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What does the IPCC report tell us about climate and conflict?

Last week, the IPCC Working Group II released its report Climate Change 2022: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability. The report issues a stark warning on the impacts climate change is having and will increasingly have on society, from drought and water scarcity to human health and economic losses in climate-exposed sectors. Another crucial impact is increased risk of conflict.

The authors are cautious and rightly point out that there is no direct and automatic link between climate change and conflict. They also underline that “there is no consensus on the causal association between observed climate change and conflicts” (IPCC 2022, 4-54). This position is perhaps unduly influenced by the authors’ focus on more quantitative rather than qualitative studies, and the narrow search for direct rather than contributory risk pathways. There is a wealth of rich, locally informed, qualitative research, much of which resides in ‘grey literature’, which deepens our understanding of these risk pathways considerably, but which did not make it into the IPCC’s review.

Nevertheless, the authors do however confirm what has been the consensus of a large part of the climate-security research community: climate change does contribute to increased conflict, but along indirect pathways. There are a variety of context factors — in particular socio-economic conditions, governance, and political factors — that interact and play a key role in translating climate change into conflict risks.

The report spells out many of the specific pathways that link climate change and conflict:

  • Food security: Climate change increases drought in many regions of the world, which can in turn reduce agricultural production and drive up food prices. According to the report, “food insecurity from food price spikes (…) can lead to both domestic and international conflict, including political instability” (IPCC 2022, 5-114). Of course, the pathway is not direct: factors like economic development and diversification, governance, state capacity, and history of conflict all interact in determining if food insecurity escalates into conflict. What is clear is that climate applies additional pressure in already fragile contexts, increasing the likelihood of conflict erupting. For example, the report confirms “there is increasing evidence linking increased temperatures and drought to conflict risk in Africa (high confidence),” particularly in populations that depend on agriculture or are politically excluded (IPCC 2022, 9-9).
  • Water security: Climate is expected to affect water availability in a number of ways, including shifting rainfall patterns, glacial melt, and saltwater encroachment into groundwater. According to the report, “evidence suggests that changes in rainfall patterns amplify existing tensions” (IPCC 2022, 4-53), a prime example being Syria and the role a drier climate played in the country’s civil war. In water-stressed areas with existing tensions between population groups or states over a water source, “the impact of climate change on water resources might increase tensions, particularly in the absence of strong institutional capacity” (IPCC 2022, 4-86). This increased tension can bubble over into social conflicts, even protests and riots (IPCC 2022, 5-134).
  • Migration: Climate change influences migration in several ways extreme weather events can trigger displacement, while loss of livelihood opportunities can contribute to internal migration to cities. The report confirms with high confidence that “climate hazards are a growing driver of involuntary migration and displacement” (IPCC 2022, 7-3). While migration is an important adaptation tool and not a direct cause of conflict, rural-urban migration to informal settlements on the outskirts of cities can lead to pockets of high human vulnerability, “where the capacities of local, municipal and national governments, communities and the private sector are least able to provide infrastructures and basic services (high confidence)” (IPCC 2022, SPM-12). Additionally, “there is robust evidence and medium agreement that climate change can exacerbate existing tensions, which can in turn result in political violence and an increase in asylum-seeking” (IPCC 2022, 8-24).

Beyond these individual climate security pathways, and perhaps most importantly, the report highlights how adaptation can reduce the impacts of climate change on known climate-sensitive drivers of conflict and contribute to building peace and preventing conflict. Steps to develop climate-sensitive, resilient livelihoods, improve governance, and advance women’s empowerment can serve as powerful peacebuilding tools (IPCC 2022, SMP-26). Conversely, “there is robust evidence that inequitable responses [to climate change] further exacerbate marginalisation, exclusion or disenfranchisement of some populations, which are commonly recognised drivers of violent conflict” (IPCC 2022, 8-25).

Moreover, “adaptation can provide a common goal reaching across political differences and be a part of building political trust and local cooperation between alienated communities” (IPCC 2022, 6-42). Examples like EcoPeace Middle East using water as an arena for trust-building or Turkey-Armenian cooperation over the shared Arpacay River despite a closed border show us how adapting to the common threat of climate change can offer entry-points for negotiation and future collaboration in contentious areas. Similarly, our own studies indicate how the UN’s Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) could enhance resilience by putting a focus on helping communities adapt to the impacts of climate change.

It is true that climate is not the main driver directly causing conflict, yet climate has undeniable economic and social impacts from food and water insecurity, to loss of livelihood, increased inequities and competition over natural resources that can act as drivers of insecurity and conflict. The additional pressures brought on by higher levels of warming will increase vulnerability and the risk of violent intrastate conflict (IPCC 2022, SPM-16), especially in those places that are characterised by a history of conflict, marginalisation and exclusion and weak governance. The IPCC report therefore underscores the need to identify synergies between conflict risk reduction and climate adaptation, and address the root causes of these problems in parallel.

To achieve this, the peer-reviewed academic studies that inform the IPCC need to be complemented with the latest localised, granular evidence from the field, as well as forward looking scenario and foresight work that can inform policymakers' responses. The overwhelming consensus is that links between climate change and conflict are no longer a question of if but how. What must follow is what can be done?