Super Cities №258—How Climate Change Leads to War

Brendan Hart

Many years ago, I had a conversation with a friend about the unfolding crisis in Darfur. At the time, if you believed American news, Darfur was a conflict driven by religion — Muslims against non-Muslims.

But my friend had another take: Darfur was primarily about water, not religion.

He may have been right. A 2016 study details empirical linkages between climate change and conflict:

Our analysis also reveals that, during the period in question, about 23% of conflict outbreaks in ethnically highly fractionalized countries robustly coincide with climatic calamities.

The conditions that lead to war are complicated and multi-faceted: economic, religious, political, criminal, and social .

Now we can add climate to the list of causes. In fact, climate change exasperates all the other causes.

The phrase “threat multiplier” is one that has lived in military-speak for many years. It describes a risk that’s likely to beget other future risks, and was included in the Pentagon’s 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review as a description of climate change risk:

These effects are threat multipliers that will aggravate stressors abroad such as poverty, environmental degradation, political instability, and social tensions – conditions that can enable terrorist activity and other forms of violence.

Since 2014, military leaders have sharply escalated the risk of climate change. A new DoD report made a most dire prediction:

Americans could face a horrifically grim future from climate change involving blackouts, disease, thirst, starvation and war. The study found that the US military itself might also collapse.

The world is getting warmer – or, more precisely, burning.

Ungoverned areas, those ripe for conflict, are expanding. Extremist thinking is reaching large online audiences, radicalizing young men all over the globe. Those in water-starved, economically-limited areas are particularly vulnerable.

To the casual observer, this feels like a constellation of climate-conflict.

As I've explored at length, climate change is particularly knotty because it touches a range of challenges – urbanization, conflict, migration, public budgets, political calculations – that are strange bedfellows.

The horrifying roadshow is coming to a city near you.