Skip to end of metadata
Go to start of metadata

Oli Brown and Alec Crawford
March 2009

Summary The security challenge of climate change As science has revealed the speed and scope of climate change, we have begun to realize that it holds potentially serious implications for international security. Climate change—by redrawing the maps of water availability, food security, disease prevalence and coastal boundaries—could increase forced migration, raise tensions and trigger new conflicts. The security threat posed by climate change has caught the world's political imagination, generating a perceptible shift in the way that a growing number of decision-makers in the North and the South are talking about the subject. The imperative to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and manage the impacts of climate change illustrates, in the starkest manner possible, our global interdependence. Recent years have seen the steady improvement of Africa's economic prospects, in the reduction of levels of conflict, in the quality of governance, and the number and nature of democracies. The African Union and its constituent regional economic communities, through their security architecture, have developed into key players in the reduction of conflict in the region.

Nevertheless, Africa, though the continent the least responsible for greenhouse gas emissions, is almost universally seen as the continent most at risk of climate-induced conflict—a function of the continent's reliance on climate-dependent sectors (such as rain-fed agriculture) and its history of resource, ethnic and political conflict. At the turn of the 21st century, more people were being killed in wars in this region than in the rest of the world combined. With tremendous natural resources and remarkable social and ecological diversity, the continent reflects a close dependency of people on natural resources. It is this dependency and its fragile governance capacities that may present Africa with potentially severe problems in adapting to the challenges of climate change. Whether human-induced climate change is already playing a role in current conflicts, such as Darfur, is highly controversial. This desk-based report takes stock of the rapidly increasing literature on the security impacts of climate change. It tries to highlight the areas of agreement among analysts, and note where opinions diverge. The overall aim of the report is to assess, as objectively as possible, the existing evidence on the 'security threat' of climate change in Africa, and to determine which sectors and regions are most likely to suffer from the conflict impacts of climate change. Conflict is multi-dimensional

In this report we argue that climate change presents very real development challenges which, under certain circumstances, may contribute to the emergence and longevity of conflict. Recent research broadly agrees that four main climate links to conflict in Africa may emerge. First, reduced water supply and growing demand will, in some places, lead to increasing competition between different sectors of society, different communities and different countries. Under certain conditions, such as poor governance and existing ethnic division, these stresses may turn violent. Second, reductions in crop yields and increasingly unpredictable weather patterns around the world may lead to higher prices for food, greater food insecurity and increase the stakes for control over productive agricultural land. Third, changes in sea level, increased natural disasters and the reduced viability of agricultural land may cause large-scale and destabilizing population movements. Finally, the cumulative impact of all these challenges on the prevalence of poverty and the ability of governments to provide services to their citizens could be a factor that tips fragile states towards socio-economic and political collapse. Many factors impact on the probability of armed conflict. Poverty levels, natural resource endowments, population characteristics, ethnic and religious fractionalization, education levels, geography, as well as previous conflicts, are all factors that constrain or facilitate conflict. Climate change is only one of the many security, environmental and developmental challenges facing Africa. Climate change is, in effect, a 'threat multiplier' that makes existing concerns, such as water scarcity and food insecurity, more complex and intractable. However, it is non-climate factors (such as poverty, governance, conflict management, regional diplomacy and so on) that will largely determine whether and how climate change moves from being a development challenge to presenting a security threat. Adaptation policies and programs, if implemented effectively and at multiple scales, could help avert the impacts of climate change becoming triggers for conflict. But, adaptation must take into account existing social, political and economic tensions and avoid exacerbating them. The often thin line between security and insecurity, and between stability and instability, will be determined by three broad factors: first, the extent and speed of climate change (structural conditions); second, the ability of countries and communities to adapt to those changes (institutional capacity); and third, how individuals, communities and governments react to the challenges that arise (responsiveness).
Clearly the challenge of climate change is one that is beyond the capacity of any one country to tackle. Ultimately, its shared developmental and security implications will be best resolved through cooperation at a myriad of levels: cooperation to develop comprehensive international strategies to manage migration, to share the most innovative approaches for adaptation, to administer shared resources and to cope with insecurity.