As out planet heats up, one of the most important intersections we can understand is the relationship between climate change and war. Scientists, advocates and policymakers have argued that in Syria, Yemen, Sudan, and Libya, drought exacerbated existing regional conflicts.
How much more likely war will become amid environmental degradation is the subject of ongoing debate. A new study published in Global Environmental Change on Thursday shows that climate-related crises increased the risk of armed conflict in places that were already experiencing ethnic tension.
Using global statistical analysis, observation data, and regional case study assessments, researchers analyzed conflicts in 50 vulnerable countries with high amounts of ongoing ethnic conflict, low levels of development, and large populations. In these countries, they found that in the past 25 years, almost one in three wars broke out within a week of climate disruptions like heat waves or droughts.
Those types of extreme weather events—particularly heat waves—are becoming more ubiquitous due to rising carbon pollution and its impact on the climate. That doesn’t mean, the authors note, that climate change caused the conflicts they studied to happen. But in areas already on the brink of conflict and without many resources, climate change can act as a threat multiplier, making wars more likely to break out.
The authors cite Mali, a country that faces low rates of economic development, extreme poverty, and political tensions, as one salient example. There, Al-Qaeda exploited the peoples’ desperation to recruit fighters and expand its area of operation after severe drought in 2009. Recent drought in Somalia, they say, had a similarly destabilizing effect on a country already facing widespread political tensions, famine, and poverty.
Research around climate and conflict is ongoing and fraught. Another recent study, for example, has shown that increasing prevalence of drought may actually end reducing conflict because there’s less productive land to fight over.
“It is clear that the roots of these conflicts, as for armed conflicts in general, are case specific and not directly associated with climate-related natural disasters,” the new paper says. “Nevertheless, such disruptive events have the potential to amplify already existing societal tensions and stressors and thus to further destabilize several of the world’s most conflict-prone regions.”
The new findings certainly offer insight for why we should draw down carbon emissions and foster democratic, inclusive societies and a more equal global economy. But even as researchers disentangle the climate-conflict connection, there’s still plenty of reasons we should do all of that sooner than later.