Ethnic conflict linked to tragic episodes of civil war, waves of refugees and even the collapse of nation states could be made more likely by climate-related disasters.
A team of European scientists say they can demonstrate, “in a scientifically sound way”, a link between civil violence based on ethnic divisions, and episodes of drought, intense heat or other climate-linked weather extremes.
The latest finding carries lessons for a planet that has yet to confront the demands of climate change.
Researchers who looked at the patterns of political disturbance and climate-related events weren’t especially concerned with climate change: they were looking for connections. And they found one: a demonstrable probability that inter-ethnic divisions could be brought to flashpoint by extended periods of drought.
“Our observations, combined with what we know about increasing climate-change impacts, can help security policy to focus on risk regions”
“Although we do not report evidence that climate-related disasters act as direct triggers of armed conflicts, the disruptive nature of these events seems to play out in ethnically-fractionalised societies in a particularly tragic way,” they conclude.
“This observation has important implications for future security policies as several of the world’s most conflict-prone regions − including North and Central Africa, as well as Central Asia − are exceptionally vulnerable to anthropogenic climate change and are characterised by deep ethnic divides.”
The scientists matched data from the reinsurance group Munich Re − which for decades has been recording disaster-related economic damage on a national level − with records of armed conflict.
They then used a mathematical method of coincidence event analysis to see whether a pattern emerged. And even without any accounting for climate change, there it was: a connection between ethnic bloodshed and climate calamity.
Study leader Carl-Friedrich Schleussner, scientific adviser at the Berlin thinktank Climate Analytics and researcher at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK), says: “Climate disasters are not directly triggering conflict outbreak, but may enhance the risk of a conflict breaking out that is rooted in context-specific circumstances. As intuitive as this might seem, we can now show this in a scientifically sound way.”
His co-author, Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, director of PIK, says: “Armed conflicts are among the biggest threats to people, killing some and forcing others to leave their home and maybe flee to far-away countries. Hence, identifying ethnic divide and natural disasters as enhancing destabilisation risks is potentially quite relevant.
“Human-made climate change will clearly boost heatwaves and regional droughts. Our observations, combined with what we know about increasing climate-change impacts, can help security policy to focus on risk regions.