What is the existing empirical evidence linking Climate Change to violent conflict? On 5 March 2019, Gerald A. Moore, a research assistant at the Safety and Violence Initiative, interviewed Professor Michael Brzoska, a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute for Peace Research and Security Policy in Hamburg, who shared his research on the links between Climate Change and violent conflict from a global perspective and its particular relevance to South Africa.
Excerpt from the interview
Question: What motivated you to focus on the links between Climate Change and violent conflict?
Answer: When the Nobel Peace Prize was given to Al Gore at the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in 2007 I thought this was a strange thing. I read the justification for the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize and felt, as someone who has worked on conflict for many years, intellectually challenged by the idea that Climate Change could cause conflict. Moreover, the debate on Climate Change became so prominent that it became quite easy to work on this issue. We could get funding for research.
Question: What aspects of the Climate Change and conflict nexus have you worked on, and why?
Answer: Firstly, I worked on the issue of Securitisation, especially: why it is so that people are finding it a major issue that Climate Change may lead to conflict when the academic evidence is so weak? I have worked on Securitisation Theory before, which tries to explain that security and conflict are so essential to peoples’ lives that when you can make the argument that some policy area is linked to violent conflict then people pay more attention. This is what I can also see in the Climate Change debate.
Secondly, the Securitisation Theory will argue that when the ‘security argument’ is made this also allows for very radical measures. Measures that are not possible if you are not stimulating this particularly strong interest in an issue area. I did not find this in the Climate Change field. The Climate Change field remained within normal politics. There was no extraordinary politics. I wrote about this also.
Thirdly, I also wrote about particular conflicts, namely, the Darfur Conflict and the conflicts following the Arab Spring. Lately, I focused on doing quantitative work on many disasters, using a statistical technology called ‘Event Coincidence Analysis’, where one tries to statistically determine whether or not there is a link between two variables and, in this case: disasters and violent conflict.
Question: In your view, what are the key linkages between Climate Change and violent conflict, and are there any causal relationships?
Answer: One has to look at both structural conditions and dynamics. Among the structural conditions, I would argue three are standing out 1.) material resources in terms of the level of poverty, economic opportunities, and unemployment are key factors increasing the likelihood of conflict (i.e. a probabilistic relationship); 2.) if identities (e.g. ethnic) are strong, these increase the likelihood of armed conflict (i.e. a probabilistic correlation); and 3.) the extent of environmental change that is brought about by Climate Change. These dynamics have a lot to do with grievances but also opportunities. Grievances in the sense that people feel excluded and, in terms of the opportunity question, in providing the people with the resources that actually started the violence or that continued the violence, and led governments to become more oppressive.
Question: Which parts of the world are most vulnerable to the Climate Change-conflict nexus?
Answer: I would argue that it is those areas where the share of agricultural activity in GDP is very high, where poverty levels are high, and where we have a lot of identity problems. These are then aggravated by the third factor, namely, the extent of Climate Change. Because of the first two factors, most people would argue that large regions in Africa are more likely to experience conflict as a result of Climate Change. This is not because Climate Change is less intense in Latin America or in Asia, but because these other conditions are worse than in other parts.
Question: Do you think Climate Change has the potential to contribute to violence in South Africa, and why? What could South Africans do to mitigate the effects of the Climate Change-conflict nexus?
Answer: It is more on the level of crime than armed violence in the sense of organised violence. Living conditions are in some parts getting worse because of drought. People are moving to the cities. I can say yes but I cannot say with any scientific evidence. Because there are many connections between Climate Change and armed conflict, there are also many ways in which it can be changed through policy measures … [Firstly, when] it comes to the ecological effects of Climate Change, there is the whole policy area of disaster-risk reduction where people try to reduce the effects of extreme weather events on people through building resilience. Secondly, there are a whole range of policy measures (e.g. conflict prevention) that are geared towards reducing the likelihood that conflict in the sense of differences of opinion and views escalate to violence. There is also migration management that has to do a lot with humanitarian assistance. In the area of development policies, the question of fighting unemployment and increasing the livelihood of people is the main objective.
The Climate Change-conflict nexus sheds important light on how Climate Change may result in conflict in the South African context. Firstly, in terms of the extent of Climate Change in the South African context, Southern Africa is considered a ‘hotspot’ by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). This means that Climate Change, as a ‘risk multiplier’ in the South African context, will – relatively-speaking – be more extreme, with water being “the primary medium through which the impacts of Climate Change are being felt in South Africa according to the National Water Resource Strategy” (Department of Water Affairs, 2013, quoted in DEA, 2017).
Secondly, Climate Change is projected to have an impact on South Africa’s natural resources, namely, its biodiversity, forestry, agriculture, and marine sectors. Many parts of the country remain drought disaster zones, with the hardest-hit areas being the Karoo and the Western coast. In terms of the links between the lack of material resources due to Climate Change and conflict, the water crisis in the Karoo is cited as one such potential political (and racial) fault-line, characterised by “an ongoing, bitter stand-off between municipal officials and local farmers” (Jordan & Cornelius, 2015). This brings us to the third point.
Existing literature also, thirdly, unpacks the links between Climate Change as a ‘threat multiplier’ for identity-based conflicts in South(ern) African conflicts. Moreover, partly due to the intersections between race, age, class and gender in the South African context, research stresses that certain sectors of South African society will be disproportionately impacted by the effects of Climate Change. By way of illustration, in a study conducted by UNICEF entitled Exploring the Impact of Climate Change on Children in South Africa, the authors examine “the likely impact of Climate Change on children’s health, education, nutrition, safety and access to adequate housing and sanitation in South Africa – both directly and indirectly” (UNICEF, 2011).
In the final analysis, mitigating the effects of the Climate Change-conflict nexus in the South African context cannot be understood in isolation from South Africa’s developmental agenda in relation to the eradication of poverty, unemployment and inequality.
Department of Environmental Affairs (DEA). 2017. South Africa’s 2nd Annual Climate Change Report 2016. Available here.
Jordan, B. & Cornelius, J. 2015. 'Blood will flow' in Karoo town's war over water. Available here.
Ngcobo, Z. Intergovernmental Panel Says Southern Africa a Climate Change Hotspot. Available here.
UNICEF. 2011. Exploring the Impact of Climate Change on Children in South Africa. Pretoria: UNICEF South Africa