Among the many sobering projections of harm to be caused by climate change is this eye-popping statistic: on average, according to economists, a rise in local temperature of half a degree Celsius is associated with a ten to 20 percent increase in the risk of deadly conflict. If accurate, that means the likelihood of such strife is swiftly rising. UN climate scientists estimate that manmade emissions have generated one degree of global warming since preindustrial times, and because the pace of climate change is fast accelerating, they predict another half a degree of warming as soon as 2030. Tropical areas will have even more extreme warming, with a correspondingly higher risk of climate-related insecurity.
Ending or preventing conflicts exacerbated by climate change requires a faster and different approach than addressing climate change itself. Many governments have begun to curb emissions, but they are gradually phasing in their climate mitigation efforts. For example, 120 countries have embraced a net-zero carbon emission target by 2050—a worthy goal that could prevent the earth from eventually becoming uninhabitable. But millions of people around the world are already experiencing record heat waves, extreme precipitation, and rising sea levels—changes that disrupt livelihoods; exacerbate food insecurity, water scarcity, and resource competition; and spur migration. Tackling climate change is a necessary but inescapably longer-term endeavor. Conflict prevention must happen now.
The relationship between climate and conflict is neither simple nor linear. The same climate impacts can produce very different conflict outcomes depending on the political response. In some instances, rising temperatures and uneven rainfall generate scarcity; in others, climate change—and human responses to it—unlocks new resources. While some countries manage climate-induced competition well, others don’t manage it at all—making conflict more likely. The relationship between climate and conflict can also be inverted: conflict and criminality can worsen climate change and impede mitigation efforts, as illegal logging has done in the Amazon.