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Climate and conflict

Climate change: How global warming exacerbates conflict

How climate change can exacerbate political instability and intensify violent conflict

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Director of Innovation Strategy, International Rescue Committee
Chief Innovation Officer, International Rescue Committee

Since 2009, one person has been displaced every second by a natural disaster. As Jane McAdam argued in last week’s episode of Displaced, climate change is likely to increase internal and cross-border displacement. Rapid and large-scale migration can place significant strain on countries already facing economic, political, and environmental challenges, increasing their vulnerability to instability and humanitarian crisis.

Sherri Goodman, Senior Fellow at the Wilson Center and former U.S. Deputy Under Secretary of Defense for Environmental Security, describes climate change as a threat multiplier. “It amplifies and increases many of the threats that we face around the world today,” she affirms, “from terrorism to instability [and] political strife.” On this episode of Displaced, Goodman sits down with hosts Ravi and Grant to discuss how climate change can exacerbate political unrest, violent conflict, and geopolitical competition.

Goodman breaks down the various pathways through which climate change can shape violent conflict. Extreme weather events and slower-onset climate change processes can drive populations from their homes. Migration toward cities that already face capacity constraints—due to environmental conditions, resource scarcity, and unemployment—“creates for further mayhem [and] civil unrest, leading to larger state-on-state conflict,” Goodman says. On the role that drought played in the ongoing Syrian conflict, Goodman reflects, “We didn't understand well enough, before the conflict became deadly, that it was the drought that was driving populations into ever more congested areas,” fostering greater political instability.

Sherri Goodman Photo: The Wilson Center

Yet, as chapter 3 of the 2018 IPCC report notes, evidence of a causal relationship between climate change, migration, and conflict is inconsistent; the effects of climate change are likely mediated by a range of factors, including state capacity, resilient infrastructure, and agricultural dependence. “It's not necessarily a one-to-one relationship,”  Goodman says. “You need to look at the whole system: the human system, the political system, and the natural system.”

The ongoing effects of climate change in the Arctic illustrate how climate change can produce profound disruptions at both the local and international levels. Goodman describes how some of the Arctic’s indigenous communities have been displaced as a result of retreating sea ice and warming waters. “You could call them the first generation of climate migrants,” she notes. Melting ice has also opened up new shipping lanes, creating new economic opportunities that could exacerbate great power rivalries. “It's an area where there's growing competition but there's also a growing need to cooperate,” Goodman says of the Arctic.

Goodman reflects on how approaches to environmental protection in the defense and security sectors have changed since she joined the Department of Defense in the early 1990s. “Security sector [and] military leaders certainly get it,” she says, referring to the need for a whole-of-society effort to address the effects of climate change. A daughter of Holocaust refugees, Goodman “grew up with an awareness that people can be displaced and that assuming that harm won't come to you is is never a good assumption.” Extremist politics, combined with climate change, have made us vulnerable, she says. “We need to reset ourselves and our expectations in a way that recognizes that we can all be displaced.”

“Climate change is too important to leave just to the environmentalists...It’s a whole-of-society issue and we need an all-hands-on-deck approach.”

Related Resources

Impacts of 1.5°C of Global Warming on Natural and Human Systems — IPCC

National Security and the Threat of Climate Change — CNA Corporation

Climate Change and Conflict — Ore Koren, Political Violence at a Glance

Climate Shocks and Humanitarian Crises: Which Countries are Most at Risk? — Joshua Busby and Nina von Uexkull, Foreign Affairs

The Humanitarian Impacts of Climate Change — IRIN

Don’t Jump to Conclusions About Climate Change and Civil Conflict — Nature

The Emerging Arctic — Council on Foreign Relations

Opinions and views expressed by guests are their own and do not reflect those of the International Rescue Committee.