For every complex problem there is an answer that’s simple, clear and wrong.

– H.L. Mencken

The link between environmental degradation and conflict, including climate change and conflict, has been in the news and in reports for a while now. For instance, the last IPCC report states that climate change can indirectly increase the risk of violent conflict. Recently, even Antonio Guterres, Secretary-General of the United Nations argued that tackling climate change will help prevent conflicts, explaining that wars are “exacerbated by climate change”. Furthermore, even if it can look unbelievable, even the Trump administration knows that. James Mattis, current United States Secretary of Defence, is aware that some conflicts are linked to climate change, including the Arab Spring and the Syrian war.

But… where does all this come from?

The history of environmental conflicts starts in the 1980s, when scholars aimed to extend the security thinking to include other areas. The end of the Cold War fostered the search for alternative paradigms, which led to the study of the possible relationship between environment and global security. Empirical tracing emerged in the 1990s, and causal links between environmental scarcity and conflict were investigated.

During the first decade of the 21st century, great attention was placed not only on environment in general, but more precisely on the implications of climate change on security. In 2003, the United States Department of Defence presented a Pentagon-funded report with a future scenario which showed climate change to be a potential cause for war and social disruption, which could pose a challenge for the country’s national security’. Some years later, in 2007, a group of retired US military personnel, produced a report arguing that climate change will cause instability in many regions of the world.

Some argue that one of the turning points was in 2007, when Christian Aid released a report called ‘Human tide: The real migration crisis’, which presented a scenario of millions of displaced climate refugees. That same year, the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, linked the conflict of Sudan’s Darfur region to a combination of demographic pressures, resource scarcity and climate change.

Environmental scarcity drives conflict?

The mainstream narrative on which all this research is based is the idea that environmental scarcity will have direct correlation with violent conflict. It argues, based on a Neo-Malthusianist idea, that population will grow steeply in the coming decades, reaching nine billion by half-century. This will put more pressure on renewable resources, decrease agricultural land, deplete forests, aquifers and other water resources and result in a decline in fisheries, added to the threat of climate change. This is found to contribute to violent conflict in many parts of the developing world, and will increase in the coming decades. This contribution to conflict will be direct, through competition for scarce natural resources, or indirect, through the generation of environmental refugees.

This same correlation of degradation with conflict is applied to climate change. The last IPCC report states that climate change “is projected to increase displacement of people” and “can indirectly increase risks of violent conflicts […] by amplifying […] drivers of these conflicts such as poverty and economic shocks”, and adds that this could influence national security policies.

However, a great part of the literature finds a direct correlation of climate change consequences with the outbreak of conflicts, not indirect as the IPCC report suggests. For example, Hendrix & Salehyan (2012) study the correlation between changing rainfall patterns and disruptive activities, from demonstrations to violence, in Africa. A positive relation was found between both, linking extreme deviations in rainfall with political conflict, especially with abundant rainfall events. Another study by Burke and colleagues (2009) does a similar analysis in the African continent, linking climate warming and the risk of civil war. They provide a relationship between past internal armed conflicts with variation in temperature, and build projections under the effects of climate change, finding a 54% increase in armed conflict incidence by 2030.

UN Photo/Albert González Farran

UN Photo/Albert González Farran

But… really?

Some authors such as Hagmann (2005) find the methodology and the theoretical basis of the environmental conflict research inconsistent, arguing that they violate principles of research design or the lack of ex ante definition of research questions. Moreover, the environmental determinism that arises from the environment-conflict link is one of the most repeated in the arguments against this theory, as it neglects the political and social variables and the role that governments, political institutions and social actors may have in mitigating resource pressure and conflict. The Neo-Malthusianism perspective can be counter-argued by pointing out different examples where food and water scarcity did not lead to large-scale violence. Instead, equating famine with warfare is denying the responsibility of the industrialised world to the affected regions, ignoring real causes of poverty, such as economic disadvantages of the developing world when entering global markets.

Finally, a more profound issue is the North’s ethnocentric perspective that the environment-conflict narrative has at its core. The literature is based on the premise that people in the South will use violence in times of scarcity, while this argument is rarely applied to the developed North. To Barnett (2000), the North is creating its own fiction, projecting its own violent rationality into the South, assuming the South will respond with aggression to threats, as the North would. Therefore, we are creating a barbaric Other that appeals to our sensationalist and militaristic culture which is, in turn, naturalising political conflicts and presenting the South’s poor people to the uncontrollable forces of Nature.

The securitization of the environment

The danger in viewing the South as a primeval Other, is the consequent suggestion of the North imposing order. This, first of all, denies the possibility of peaceful dialogue and justifies violence. Secondly, it justifies the intervention to the affected areas, entering the ‘environment’ in the Northern security agenda, thus obscuring the northern complicity in the generation of environmental problems, for example, the role of commercial agriculture and extractive industries or the lack of land reform.

An illustrating example of this is the climate change and conflict discourse. Climate change is presented as a natural threat that will exacerbate conflicts in the South. This hides the huge responsibility that the North has in the generation of greenhouse gases, and legitimizes future interventions to prevent so-called climate conflicts. Therefore, it is framed as a national security issue rather than one of human security, and an issue of sovereignty rather than a global commons problem, focusing on issues like territorial losses due to sea level rise, or climate migration. This leads to the disregard of the domestic causes of environmental change, and to the militarisation and securitisation of climate change.

All these “crisis narratives” are indirectly justifying certain kinds of development interventions, such as the expansion of commercial agriculture and forestry, but most importantly, they are legitimizing the defence of the status quo. Such narratives are a reflection of the Northern interests rather than a deep analysis of the root causes of environmental degradation. This discourse can lead to military “stability operations” to ungoverned spaces that are more prone to suffer environmental conflicts, to greater border restrictions to protect the North from “waves of immigrants” and, in general, protect the interests of the Western world from the Others that might undermine their stability.
This article was published originally in

(Photo: Reuters/Rodi Said)