- Current political and economic issues succinctly explained.
Another year of record-high temperatures and extreme weather events around the world has brought the dangers of climate change to the forefront of international politics and made the deliberations of this year’s UN climate conference, COP28, especially critical. At the meeting in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, increased attention should be paid to how climatic changes are affecting political stability, and even making armed conflict more deadly, in the most environmentally vulnerable and insecure regions.* COP28 is a crucial opportunity for leaders to refocus on remediating weak governance and resource-management capacity abroad and to ensure that vulnerable regions are not left behind in the global effort toward climate resilience.
Which regions are experiencing the most harmful effects of climate change?
Some of the most affected regions include Central America, the Horn of Africa, the Sahel, the Bay of Bengal, and the Middle East, according to research conducted by CFR’s Center for Preventive Action. While the parts of the Bay of Bengal, Central America, and the coastal Horn of Africa face intensifying hurricanes, much of the Sahel, the Middle East, and interior East Africa suffer through debilitating droughts and dust storms. Many countries and communities in these areas have little, if any, capacity to absorb the shock of extreme events or improve their adaptive and mitigative systems.
In Bangladesh, hundreds of families have built shelters on “chars,” or the sandbars of major rivers. Storm surges are becoming more common, and displacement of these families along with it. In the Sahel, three decades of drought in the late twentieth century led to more than one hundred thousand deaths from hunger. To make matters worse, the land was unable to absorb water when rainfall suddenly increased: in 2020, 10,000 hectares (24,710 acres) of crops were destroyed by flooding in Niger alone, putting local communities at risk of extreme hunger. Already-marginalized rural laborers in Central America are losing more economic ground as the region’s Dry Corridor gets even dryer, and communal violence among the world’s remote farming and nomadic groups is becoming harder to prevent as viable land for growing and grazing shrinks.
What is the relationship between climate change and instability in these regions?
While there is insufficient evidence that climate change directly induces violence, climatic chaos and environmental stresses serve to multiply existing security threats. In a vicious cycle, armed conflict often has devastating environmental effects.
Both intra- and interstate conflict are worsening due to climatic changes. Civil conflict is becoming more threatening in large countries such as India and Nigeria, where urban social unrest is on the rise as disenfranchised farmers and herders migrate to population centers, changing political and economic landscapes and straining infrastructure. In fractured or weak states such as Honduras, Myanmar, and Somalia, governments struggle to address climate harms in less-industrialized areas, driving communities toward nonstate armed groups that provide basic services in exchange for local support.
Transnational tensions are also mounting in resource-scarce regions where water supplies are declining due to global warming, and neighbors are unwilling to equitably manage the remaining provisions. Countries on the Nile River, especially Egypt and Ethiopia, are in an ongoing dispute triggered by Ethiopia’s construction of a hydroelectric dam that restricts the volume of water flowing north. In Central America, as options for water access are drying up, Guatemala uses its abundance of freshwater to pressure its less resource-rich neighbors to accept unfavorable terms for energy and other market access. In the Middle East, Iraq and Syria are facing water shortages in part due to Turkish dam construction on the Euphrates and Tigris Rivers, and in South Asia, a proposed Chinese dam on the Brahmaputra River threatens to reduce water availability for Bangladesh.
War is always destructive to the environment, but it is even more disruptive when warring parties exploit and deepen resource scarcity put into motion by climate change. Saudi and Emirati bombings of Yemen’s water infrastructure have made otherwise-mitigable water shortages much more deadly, and Israeli forces have destroyed local water-related infrastructure in the West Bank, where people rely largely on aquifer extraction and informal water-collection structures. In Iraq and Syria, sectarian extremist groups have publicly blamed opposing sects for water mismanagement to gain support. Cartels have slashed and burned Nicaraguan forests to grow coca—displacing farmers and depriving the soil of nutrients required for future subsistence farming—and northern Ethiopians were compelled to do the same to their own land when war halted fuel imports. In both cases, the land is now at risk of permanent desertification.
What are the main obstacles to addressing the climate-conflict nexus in vulnerable regions?
One constant challenge is poor governance. State fragility makes it much easier for malign actors to gain influence and territorial control. Cartels and gangs in Central America and extremist organizations across Asia and Africa exploit climate-vulnerable communities in a similar manner. In the absence of meaningful state presence, bad actors can convince individuals who have been marginalized by climatic changes, natural disasters, repression, and violence to join their ranks. Such groups can also gain popular support by providing basic services that states are failing to deliver and by filling local security vacuums. In the Sahel, for example, the success of transnational jihadi groups is more directly linked to popular dissatisfaction with governance than to ideological factors. In parts of Central America especially, corruption and partial state capture by criminal groups prevents states from ameliorating climate harms and violence. Though some governments in the Bay of Bengal are more willing to address climate change than states in other vulnerable regions, their capacity to do so is often limited by a lack of resources.
When vulnerable states are forced by geography to share natural resources, their governments often either fail to effectively manage those resources or openly compete with other states for resource control instead of cooperating. For instance, the countries of Central America have never comprehensively negotiated maritime boundaries in the region’s fishing waters, and the Sahelian states have failed to negotiate a responsible and equitable plan to tap their finite underground aquifers to prevent water scarcity-related disease and death. Combined with climate change–related decreases in water supplies, Turkey and Ethiopia’s efforts to transition to water-powered electrical grids have created resentment among their less-wealthy neighbors. These failures to manage resources lead to interstate tensions and preventable insecurity among especially vulnerable populations.
What are the spillover effects of the climate-conflict threat?
One effect is climate migration, a phenomenon that is often misunderstood: the majority of those displaced by climate shocks and violence remain within their home countries, or at least within their home regions. Internal migration from relatively climate- and conflict-vulnerable areas to more stable areas (generally cities and countries with faster-developing economies) strains local resources and state capacity, increases sectarian and interstate tensions, and sometimes puts migrants’ lives at risk when receiving communities experience their own environmental changes and periods of violence. When migrants travel from their home regions to Europe or the United States, for example, the resulting demographic effects in receiving countries can be correlated with an increased political nationalism and resentment between the higher-income nations collectively known as the Global North and the lower-income nations that compose the Global South. Receiving countries’ tendency to treat climate migrants as a security threat can inflame regional and global tensions, making interstate and political conflict more rather than less likely.
What policy options should world leaders focus on at COP28?
In the grand scheme of international efforts to eliminate conflict and adapt to climate change, world leaders should prioritize managing weak governance and fragility in unstable regions. Top policy recommendations include:
Prioritizing climate-adaptation financing. The most sustainable solution to this complex challenge is to boost vulnerable regions’ adaptive capacity. While mitigation financing has a role to play, adaptation should be at the forefront of international efforts. States are better able to maintain legitimacy throughout their territory when they have the resources to plan for climatic changes, protect their populations from the worst shocks of natural disasters, and build diverse economies that are resilient to environmental change. Adaptation financing is therefore one part of the effort to boost governance. Over time, adaptation will also diminish the push factors for populations motivated to emigrate in the face of climate change and poor state capacity.
Supporting migrants. When people do choose to migrate due to untenable environmental and security conditions, the UN refugee commission, the International Migration Organization, and other multilateral organizations should do more to ease the migration process. For example, they can build more transitional housing and improve safety conditions, assist receiving countries with case prioritization, and provide more assistance for internally displaced people before they cross international borders. Whenever possible, receiving governments should find ways to harness the economic opportunities of immigration and meet the needs of people who have been displaced by climate change and violent conflict.
Empowering local leadership. Local leaders and civil society groups should be given resources to manage climate change and insecurity at the community level. While legitimate local actors are not present in every fragile region, where they are present, they can assist communities and reduce their reliance on weak or unsympathetic state governments. In regions with willing government partners, subregional multilateral organizations, such as the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Coordination and the Pastoral and Environmental Network in the Horn of Africa, should be given support to coordinate adaptive and mitigative efforts. Local governments and communities often view region-specific organizations as more legitimate than international ones, and these organizations can sometimes avoid political paralysis more effectively.
Encouraging and assisting transboundary resource-management efforts. International organizations and regional powers should actively seek to bring states that share natural resources to the negotiating table to help them agree on humane, reasonable resolutions to water- and energy-sharing disputes, and they should be prepared to enforce their agreements.
*Editor’s note: CFR’s Center for Preventive Action recently completed a two-year project, made possible by Carnegie Corporation of New York, that assessed the relationship between climate change and instability in vulnerable regions.