When global leaders come together on Sunday for the beginning of the United Nations Climate Change summit in Glasgow, Scotland, one of the top goals will be a topic at the heart of the climate conversation: slowing the increase of the Earth’s warming.
And if they do not, the increased risk of conflict or even war will be among the many threats that climate change and global warming may pose.
A surge of research in recent years suggests a relationship between global warming and the likelihood of conflict. In a 2019 paper, researchers found that intensifying climate change will likely increase the future risk of violent armed conflict within countries, estimating that climate change or climate variability has influenced between 3% and 20% of armed conflict risk over the past century. The study also found that if global emission rates are not reduced, the risk of climate-induced violence is fivefold.
Some leaders have since pledged to cut greenhouse gas emissions, but the world is still not on track to slow warming to levels established by the Paris Agreement in 2015, according to a U.N. report released on Tuesday. Even the new emissions goals set by governments around the world are not strict enough to keep the globe from warming by more than 1.5 degrees Celsius by the end of the century, the report found, raising the stakes at the upcoming summit.
“Every ton of carbon dioxide emissions adds to global warming,” French climate scientist Valerie Masson-Delmotte, who co-chaired an August U.N. climate science report, told the United Nations on Tuesday, according to The Associated Press. “The climate we experience in the future depends on our decisions now.”
Increasing the possibilities for conflict may also be the mass displacement of people forced to leave areas that become inhospitable, researchers say. But the climate-related events that may lead to displacement disproportionately impact some regions more than others. According to a University of Notre Dame index, the countries most vulnerable to climate change tend to be in the global south, where many already are experiencing armed conflict.
In recent years, climate change has been known as a “threat multiplier,” and in a February speech to the U.N. Security Council, Secretary-General António Guterres called climate change a “crisis multiplier” with profound implications for international peace and stability.
In countries where climate change leads to drought or reduced harvest or destroys critical infrastructure and displaces communities, the risk of conflict is exacerbated, Guterres said. In Afghanistan, for example, reduced harvest pushed people into poverty, leaving them susceptible to recruitment by armed groups. And across parts of Africa, grazing patterns that have changed due to climate conditions have fostered conflict between farmers, he explained.
“The forced movement of larger numbers of people around the world will clearly increase the potential for conflict and insecurity,” Guterres said.
According to a research paper published in April, African countries are expected to be particularly susceptible to the effects of climate change due in large part to the reliance of some African economies on agriculture and livestock.
The paper explores the impact of climate change on some African countries’ susceptibility to conflict and war. The researchers found that more than 1.2 million people across the continent were killed in civil conflict between 1989 and 2018 — a period which saw annual rainfall fall well below average. Drought brought on by climate change forced competition among farmers, the researchers explained, triggering violent clashes.
In other parts of the world, climate-related disasters such as floods and famine drive people from their homes, resulting in forced migration. A 2018 study identified the effect of climate on conflict occurrence for countries in Western Asia in the period 2010–2012, when many countries were undergoing political transformation. It indicated that climate-related conditions affected the likelihood of armed conflict and played a significant role as an explanatory factor of asylum seeking during the period studied.
Calling climate change “the biggest threat to security that modern humans have ever faced,” natural historian and broadcaster David Attenborough urged governments attending the upcoming climate summit, called COP26, to recognize climate change as a threat to global security.
Another goal of the summit will be addressing climate change inequities through finance plans, following up on the commitments made by wealthy nations to mobilize $100 billion every year to support developing countries. But just as the world is lagging on its efforts to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions and thus tamp down global warming, governments are also behind on their financial promises to poorer countries.
However, Jochen Flasbarth, state secretary at Germany‘s environment ministry, said on Monday during a web event that climate finance for developing countries is not about generosity. “It is, on the contrary, an integral essential part of global climate policy,” he said. “It is a key requirement of fairness, responsibility and the need to mutually implement the Paris targets.”
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Added Rachel Cleetus, policy director of the climate and energy program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, although the climate crisis is everywhere, it’s a “very inequitable crisis.”
“The countries that are most responsible for the emissions are not taking responsibility for the impact of those emissions and those who contributed the least to the emissions are now finding themselves on the frontlines of some of these devastating effects,” Cleetus said. “So that’s a fundamental inequity and injustice that’s baked into this global climate crisis.”
And while the heads of some of the most developed nations head to Glasgow, the poorer countries, largely the most vulnerable, are on the frontlines of the climate crisis.
“The climate vulnerable countries are the ones who are on the frontlines of some of these worst effects and they’re across the world in the global south — from small island nations to countries in the African continent to South America, we’re seeing these really extraordinary climate impacts in all of these places,” Cleetus says. “It’s everywhere. And things like water scarcity and food insecurity are really acute for developing countries. And this last year, of course, it’s collided with COVID vaccine inequity. The economic crisis. And so that’s meant a lot more people have been driven into poverty and hunger this last year, because of these compounding crises.”
Still, researchers note that climatic conditions cannot cause conflict alone, but changes in climate can alter the conditions that facilitate social interaction, with the potential to increase the likelihood that conflict results. And as the climate crisis persists, warming the atmosphere and accelerating and magnifying natural disasters throughout the world, the potential for conflict will perhaps also intensify.
“What we’re talking about is mass displacement of people because certain places become impossible or inhospitable to live in,” Cleetus says. “And we have to prepare well ahead of time because unfortunately, what we see around us now is when people are forced to migrate, they’re treated with racism and xenophobia, and climate change is going to displace many, many people. And so we have to get out ahead of this problem. We have to make sure that those people have safe places to go and are treated in a humane way.”
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