Climate change is not causing wars – yet


Major review finds a warming world will be a more violent world. Nick Carne reports.


Politics and poverty are still more important than climate change as drivers of conflict, but that situation may change.

Photo by Chris McGrath/Getty Images

Climate wars are not yet upon us, according to an international team of experts drawn from diverse backgrounds.

Writing in the journal Nature, they suggest that while the influence of climate is tangible, affecting and exacerbating conflicts, it has not so far been the root cause of war.

Old-school problems such as poor socioeconomic development, inequality, bad statesmanship and a recent history of violence are still much more influential.

The team, which was led by Katharine Mach from Stanford University, US, comprised three assessment facilitators and 11 climate and conflict experts spanning a range of social science disciplines, including political science, economics, geography and environmental sciences.

They also brought to the table different epistemological approaches and diverse previous conclusions about climate and conflict.

Their paper thus assesses the current understanding of the relationship between climate and conflict based on their combined structured judgments.

“Across the experts, best estimates are that 3-20% of conflict risk over the past century has been influenced by climate variability or change, and none of their individual estimated ranges excludes a role of climate in 10% of conflict risk to date,” the researchers write.

The mean estimate across the experts is that climate variability or change has substantially increased risk across 5% of conflicts to date.

However, this is likely to rise to 13% if the global mean temperature rises by two degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, and 26% for four degrees.

“Future climate-conflict linkages could involve exacerbation of climate-conflict connections that are present in experiences to date, climate change effects that are fundamentally beyond previous experiences or circumstances in which existing response capacities reach their limits,” the authors write.

“Across these categories, relevant climate change risks include substantial economic effects, climatic extremes and associated disasters, effects on agricultural production or differential climate change effects that increase intergroup inequalities.

“Such influences could also reveal ‘missing’ institutions, for which governance mechanisms do not yet exist to address emergent climate change risks (for example, the potential for substantial increases in migration).”

Is there any good news?

The experts suggest with a 67% probability (mean average, of course) that climate-related conflict risk “could be reduced through investments that address known drivers”. For a four-degree-Celsius scenario, this drops to a 57% probability, given the more severe climate change effects.

And the take home message?

“For those scholars and policy-makers focused on conflict, the assessment has pointed to the different ways in which climate may interact with the major drivers of conflict risk,” Mach and colleagues conclude.

“Effectively managing such interactions will require mainstream and holistic, rather than myopic, considerations of the role of the climate across diverse settings and attention to uncertainties that will persist.”

  1. https://www.nature.com/articles/s41586-019-1300-6
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