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Transformative News

Climate Change and Conflict


Before we delve into our topic for this month's newsletter, TP would like to welcome everybody back from the Summer holidays! This month has a special relationship with peace. On September 21st (the International day of peace), the United Nations Peace bell will be rung in New York City as a reminder of “the human cost of war.”

This message is something that resonates with many, including us at TP. Unfortunately, we have also been reminded this past month, of the "human costs" of climate change, with the devastating floods in Libya, which took the lives of more than 11,000 people, bringing back memories of last years floods in Pakistan. September has been a month of extraordinary hardship and loss for North Africa, with Morocco suffering an unprecedented earthquake that took the lives of around 3,000 people. While we reconcile emotionally and look for ways to support those in need, it may be equally important to have a conversation about the impact of climate change on people's lives.

The US Presidential Envoy for Climate, John Kerry recently cited a science teacher who described populations at the center of the climate crisis as “suffering a slow death”. He asked the audience at the Scottish Global Dialogues to consider the scenes in Iraq: “waterless, unlivable villages near the Euphrates River where families are dismantling their homes, brick by brick, piling them into pickup trucks — window frames, doors and all — and driving away… These, my friends, are the real faces of the climate crisis. Now, magnify those lives by millions. These millions are and will continue to suffer through climate driven disasters, food insecurity, environmental deterioration, displacement, and among other things, violent conflict. Communities in the global south are and will continue to be the most vulnerable in these regards, despite contributing the least to climate change. Positive and sustainable change will require immediate and drastic climate action in all sectors of social, economic, and political life. This goes for peacebuilders as well, who can only benefit from the inclusion of climate-sensitive approaches to peacebuilding. 

Climate Change and Conflict 

Various studies conducted by the United Nations, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), and scholars, have highlighted climate change as both a “trigger” of conflict and a “threat-multiplier”, exacerbating and prolonging existing threats, especially in contexts with scant natural resources. While socio-economic factors and governance will continue to be the main drivers of violent conflict, the intersection between climate change and conflict is one of increasing importance as the effects of climate change worsen. As explained in the 2022 IPCC Sixth Assessment Report, climate change “may produce severe risks to peace within this century through climate variability and extremes''. 

Scholars are, however, certain on the risk that inaction on climate change poses. As the IPCC warns, with climate change worsening, the impact of weather and climate extremes on violent intrastate conflict, especially drought, will become increasingly severe. A critical aspect of the climate change-conflict nexus is what’s termed a climate conflict trap, which refers to the reciprocal relationship between the two where the effects of climate change increase vulnerabilities to conflict while conflict itself limits the capacity of communities to adapt to changing climate conditions. These dynamics generate three main climate-conflict risks:  

  • The deterioration of community resilience resulting from both climate change & conflict, 

  • Increase resource competition and scarcity, and 

  • Increased recruitment into armed groups as a result of livelihood insecurity

Climate Change, Displacement, and Conflict

A common way climate change increasingly affects conflict is through displacement. Displacement, conflict, and climate change are all interconnected. A look at the literature reveals a strong relationship between displacement & the occurrence of interstate conflicts, with displacement worsening existing ethnic, social, and political tensions. Alongside conflict, climate change is the leading cause of displacement globally. In 2021, conflict and climate change were responsible for the internal displacement of 38 million people. “Around the world,” as John Kerry explained, “people are moving because they can’t grow food, because they are flooded, because they can’t live and work in the extreme heat, because the air they are forced to breathe is clogged with pollution that kills someone prematurely every five seconds around the world.”

A range of climate change related patterns generate and will increasingly generate widespread displacement. These patterns also intersect with other vulnerabilities, sometimes affecting people's ability to move, creating what the literature refers to as trapped populations. These are populations of people that, because of intersecting vulnerabilities and risks, lack the capacity to safely migrate. These populations can sometimes be even more vulnerable than displaced populations, as they may often face a difficult choice between staying in areas affected by drought, environmental deterioration, and/or conflict, or risking the sometimes high possibilities of exploitation, trafficking, and violence associated with migration. The slow-onset effects of climate change gravely impact people's lives with respect to their enjoyment of human rights, their economic well-being, and their mobility, affecting both displaced and trapped populations. This dynamic can be expected to worsen, as 80% of the world's poorest people live in areas affected by drought and desertification, and many live in areas of high water stress. 

Climate Change and Violent Extremism  

The relationship between climate change and violent extremism is particularly under-studied. As Chiara Scissa wrote in a 2022 book research studies have paid attention to climate change, migration, and conflict but not necessarily the interconnections among these three elements, with even less attention being paid to radicalization in particular.  Climate change has a worrying capacity to render communities more vulnerable to a range of hardships, including violent conflict. Climate change can do this through displacement, involuntary migration, and extreme weather and climate events. These effects can impact the length, severity, and frequency of violent conflict,  making societies more vulnerable to violent extremism in the process. 

This is especially true for “trapped populations”, who may become more vulnerable to violent extremism as a result of the hardships and risks associated with their inability to relocate and the environmental deterioration of their area. Violent extremist groups can and have exploited those vulnerabilities to increase their influence of and control over trapped populations.  When climate vulnerabilities exacerbate other social, economic, political, and cultural factors, climate-sensitive areas can become more conducive towards the proliferation of violent extremism. As a result, trapped populations can become fertile ground for violent extremist groups to recruit from as these communities are pressured to trade political violence for economic needs and survival. When all these things mix (under-governed or ungoverned areas, economic underdevelopment, political violence, communal tensions, and climate sensitivity) they provide violent extremist groups like Boko Haram greater strategic opportunities to strengthen and expand their presence and influence. Research on the Lake Chad Basin for instance, where these factors all interact, reveal “serious security implications related to climate change, water scarcity, and increasing conflict.”

Climate-Sensitive Areas and Climate-Sensitive Peacebuilding


Some areas will suffer more than others. Climate variability and extremes pose a particular threat in areas marked by  weak or fragile governance, low economic development, high levels of marginalization, and a high economic dependence on climate-sensitive activities like fishing. As observed in development studies, vulnerability to climate change, as with many vulnerabilities, is connected to social inequality, with some groups being disproportionately exposed to risks. Many impoverished communities become trapped populations because they lack the financial mobility to escape climate related hardships. 

In this respect, the needs of climate-sensitive peacebuilding fit well into the purview of peacebuilding at large, which takes aim at social inequalities as a driver of conflict. Water scarcity is a good example of disparity in geographic climate sensitivity. Water crises are worsening and many areas of the world lack access to clean water. According to a recent report by the World Resources Institute, all of the Middle-East and North Africa will live under extreme water stress by 2050. Since 2020, the Water Conflict Chronology has identified 202 conflicts related to water stress and research has shown a link between water scarcity and extremist recruitment. Evidence for this is strong in the Lake Chad Basin where extremists leverage access to water to recruit fighters among trapped populations. This mirrors Daesh practices in Syria where the organization used water scarcity as a coercive recruitment tactic when it captured dams across the Euphrates-Tigris Basin. Water is a powerful resource, it can be used as leverage, as a tool to gain legitimacy, and is particularly valuable as a recruitment weapon against trapped populations. Climate sensitive areas in the MENA region and beyond will feel the effects of climate change disproportionately, despite the most affected communities contributing the least to the climate crisis. Their vulnerability also entails that these communities lack the same capacity to cope with or adapt to climate effects that other communities possess. A part of climate-sensitive peacebuilding, therefore, is about both reducing susceptibility to the effects of climate change and building the capacity to absorb its impacts.

Climate sensitive areas, such as those made up of smallholder farmers, pastoralists, and fishing communities are the most vulnerable. Iraq is a prime example. In areas like Basra and among Ahwaris for instance, where livestock is the main source of income, people have lost much of their livestock due to climate change related impacts. Making matters worse, Iraqi marshes have turned into desert. The resulting challenges routinely push Ahwaris out of rural villages and into neighboring cities and poor suburbs in Basra, Karbala, and Baghdad, with residents returning when waters rise only to be displaced again when ecological conditions worsen. Weather-sensitive communities like these have low resilience to climate extremes and high levels of underlying risk factors, making climate-sensitive peacebuilding a greater need in these areas. Pathways towards mitigation and resilience can be found through climate-sensitive responses that prioritize economic development, political rights, and sustainability, all of which can lower the risk of climate-related conflict.

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