The local is global. Climate change is likely to exacerbate conflicts and areas of instability. The Middle East and North Africa (MENA), an already volatile region, stands to be particularly affected. UK foreign policy needs to improve its awareness of the impact climate change may have on the region and the wider security repercussions.
Climate change has already resulted in a 1°C rise in temperatures compared to the previous century. The UK’s Global Strategic Trends assessment views it as one of the most certain and influential global trends affecting all geographic and policy areas.
The MENA region is no exception. Research has shown that the region will suffer from an even higher number of hot days than it currently is, with warnings of droughts and overall water deficit. There is a risk of these impacts increasing, should the overall warming of the world go beyond 1.5-2°C.
Climate change may be indirectly linked to an increase in conflict, due to it exacerbating pre-existing issues such as resource scarcity, economic issues, and weak governance. Institutions and proper governance are important factors in being able to deal effectively with climate change. Where there is already fragmented governance, states could be further weakened by the consequences of climate change.
There is limited understanding regarding the impact climate change will have on global security, however. This includes a lack of knowledge as to how already vulnerable areas may be affected by climate change itself and how climate change-related instability could aggravate existing tensions or create new instability.
The MENA region is currently experiencing widespread insecurity due to ongoing and systemic violence and unrest. This is exacerbated by self-serving interventionist external powers, such as the Russian intervention in the Syrian conflict, or the Russian and Turkish intervention in Libya’s civil war. Climate change may exacerbate the instability prevalent in the region. Of particular importance is the impact climate change could have on water scarcity, food insecurity, disease, and conflict in the region.
Water scarcity is a pressing issue in the MENA region. Tensions have risen between Turkey, Syria, and Iraq over the Tigris‐Euphrates basin. This is caused by an unequal water flow from the rivers to the three countries, grievances around water management, and the use of water as a way to exert pressure on downstream countries. In North Africa, Ethiopian plans to build a dam on the Nile would have serious consequences for Egyptian agriculture which depends on the river. While discussions over the dam are ongoing, Egypt has previously threatened war with Ethiopia over its construction, and tensions remain high. Additionally, water scarcity would likely lead to increased food insecurity, with consequences being famines or malnutrition, as 70% of the region’s agriculture depends on rainfall, which is projected to decline by 60% should temperatures increase by 4°C.
Climate change could also act as a threat multiplier to countries with weak governance. In Iraq, there are reports the Islamic State (IS) used periods of drought to entice people to join its ranks. In Syria, Libya, and Yemen, populations are already in precarious situations and governments would be either unable or unwilling to alleviate climate change driven issues. This may provide opportunities for non-state groups to take control and spread further instability, as was witnessed with the rise of the IS, facilitated by weak governance in Iraq and Syria.
Climate change fuelled instability and insecurity in MENA will have a direct impact on neighbouring countries and regions, including Europe. This may lead European countries being faced with increased migration. External powers may need to provide humanitarian assistance to populations in response to situations that may be brought, or exacerbated, by climate change, or even requested to intervene in regional conflicts.
Climate change will also impact the rest of the world. Europe, including Britain, will be dealing with its own climate change issues. This raises the question of whether the UK can cope with climate change fuelled difficulties both at home and in other regions.
To address this, the UK must begin early planning and preparation for the impacts of climate change in the MENA region and seek to help reduce climate change driven instability. Preventative measures include helping improve governance, facilitating discussions over water sharing, and aiding the development of policies and strategies focused on coping with the effects of climate change.
Ultimately, the UK’s climate change preparations should also seek to offset the wider impact on global security that could be provoked by climate change-related instability, as both will come hand in hand.
Sarah Grand-Clement is a defence and security policy researcher, and holds an MSc in Arab World Studies from Durham University.