for all of our most basic needs. It is hard to imagine a situation in which the Earth would not impact on our lives.
Does climate change make war inevitable? Of course not. There simply aren’t factors which guarantee war. But does the environment impact on peace and conflict? The answer is a resounding ‘yes’.