Following a Parliamentary resolution in May, MPs have declared a “climate emergency”. Climate change is still primarily framed as an environmental problem, however. By reframing it as a security threat, policy makers will be better equipped to implement the drastic policies required.
Media outlets and politicians continue to focus on the environmental impacts of climate change: deforestation, rising sea levels, loss of habitat, increasing ocean acidity, drought. But the violent social consequences of these events have been overlooked.
It is increasingly accepted that climate change will diminish resource availability, destabilising political environments and sparking armed conflicts. While experts and commentators have been warning about this for years, mainstream coverage of climate change has yet to acknowledge the security ramifications of these natural disasters, partly due to the difficulty in analysing hypothetical scenarios.
However, we don’t need to turn to hypothetical scenarios to examine the link between climate change and violence. The first climate change war has already occurred in Darfur.
The first ‘climate change war’
The civil war in Darfur, Sudan, was arguably the first modern climate change war. In the 1980s, severe droughts in the region turned previously arable land into dust, leading to crop shortages and the death of livestock. Predominantly Arab Muslim herders were forced to migrate south in search of new pastures. This migration led to conflicts with the Christian farmers in the region over the limited resources. These conflicts over farmland exacerbated ethnic tensions, resulting in the Darfur wars of 1987-90 and 1994-98. By 2003, the intra-state violence had become a civil war, encompassing state, non-state and other ethnic groups.
In 2004, a peace agreement was signed. Drought raged on, however, intensifying the now decades long tensions over access to agricultural resources between the Christian farmers and Muslim herders. The conflict escalated into genocide, with government backing, perpetrated by Arab Muslims against Christian farmers.
Starvation and illness, caused by the extreme food shortages and the conflict itself, resulted in the deaths and displacement of hundreds of thousands of people in the region. Then UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon said of the crisis: “Amid the diverse social and political causes, the Darfur conflict began as an ecological crisis, arising at least in part from climate change”.
Implications for the Region
Darfur illustrates the causal relationship between environmental stress and conflict. This relationship is not deterministic and does not alleviate the responsibility of the perpetrators, but the factors that led to Darfur are not isolated to Sudan. Climate change will continue to limit resources and exacerbate existing social stresses, including poverty, ethnic tensions, and political instability.
Most African nations rely on rain-fed agriculture for their economy and food supply, and 80% of the population of the Horn of Africa relies upon subsistence farming. Added to this, the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre reported that last year alone 5.5m were displaced in the region due to conflict and 2.6m people due to natural disasters, accounting for more than a quarter of all displacements worldwide.
The pattern that emerged in Sudan is repeating in the region. In 2018 armed conflict erupted in Nigeria between herder and farmer groups, aggravated by drought. In a highly populated region like Sub-Saharan Africa, conflicts have high casualty rates and the human cost of climate change can be greatly felt.
The international community is slowly beginning to realise the security ramifications of climate change. In the UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson has accepted the science and the Government has pledged £193m for development aid concerning climate change. There is still a long way to go, however. Johnson’s voting record reveals a more ambivalent position, particularly concerning preventative measures against climate change. With the threat of a ‘no deal’ Brexit looming, structured cooperation between nation states looks set to fracture, risking the much needed international cooperation to combat climate change.
Climate change will not affect all states equally, and a state’s ability to mitigate and adapt to the adverse changes in the environment will depend on its wealth. The countries which will be most impacted by climate change are those with the least political clout in the international system.
To address this, the international community must stop framing climate change as primarily an environmental issue, and emphasise the relationship between climate and security. This altered emphasis could allow the UK to repurpose some of the £36.9bn defence budget to tackle the greatest threat to human security in the 21st Century, namely climate change.
Shona Warren holds a Masters of International Relations from the University of Melbourne and works in international development.