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Climate Conflicts: Myth or Reality?

Public Policy

The specter of water wars has long loomed large in political and popular imaginations. With the end of the Cold War, fresh concerns emerged that future wars would be fought not over ideology but over natural resources. The alliteratively appealing phrase of “water wars” began rolling off the tongue as United Nations leaders and politicians made bold claims about the inevitable carnage that resource scarcity would bring. Climate change heightens these concerns as the gap widens between what science tells us is necessary and what politics tells us is feasible.

Climate change poses multiple risks with the potential to trigger tensions within and across nation-states. In some places flooding and the rise of sea levels will threaten homes and essential infrastructure; shrinking access to water for irrigation and consumption will undermine rural livelihoods, especially in semi-arid areas; and warming, drought, flooding, and changes in rain patterns will disrupt food systems and exacerbate food insecurity. The severity of these risks rises with higher global temperatures. In other words, risks are directly related to the present scale of mitigation action. So what can we expect in the years ahead? Are climate wars on the horizon, or do they largely lie in the realm of cli-fi fantasy?

History can be a guide to the future, so what do past experiences tell us about the relationship between environmental change and conflict? In the case of water, we see a mismatch between assumptions and evidence. Common wisdom holds that states—and perhaps individuals—will resort to conflict to secure their own access to scarce resources, like freshwater. Research by environmental scientist Peter Gleick in the early 1990s was the first to back up this assumption with historical analysis. He predicted that growth in population and demand, combined with uncertain supply, would increase the likelihood of international military action to secure supplies.

The Middle East, as the world’s most water scarce region, provides numerous cases—both historic and contemporary—to support the hypothesis. Fourteen centuries ago, the King of Assyria reportedly seized water wells to weaken Arabia and gain strategic advantage. More recently, the Jordan River basin has been a hot spot. Animosities in the region have run high since Israel was formed in 1948. But it was the Arab countries’ attempt to divert headwaters of the Jordan River away from Israel in the 1960s that pushed them towards violent conflict. In 1967, shortly before war broke out, the Israeli Prime Minister warned that water is essential for the country’s survival and they would use “all means necessary” to secure water flows. Over six days, Israel then bombed a Jordanian dam on an important tributary to the Jordan River and seized large swathes of upstream territory; and in the process expanded its access to freshwater.

But some scholars remained skeptical that examples from the Middle East reflected a more general connection between resource scarcity and war. Studies out of Norway showed that most of the conflicts Gleick identified were only verbal conflicts, threats of violence, or water-related violence in already-occurring wars. In other words, they were not cases of water scarcity triggering armed conflict. Furthermore, in most cases, water was only an instrument of war or a strategic target, not the objective of fighting in the first place.

Further research at the University of Oregon categorized 2,000 international interactions over war and found that cooperative actions were far more prominent than conflictual ones. Cooperative water bodies have even survived conflict and war between water-sharing countries in various parts of Asia (such as during the Vietnam War). It turns out that violent conflict specifically over water is a fairly rare and isolated phenomenon. Democratic regimes, international trade relations, and membership of cooperative international institutions all reduce the likelihood of conflict. This “democratic peace thesis” should not prompt a Pollyanna vision of the future, but it should tame fears about the likelihood of climate change driving conflict.

Of course, we cannot know that the future will reflect the past: irrespective of whether scarcity was a driver of historical conflicts it may well be a driver of future ones. Water is non-substitutable in agriculture, human wellbeing, and some manufacturing and electricity generation. The world population is estimated to increase by 83 million people per year until 2100, when it will peak at roughly 11 billion. So as long as demands increase, water will become ever scarcer and create conditions we haven’t seen in the past. We also cannot rule out the potential for sub-national conflict, especially in areas where ethnic and regional tensions are already high (such as along the Nile and Indus rivers), and where local populations compete with multinational companies for dwindling resources. Mining companies are profligate water users in arid and semi-arid countries, and this is likely to provoke further tensions in the years ahead.

In Peru, melting glaciers and warming temperatures are reducing the water available for agriculture in the Andean highlands. This provokes clashes with mining companies, which have privileged access to water and a reputation for contaminating common water supplies. This problem is not unique to Peru. As climate change threatens water supply and quality, we will likely see more intense debates about how to use this resource, which in turn places greater pressure on states’ capacity to peacefully and fairly manage competing demands. At the international level, multilateral institutions can promote cooperation and stifle tensions, but these institutions are designed to manage relations among states, not among sub-national groups, or among communities and firms.

Events in Syria have ignited fears about climate change driving civil war. In 2015, Time magazine presented the “surge of migrants” crossing into Europe as foretelling a future crisis of climate refugees. With everyone from Barack Obama to Prince Charles repeating the claim that unprecedented severe drought in Syria triggered civil tension and ultimately civil war, it quickly became accepted wisdom. But here too we should avoid hasty assumptions, as researchers from the United Kingdom and Germany concluded that the “drought migration-civil war thesis” rests on weak evidence.

Of course, whether or not migration is fueled by conflict or other climate-related destitution, human displacement is now inevitable in the years ahead. The scale of displacement will depend on the mitigation and adaptation actions put in place now. The attention of the international policy community should be directed to this question of “human security,” irrespective of the risk of climate conflicts in the years ahead.

Hayley Stevenson is Associate Professor of International Relations at the Universidad Torcuato Di Tella (Argentina). This article draws on Chapter 5 of her latest book, Global Environmental Politics: Problems, Policy and Practice.


21 Comments on "Climate Conflicts: Myth or Reality?"

  1. DerHundistLos on Tue, 6th Mar 2018 2:06 am 

    Just when you thought you heard it all, the Republican Utah State Legislature voted to strike down a Salt Lake City ordinance to charge for plastic bags, and passed a bill that prevents all state municipalities from passing laws to eliminate plastic waste.


  2. Davy on Tue, 6th Mar 2018 5:11 am 

    Fake green nonsense der hund. Fake greens want to do fake green things in a fake green affluence then whine about a plastic bag ordinance and blame it on Republicans because, you know, Democrats do no wrong.

    Unbelievable??? LMFAO

  3. DerHundistLos on Tue, 6th Mar 2018 7:16 am 

    Sure, Davy, to you any attempt to improve the state of affairs is “fake”. So why don’t sit in a corner, suck your thumb, and shut the fuck up? I compliment those people doing what they can to make a difference. You are nothing but a whiner and complainer.

  4. DerHundistLos on Tue, 6th Mar 2018 7:32 am 

    Davy, I am certain you never served a single day in the military. Most likely, as with Trump and Cheney and so many other rich and entitled Republicon phonies, you sought medical deferments while the rest of us fulfilled our obligation to defend the country. IF you had served, you would have quickly met with an attitude adjustment. Too bad, an ass whipping would have served you well.

  5. Davy on Tue, 6th Mar 2018 8:01 am 

    I was in the national guard in college in officer training does that work for you der hund? I doubt you saw any combat becuase anyone making a comment like you did above is obviously a fake.

  6. fmr-paultard on Tue, 6th Mar 2018 8:03 am 

    What’s the big deal who has returning jihadist
    I’ll take them all and chop off hands and feet to make them work.
    They have to pay for their extremism

  7. Davy on Tue, 6th Mar 2018 8:10 am 

    I have no problem with doing real improvements. I have problems with rich self-righteous fake greens which you personify who act green but in reality are the problem too. Sure science denying republicans are the problem but so are you blind lying liberals. At least the science denying republicans are honest about being science deniers. You politically correct incorrect people hide behind a shroud of fake appearances. Your goddess hillary personifies your lies.

    By the tone of your comment I believe you subconsciously got the message and went crying to your corner to whine and moan about how bad everyone but the blind lying liberal Democrats are. You people make me sick and this board is full of your type.

  8. fmr-paultard on Tue, 6th Mar 2018 8:13 am 

    how am i going to defend my supertrads if i have a religion for worshipping supertards at all? how will supertards protect themselves and their families w/o the bumpski?

    Iran’s supreme leader, the Ayatollah Khamenei, became the latest weapons expert to weigh in on the current debate over U.S. gun policy. Unsurprisingly, the Middle Eastern dictator, who boasts a stranglehold over his own people, suggested that American leaders immediately disarm American citizens.

  9. fmr-paultard on Tue, 6th Mar 2018 8:14 am 

    i’m not intending to be a protection racket.

  10. jawagord on Tue, 6th Mar 2018 8:51 am 

    I’m voting for climate myth, instead of invoking climate change we could say too many people using too much water is a problem? Man made Climate Change and it’s infinite consequences are the theory that cannot be proved or disproved aka junk science.

    “……I must point out is that you cannot prove a vague theory wrong …….. then you see that this theory is good, because it cannot be proved wrong! ….if the process of computing the consequences is indefinite, then with a little skill any experimental results can be made to look like the expected consequences. . . .”

    Feynman 1965

  11. GregT on Tue, 6th Mar 2018 10:54 am 

    “At least the science denying republicans are honest about being science deniers. You politically correct incorrect people hide behind a shroud of fake appearances. Your goddess hillary personifies your lies.
    By the tone of your comment I believe you subconsciously got the message and went crying to your corner to whine and moan about how bad everyone but the blind lying liberal Democrats are. You people make me sick and this board is full of your type.”

    United we stand. Divided we will fall.

  12. GregT on Tue, 6th Mar 2018 10:59 am 

    “Man made Climate Change and it’s infinite consequences are the theory that cannot be proved or disproved aka junk science.”

    Anthropogenic climate change is no longer a theory. It is now demonstrable, measurable, and observable.

  13. Davy on Tue, 6th Mar 2018 12:45 pm 

    “United we stand. Divided we will fall.”
    Stupid unimaginative one-liner

  14. onlooker on Tue, 6th Mar 2018 3:47 pm 

    “Man made Climate Change and it’s infinite consequences are the theory that cannot be proved or disproved aka junk science.”—

    I suppose the rapidly melting sea ice in the Arctic is just some freakish temporary weather anomaly not a discernible effect of climate. If you believe that I have some land to sell you on Saturn

  15. jawagord on Tue, 6th Mar 2018 6:24 pm 


    If you think because Arctic Ice is at a 30 year low this proves AGW/CC, well that’s you. At the other pole Antarctica has had some record sea ice coverage this decade. Should we average ice change at the two poles or flip a coin?? It takes a thousand years for the oceans to circulate warm water from the tropics to the arctic and back. So some of the warming in the Arctic today is from water that was heated up 500 years ago. How can anyone prove melting is man made or even apportion part of it to man, for me it’s all guess work and will be until we have 100’s of years of good consistently measured data. So far we have accurate sea ice data from satellites since 1979 which is the proverbial blink of the eye in climatology.

  16. onlooker on Tue, 6th Mar 2018 6:54 pm
    “The Last Time the Arctic Was Ice-Free in the Summer, Modern Humans Didn’t Exist
    The study provides new evidence that the last major gap ended about 2.6 million years ago, after which ice sheets spread southward and humanity’s ancestors began to respond to colder temperatures in Africa, forcing adaptation like the use of stone tools. Humans themselves wouldn’t evolve for more
    than a million more years.”
    CO2 levels this high have also not existed for millions of years. Finally, the pace of change is astonishing in relation to slow pace of geological/climatic changes. One cannot dispute climate change is occurring given this background. And our influence is by any measure substantial

  17. DerHundistlos on Wed, 7th Mar 2018 4:24 am 

    @ Davy

    I’ll be happy to show you my DD-214 you liar. Then I want you to write a public apology.

    Further, you were in the National Guard during college in officer training? What a crock of shit. Show me your DD-214 and I’ll write an apology. You’re a liar.

  18. DerHundistlos on Wed, 7th Mar 2018 4:43 am 

    Liar: Submit a clear copy of your DD-214 to the following address; Upon receipt, I will need to verify with the records center in St. Louis.

  19. Davy on Wed, 7th Mar 2018 5:03 am 

    der hund, I asked if you saw combat otherwise you are not impressing me. Answer the question please or lie.

  20. DerHundistLos on Wed, 7th Mar 2018 7:05 am 

    Still waiting for your DD-214 Liar. Where do I submit my DD-214? Then you will promise to write a public apology that I will write for you. Send me yours, and once I verify the information, you can do the same.

    Otherwise, shut the fuck up already with the back-peddling and talk.

  21. fmr-paultard on Wed, 7th Mar 2018 7:15 am 

    der, still no photographic proof of being probed. No UFOs, case closed.

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