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Why climate change could spark conflict

by Jack Graham | @jacktgraham | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Thursday, 21 July 2022 10:00 GMT

A helicopter makes a drop to tackle a wildfire as Spain experiences its second heatwave of the year, in Faramontanos de Tabara, Spain, July 19, 2022. REUTERS/Borja Suarez

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Climate hazards such as heatwaves and droughts could exacerbate security risks worldwide, says new report by Verisk Maplecroft

By Jack Graham

LONDON, July 20 (Thomson Reuters Foundation)- From record-breaking and deadly heatwaves in western Europe to a severe drought in the Horn of Africa, the impacts of climate change are becoming increasingly clear and concerning.

But experts say insufficient attention is being paid to the knock-on effects of extreme weather events, and warn that they could jeopardise already fragile political stability around the globe by fuelling mass migration, food insecurity, and conflict.

Climate hazards even threaten to destabilise powerful players such as China and Brazil, which could have severe consequences for the rest of the world, according to a new report by risk consultancy Verisk Maplecroft.

So how can intensifying climate change hike these risks, and what can be done in response?

How do climate risks affect global stability?

As the impacts of climate change become more severe, they are expected to lead to "cascading" risks around the world.

This means they trigger chains of events which can eventually lead to political and economic turmoil.

For example, climate change can damage agricultural livelihoods, forcing farmers to abandon their land and move to cities. That may lead to urban overcrowding and pressure on infrastructure, which can in turn fuel civil unrest.

Climate-related pressures act as a catalyst for complex social and political issues which might already be "bubbling under" in countries, said the report's lead author Will Nichols.

"The very nature of these risks make them quite difficult to define and plan for," he said, urging governments and companies to put more effort into understanding them.

Which parts of the world are most vulnerable?

The report judges the vulnerability of 196 countries across 32 issues - including their exposure to climate hazards, natural resource security and poverty levels - using its own risk data along with information from sources like the World Bank.

It categorises countries into three groups: "insulated" nations that are most resilient to cascading risks; those which are most "vulnerable"; and "precarious" countries in between.

Green "precarious" countries are under threat of joining the red "vulnerable" grouping

The "vulnerable" group broadly consists of developing nations in Africa and Asia which are bearing the brunt of climate impacts.

The "insulated" group, of predominantly wealthier countries in Europe and North America, are strengthened by factors such as food security, strong governance and robust social policies.

Will climate change lead to geopolitical struggles and war?

The report pays particular attention to "precarious" countries, such as Brazil, Russia and Saudi Arabia, because of their global geopolitical importance.

Nichols said these nations have fractures that could weaken their response against large-scale emerging threats.

"The political situation in a country can change very quickly," he said. "There's countries like Brazil, for example, that are very close to teetering into that bottom category."

In Brazil, the report says the decline in good governance under far-right President Jair Bolsonaro could reduce the nation's resilience in the face of worsening climate impacts, with much riding on October's election.

Especially considering the global influence of these major economies, experts say climate threats could have a significant impact on international affairs.

"No matter what international security issue you care about, climate change will affect it in some way," said Erin Sikorsky, director of the U.S.-based Center for Climate and Security.

While it is "overly simplistic" to say that climate change directly causes war, it can amplify the risk and make conflict more likely, she added.

So how can countries strengthen resilience?

The report says countries need to build up safeguards by improving healthcare, reducing corruption and strengthening human rights, among other things.

Besides measures such as heat-resistant wheat or flood defences, Sikorsky said the key to building stability and avoiding division is strong governance - which helps to build trust in society.

Losing safeguards can make a country less resilient to significant cascading risks

It is in the security interest of Global North countries like the United States to invest in developing nations' ability to adapt to climate change, she said, as well as cutting planet-warming emissions to stave off the worst impacts.

"You could get to a point where the climate shocks are so intense that they overwhelm even what are considered strong governments," Sikorsky said.

"You don't want to get to that catastrophic place."

Related stories:

How is the U.S. military preparing for rising climate security risks?

Climate migration fuels conflicts in Bay of Bengal region

Indian droughts and cyclones fuel trafficking fears for climate migrants

(Reporting by Jack Graham; Editing by Kieran Guilbert and Megan Rowling. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)

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