Could climate change worsen global conflict? | Science News for Students

Could climate change worsen global conflict?

By stressing resources and prompting mass migrations, climate change could be a ‘threat multiplier’
May 23, 2019 — 6:40 am EST
a Syrian boy sitting in a refugee camp with his head on his hand

A Syrian boy sits in a refugee camp after civil war destroyed towns and rural areas throughout his country. Some scientists believe climate stresses could have played a role in triggering or worsening the Syrian conflict.

cloverphoto/iStock/Getty Images plus

There is a region in the Middle East known as the Fertile Crescent. It includes parts of what are now Turkey, Iraq and Syria. In ancient times, it was known as a birthplace of farming. But the area is not so fertile anymore. Marshlands that covered much of the area have largely dried up. Between 2007 and 2010, the region saw very little rain. It suffered the worst drought seen since scientists began keeping records here.

Climate change didn't cause the drought, but it probably made it worse. Crops failed. People went hungry. Many people moved from rural areas to cities, crowding the urban areas.

an animated satellite map showing how groundwater levels fluctuated during a drought
From September 2007 to December 2009, groundwater levels went up (in blue) and then down (in red) over time, as people increasingly turned to wells for water during a drought that struck the Fertile Crescent.
NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

A year later, civil war broke out in Syria. That war is still being waged today. Was climate change to blame for the conflict? Scientists do not all agree. But plenty of studies have suggested that such conflicts could become more likely in communities stressed by the weather extremes that are expected to emerge in a warming world.

Climate change is already affecting human communities in many ways. It's been crowding out some regions as sea-level rise shrinks the size of islands and wipes away some coastal towns. It’s bashed and destroyed towns and cities with severe weather or mega-wildfires. It’s started bringing disease and job-robbing heat to some regions. It's even changing what foods are available to eat.

Sherri Goodman is a security expert and board member with the Center for Climate and Security in Washington, D.C. “Climate change is a threat multiplier,” she says. “It aggravates existing tensions around the world,” she explains. “And makes existing threats worse."

What about Syria?

Goodman points to Syria as a good example. When farmers and herders moved to the cities, there wasn’t enough food, water and housing for everyone. This added to the existing political problems. And that stressed people, making them angry, scared and tense.

“There were a lot of forces in the mix,” she says. “But it’s been well documented now that the climate-aggravated drought was one of the factors that led to the unrest we’ve seen in that country.”

a photo of the bottom half of a woman farmer holding a hoe on dry ground
Drought, which ravages farmlands, is a "threat multiplier" says Sherri Goodman of the Center for Climate and Security.
Евгений Харитонов/iStock/Getty Images Plus

By causing people to move within their home countries or to new ones, extreme weather and sea-level rise can be climate triggers of conflict. And in regions such as the Arctic, melting sea ice can lead to global powers competing for control of waterways and natural resources, Goodman adds.

But we shouldn’t be too quick to assume that climate change is causing war, some experts caution. People often exaggerate the link between climate and conflict, says Jan Selby. He’s a professor of international relations at the University of Sussex, in England.

Selby investigated claims that climate change had led to the Syrian civil war. Many studies had over-simplified the situation, he found. They assumed that drought was the biggest reason people moved to cities. In fact, his team found that bigger causes were poverty, the depletion of groundwater resources and conflict on Syria's borders. Nor was that all. Certain government policies expanded the agricultural industry beyond its capacity. For example, he notes, government-funded projects to build massive agricultural infrastructure created pressure to increase wheat production beyond what was sustainable.

That’s true, too, for other studies of climate and conflict, Selby says. Changes in weather, especially drought, often get blamed for migration and social unrest. "This is wrong,” he says.

In fact, even in rural, developing areas, global economic factors play a role. What types of economic factors? He’s referring to changes in fuel and fertilizer prices, for instance. Those can hurt a farmer’s income. So can higher costs of transporting farm goods to market. And taxes imposed by local governments or militias can push farmers over the edge. “Too often,” he says, “analysts ignore this and mistakenly treat drought as the main variable.”

Colin Kelley tends to agree. He’s a climate scientist at the International Research Institute for Climate and Society. It’s at Columbia University in New York City. Kelley also is an author of a key study on the role of climate-related drought in Syria’s civil war.

a photo of a smoke cloud above the city of Kobane after an air strike
Air strikes hit the Syrian city of Kobane.
aliunlu/iStock/Getty Images Plus

“There are a lot of ways conflict can occur. And all of that was true for Syria,” he notes. But, he adds, in this case, it's clear that environmental stress added to other pressures.

Kelley’s study found clear signs in Syria that climate change had worsened the region’s drought. He also found that the agricultural crisis this caused added to the pressures on an already unstable country. “All of these things are related,” he says. If you look at only one of them, "you’re only getting part of the picture.”

There may be bias, too

There’s still a lot people don’t know about how climate may be linked to conflict, says Tobias Ide. He works at the Georg Eckert Institute in Braunschweig, Germany. There, he studies issues that play a role in peace and conflict.

Ide reviewed 124 studies that looked at possible links between climate and conflict. All had been published between 1998 and 2017. And in them, he found what he terms a sampling bias. By that, he means, the researchers were more likely to study areas that were already violent, that were easy to visit or both. Most studies focused on Africa and the Middle East. Other areas of the world, like South America and Oceania, were hardly studied at all.

a photo of water flooding buildings on the seashore during a storm in Kiribati
Many Pacific islands, like Tarawa in Kiribati, are also vulnerable to the effects of climate change. Researchers like Jan Selby want to study why some places respond to environmental threats with conflict, and others with collaboration.
JohnHodjkinson/iStock/Getty Images Plus

Focusing only on violent areas can make the connection between climate and violence seem stronger, he argues. If the goal is to learn how to successfully adapt to climate change, scientists should look at a broad range of examples, he says.

Ide is now focusing his research on efforts at environmental peace-building. These are programs in which shared environmental challenges actually bring countries together. In these places, people cooperate to solve their problems.

“Even under pressure and environmental stress,” he notes, “there are cases where people, or groups or communities, which have been in conflict in the past, team up and manage these challenges cooperatively.”

Power Words

(more about Power Words)

Arctic     A region that falls within the Arctic Circle. The edge of that circle is defined as the northernmost point at which the sun is visible on the northern winter solstice and the southernmost point at which the midnight sun can be seen on the northern summer solstice. The high Arctic is that most northerly third of this region. It’s a region dominated by snow cover much of the year.

bias     The tendency to hold a particular perspective or preference that favors some thing, some group or some choice. Scientists often “blind” subjects to the details of a test (don’t tell them what it is) so that their biases will not affect the results.

civil war     A war fought between two or more opposing groups that are citizens of the same country. In the U.S. Civil War, which took place from 1861 to 1865, southern “Confederate” states that had supported slavery fought unsuccessfully to break from the United States and form a new country.

climate     The weather conditions that typically exist in one area, in general, or over a long period.

climate change     Long-term, significant change in the climate of Earth. It can happen naturally or in response to human activities, including the burning of fossil fuels and clearing of forests.

crop     (in agriculture) A type of plant grown intentionally grown and nurtured by farmers, such as corn, coffee or tomatoes. Or the term could apply to the part of the plant harvested and sold by farmers. 

develop     To emerge or come into being, either naturally or through human intervention, such as by manufacturing. (as with towns) The conversion of wildland to host communities of people. This development can include the building of roads, homes, stores, schools and more. Usually, trees and grasslands are cut down and replaced with structures or landscaped yards and parks.

drought     An extended period of abnormally low rainfall; a shortage of water resulting from this.

factor     Something that plays a role in a particular condition or event; a contributor.

fertile     Old enough and able to reproduce. Or land that supports agriculture.

fertilizer     Nitrogen, phosphorus and other plant nutrients added to soil, water or foliage to boost crop growth or to replenish nutrients that were lost earlier as they were used by plant roots or leaves.

groundwater     Water that is held underground in the soil or in pores and crevices in rock.

infrastructure     The underlying structure of a system. The term usually refers to the basic physical structures and facilities on which a society depends. These include roads, bridges, sewers, drinking water supplies, electrical power grids and phone systems.

link     A connection between two people or things.

migration     (v. migrate) Movement from one region or habitat to another, especially regularly (and according to the seasons) or to cope with some driving force (such as climate or war). An individual that makes this move is known as a migrant.

Oceania     Australia and a group of Pacific island nations to the north and to the east of Australia. Nations in the group include Papua New Guinea, New Zealand, Samoa and Fiji. Hawaii and Guam are also among the many islands that fall within this broad swath of the populated Pacific.

policy     A plan, stated guidelines or agreed-upon rules of action to apply in certain specific circumstances. For instance, a school could have a policy on when to permit snow days or how many excused absences it would allow a student in a given year.

politics     (adj. political) The activities of people charged with governing towns, states, nations or other groups of people. It can involve deliberations over whether to create or change laws, the setting of policies for governed communities, and attempts to resolve conflicts between people or groups that want to change rules or taxes or the interpretation of laws. The people who take on these tasks as a job (profession) are known as politicians.

sea     An ocean (or region that is part of an ocean). Unlike lakes and streams, seawater — or ocean water — is salty.

social     (adj.) Relating to gatherings of people; a term for animals (or people) that prefer to exist in groups. (noun) A gathering of people, for instance those who belong to a club or other organization, for the purpose of enjoying each other’s company.

society     An integrated group of people or animals that generally cooperate and support one another for the greater good of them all.

stress     (in biology) A factor — such as unusual temperatures, movements, moisture or pollution — that affects the health of a species or ecosystem. (in psychology) A mental, physical, emotional or behavioral reaction to an event or circumstance (stressor) that disturbs a person or animal’s usual state of being or places increased demands on a person or animal; psychological stress can be either positive or negative.

sustainable     An adjective to describe the use of resources in a such a way that they will continue to be available long into the future.

urban     Of or related to cities, especially densely populated ones or regions where lots of traffic and industrial activity occurs. The development or buildup of urban areas is a phenomenon known as urbanization.

variable      (in experiments) A factor that can be changed, especially one allowed to change in a scientific experiment. For instance, when researchers measure how much insecticide it might take to kill a fly, they might change the dose or the age at which the insect is exposed. Both the dose and age would be variables in this experiment.

weather     Conditions in the atmosphere at a localized place and a particular time. It is usually described in terms of particular features, such as air pressure, humidity, moisture, any precipitation (rain, snow or ice), temperature and wind speed. Weather constitutes the actual conditions that occur at any time and place. It’s different from climate, which is a description of the conditions that tend to occur in some general region during a particular month or season.


Journal: C. Adams et al. Sampling bias in climate-conflict research. Nature Climate Change. Vol. 8, Feb. 12, 2018, p. 200. doi: 10.1038_s41558-018-0068-2.ris.

Journal: J. Selby et al. Climate change and the Syrian civil war revisited. Political Geography. Vol. 60, September 2017, p. 232. doi: 10.1016/j.polgeo.2017.05.007.

Journal: C. Kelley et al. Climate change in the Fertile Crescent and implications of the recent Syrian drought. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Vol. 112, March 17, 2015, p. 3241. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1421533112.