ECC Platform Library


The State of the Field in Climate and Conflict

27 April, 2018
Joshua Busby (Center for Climate and Security)

After nearly fifteen years of study, what do we know about the relationship between climate change and conflict? To answer this question, Joshua Busby; Senior Research Fellow at the Center for Climate and Security, focuses on five different causal pathways: agricultural production and food prices, economic growth, migration, disasters, and international and domestic institutions.

After nearly fifteen years of study, what do we know about the relationship between climate change and conflict? I recently attended a Woodrow Wilson Center event organized by the Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO) on the state of the field. Along with Geoff Dabelko, Halvard Buhaug, and Sherri Goodman, I offered my take on the field.

In this blog post, I wanted to focus on five different causal pathways that I think represent the frontier of research on the study of climate and conflict, which include agricultural production and food prices, economic growth, migration, disasters, and international and domestic institutions. The study of climate and conflict is a narrower view on the broader field of climate and security, but it is the one that academics have focused most of their energy on.

In most of these accounts, climate hazards or variability affect the likelihood of conflict either through the effects on livelihoods, state capacity, and/or inter-group tensions. In some accounts, extreme weather or variability lowers the rewards to agriculture and/or other livelihoods and makes rebellion or violence more attractive.  These same processes can also deprive states of tax revenue and undermine their capacity to suppress violence and provide public goods. They can also exacerbate tensions between groups.

Whether climate changes and variability contribute to the increased likelihood of conflict has been the dominant focus of this literature, though I myself have a broader view of what constitutes security. 

The Association between Climate and Conflict is “Contested”

In 2014, the IPCC Fifth Assessment added a chapter on human security for the first time. Human security is a broader concept than just the study of conflict, but the chapter contained an important summary take on the relationship between climate and violence.

"The evidence on the effect of climate change and variability on violence is contested. Although there is little agreement about direct causality, low per capita incomes, economic contraction, and inconsistent state institutions are associated with the incidence of violence."

This was a careful and nuanced statement, behind which captures several subtleties.

First, when they say “violence,” they are signaling an evolution in the field, which started out largely studying the connections between climate and armed conflict, namely civil wars between states and rebel groups but has become broader to focus on communal conflict between social groups to other forms of social contestation such as strikes and riots that can escalate into violence.

Second, the IPCC conclusion that the findings “are contested” reflects some sharp methodological debates between competing camps of scholars. Early findings were inconsistent raising questions about whether scarcity or abundance was a driver of violence. As many are aware, there was a vigorous debate between what I call the Berkeley economists and the PRIO group about the main findings in the field, which largely turned on methodological and modeling assumptions. The Berkeley folks were of the view that you should used fixed effects models and few covariates to ensure that the effects of climate factors are not biased down by the inclusion of variables that themselves are likely affected by climate factors. The PRIO crew by contrast argued for the inclusion of political and social factors as their exclusion likely biases models away from the political factors that our discipline thinks are hugely important. I think we’re finally on the other side of this dispute.

Third, the IPPC statement also signals the recognition that it is important to study the indirect pathways between climate change and violence such as economic contraction and the mediating role played by domestic political institutions. For me, this is the most important turn in the academic discussion because it signals a return to an interest in causal mechanisms and pathways between environmental change and security outcomes, which in my view includes but is not limited to violence.


Causal Pathways


The direct effects between climate and conflict are ambiguous. The study of the indirect and conditional pathways is still nascent.

Agriculture and food prices

Emily Meierding several years ago urged scholars to study the indirect pathways, focusing in particular on the effects on the agricultural sector.  As she suggested, the most important pathways include the effects on agriculture and food prices, which would include work by Halvard Buhaug as well as scholarship by Todd Smith on food price shocks, Cullen Hendrix and Stephan Haggard on economies highly dependent on agriculture, and Nina Von Euxkull et.  al’s article on growing season rainfall shocks and political exclusion. Here, depressed agricultural production can lower the opportunity costs of rebellion, and higher food prices might serve as a source of grievance for consumers.

Economic growth

A second related and understudied pathway is through the effects of climate on conflict through economic growthKoubi et. al’s 2012 paper and her recent article are exceptions. There is also a vigorous empirical debate in economics on the effects of natural disasters on long-run economic growth (with work by Shabnam and Cavallo some examples). That work hasn’t really been connected to the conflict piece as far as I know. Here, climate changes and variability would depress economic growth (perhaps through the effects on agriculture or as a result of disasters), either lowering the opportunity costs of rebellion and/or underming state capacity to suppress violence and provide services. Early work in this space was inconclusive, but I don’t think it was the last wor.


A third underexplored pathway is migration with early empirical work in this space by Koubi et. al and John O’Loughlin.  Most of this work is inconclusive. We have good studies by Salehyan/Gleditisch that suggest that migration can bring newcomers into conflict with long-time residents over limited resources and government programs, potentially leading to conflict as conflicts spillover to neighboring polities.  Early theorizing by Clionadh Raleigh et al. suggested environmental migrants, to the extent this is an identifiable category, might be different from refugees. They argued that many environmental migrants’ movements are likely to be temporary; moreover, their departures might be seen as forced by acts of nature, making them more sympathetic to receiving locations. Moreover, environmental migrants might be so vulnerable that they are less likely to engage in violence.

When we think about specific cases, migration was certainly touted as a driver of conflict in the Syria civil war, though I would argue that this still hasn’t been nailed down. Did the migrants engage in conflict? Did conflict start in response to scarcity pressures made worse by migrants? This is an area that is really hard to study, but we have to be careful about casually connecting migration to conflict.


A fourth channel is the effects of climate disasters on security, with work by Slettebak, Nel and Righarts, Brancati, Bergholt and Lujala. Disasters may lead to conflict through the effects on economic growth or potentially where failed disaster response leads to grievances by affected populations. The findings here are ambiguous, partially a function of whether we distinguish between hazards (as physical phenomena) and disasters (as social outcomes that represent failures of preparation and response). We may also have to distinguish between swift onset hazards such as cyclones and storms from slow onset ones such as drought.

Some work suggests that disasters may precipitate peace rather than conflict, where groups rally around the common challenge of survival, where rebel movements have been too weakened by the disaster to continue the fight, or where the disaster makes a conflict ripe for resolution with targeted and well-distributed aid flows ((Kelman, Enia Egorova and Hendrix). There is also good related work by Quiroz Flores and Smith on disasters and leader survival, whether failed responses to disasters lead to leadership challenges in certain regimes.

Even if we find the disaster-conflict link to be elusive, the human costs on populations and the diversion of military capacity for response together are security threats in their own right.


A fifth area which speaks to the conditional effects of climate change is the role played by domestic and international institutions on  conflict. In terms of domestic institutions, Salehyan and Hendrix’s work splits samples by regime type and/or Polity score.  For their part, Von Euxkull et. al among others focus on the role played by exclusive political institutions.

In the international transboundary waters space, the role played by institutions has loomed large in work by De Stefano et. al and Tir and Stinnett Both find that river basin institutions diminish the risks of conflict by allocating water, planning for shocks, and facilitating dispute resolution.

I see institutions and the supportive role played by interventions, both local and international, as being key intervening factors that may diminish or exacerbate the likelihood of conflict,  depending on how their administered.  Institutions affect the distribution of services, the capacity of response, and whether disputes escalate.

Nearly all of this work has been related to the connections between water and water-related extremes and conflict. I have seen less good scholarship that seeks to get at the causal mechanisms between the correlation between temperature increases and conflict. Some have posited psychological mechanisms, but I’m not persuaded we have advanced very far on moving beyond some correlational evidence linking temperature increases to conflict.

Moreover, most of the debate thus far has focused on conflict onset and whether climate factors make conflict more likely. I think much productive work should focus on how climate effects the dynamics of conflict, moving beyond the obvious effects of recurrent seasonal changes in rainfall and temperature on fighting cycles. Here, I think we can start to think about whether conflicts are prolonged or shortened under certain kinds of climate change.

As methods and data get better, I see efforts to be more precise, to focus on changes in growing season rainfall in particular places and on particular subgroups as von Euxkull and collaborators have done in their recent work.

Final Thoughts: A Return to Qualitative Cases

Qualitative work in this space has not methodologically matured alongside the quantitative literature. Most of the qualitative work I’m familiar with in this space consists of single case studies either in peer-reviewed journals but often in think tank publications that assess whether a particular conflict was made more likely by climate change, whether it be Darfur, Syria, Boko Haram in Nigeria, Somalia. While many of these are quite thoughtful, I’m still reminded of Marc Levy’s 1995 critique of Thomas Homer-Dixon and the first wave of research on environmental security:

"The more logical research strategy under the circumstances would be to compare societies facing similar environmental problems but exhibiting different levels of violent conflict. That would permit some precision in identifying the conditions under which environmental degradation generates violent conflict and when it does not…"(Levy, 1995, p. 57).

Since much of the quantitative literature has focused on direct correlations between climate and conflict with only flitting attempts to specify causal mechanisms, I think we could profit from some focused comparison cases where people seek to match countries or localities on some criteria of physical exposure but different security outcomes.That’s the project I have going on at the moment, which I hope offers a contribution on causal pathways and conditional effects between climate and security outcomes. I say security outcomes because I think much more needs to be done to understand the connections between when climate factors will lead to humanitarian emergencies, whether or not they escalate to conflict. Since those events often require diversion of military assets, domestic and foreign, for relief and response operations, I think those events are the most likely and persistent security threats practitioners have to prepare for. Preparing for those, depending on how it’s done, could also make conflicts less likely in the event of exposure.

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Adaptation & Resilience

All countries will need to adapt to some of the environmental, social and economic impacts of climate change that are already unavoidable. Food security, livelihoods, water resource availability and public health are some affected areas. People living in poverty are more vulnerable, having a lower capacity to adapt. Thus, it is essential to promote resilience building. The adaptation and resilience aspects need to be mainstreamed into planning by policy makers and the private sector as well as integrated into development strategies.

Biodiversity & Livelihoods

Nature protection is most sustainable if it essentially contributes to the long-term stability of human needs. Today many regions around the world are confronted with increasing destruction of the natural foundations of life. The consequences of wide-ranging resource destruction are no longer regionally limited, but rather represent a global threat. Those affected are mainly rural populations, who find the sources of their income and the foundations of their way of life swept away. The depletion and destruction of natural resources goes hand in hand with decreasing agricultural yields and increasing poverty, which in turn forces the affected populations to deplete the remaining resources.

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Capacity Building

On the one hand, conflicts are caused by structural factors, such as economic and social inequality or environmental destruction. On the other hand, conflicts are fuelled by a lack of democratic structures, deficient mechanisms of non-violent conflict settlement, inadequate rule of law, the destruction of social and cultural identity and the disregard of human rights. Against this backdrop, development policies have been dedicated to a broad concept of security, which comprises political, economic, ecological and social stability. As a consequence, development cooperation agencies and actors have developed a broad spectrum of approaches for conflict prevention and transformation as well as for sustainable use of natural resources.

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Civil Society

Civil society is the first victim of environmental pollution, under-development and conflicts. Economically disadvantaged and politically marginalized population groups are particularly affected by violent conflicts as well as increasing resource degradation. Simultaneously, civil society is a fundamental pillar for implementing sustainable development. It contributes in many ways to strengthening conflict prevention and plays a significant role in the peaceful and democratic development of states. It must be supported to strengthen civil rights, adherence to human rights in general and democratic participation.

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Climate action entails an array of economic, social, political and environmental co-benefits. It provides an opportunity for economic growth and new jobs. Many investments can take into account climate considerations without becoming more costly. Further important co-benefits include: improved energy security, less local air and water pollution, health benefits as well as ecosystem and biodiversity protection.

Conflict Transformation

In order to overcome the structural causes of violent conflicts and thus bring about an improvement in the framework conditions for peaceful and fair development, it is essential to have long term and broadly planned peace development and peace advancement. Various governmental and non-governmental, national and international actors and groups are involved in these processes.

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Early Warning & Risk Analysis

The reasons for the development and escalation of conflicts and the incidence of risks are multifaceted and complex. Simultaneously, the assessment of the specific causes in the form of risk and conflict analyses can contribute to a better understanding of these processes and make it possible to provide warning of negative developments, or ideally help prevent them. In the context of natural resource use, risks and conflicts have gained increasing attention in the past years. The debate on possible future water wars is merely one example.

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Environment & Migration

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Forests are disappearing at an alarming rate. Competition for forest resources triggers, exacerbates, or finances numerous crises and conflicts in tropical developing countries. Illegal logging and timber trade foster instability and sometimes violent conflict by strengthening illegal and armed groups, increasing corruption and exacerbating use and claim conflicts among local communities, the state and the business sector. Forests are a vital resource to poor people but they can also become areas of conflict. Sustainable management of forest resources is therefore key to preventing violent conflict over and within forests.

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Gender plays an important role as a category of conflict for many reasons. The interlinkages between gender, environment and conflicts are complex and much research is still needed. Existing insights suggest that conflicts may worsen gender inequalities that existed before the outbreak of violence. The unequal distribution of land property rights in many parts of the world serves as an example. Moreover, women (and children) are among those most affected by both violent conflict and natural disasters. At the same time, women carry much of the burden of trying to implement rehabilitation measures after crisis events.

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Land & Food

Increasing water scarcity, desertification and crop failures due to extreme weather events are becoming more and more of a threat to global food production. While the world’s population continues to grow rapidly, food production is unable to keep pace. Due to the global food crisis in 2008, the number of hungry people reached the symbolic one billion threshold for the first time – corresponding to about 16 percent of world population. Food insecurity may be a consequence or cause of conflicts. Violent conflicts often lead to the destruction of agricultural infrastructure and means of production, as well as to the displacement of local communities.

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Minerals & Mining

In the past, the discovery and tapping of valuable or strategic resources like valuable minerals, oil and natural gas, particularly in developing and emerging countries, has often led to large scale environmental contamination and negative development. The "resource curse" of some countries shows that the wealth from resource yields is frequently unfairly distributed; instead of serving development it advanced the formation of corrupt elites and in some cases even led to conflicts and civil wars. Measures in various sectors and at all levels are important in order to use the potential of these natural resources in a manner that is sustainable and prevents conflicts.

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Private Sector

The spread of violent conflict not only affects people but also companies located in such regions. Destruction of investments and infrastructure, collapse of markets and trade partnerships, flight and expulsion of employees are phenomena of conflicts and environment-induced crises that directly affect companies in unstable regions. Almost all branches of the economy thus have a clear interest in a stable and peaceful environment for their activities. Conversely, the business sector plays an important role in the interaction of economic growth, social development and a healthy environment, all of which can advance peace and sustainable development. 

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Environmental issues have a significant security dimension. Access to, and overuse of, natural resources often play a key role in civil wars or other forms of internal domestic conflict. This is compounded by climate change and environmental degradation. Climate change is now widely recognised as a non-traditional, risk-multiplying threat that will have increasing security impacts. Key risks with possible implications for human and national security include water scarcity, food crises, natural disasters, and displacement. More preventive diplomacy and advocacy is needed to address the strategic implications of climate and environmental change.

Sustainable Transformation

Sustainable Transformation allows societies to profit from a growing, environmentally sustainable and socially inclusive economy – especially in emerging and developing countries. This requires a higher up-front investment, but the benefits of a sustainable transformation in the medium and long term are significant. For instance, energy cost savings and reducing the impact of price volatility offer major incentives for deploying renewable energies and promoting energy efficiency. Such benefits exist in all key sectors of the economy.

Technology & Innovation

Innovations and technologies are already readily available and affordable but their global diffusion and uptake remains a challenge. Innovation and technology are crucial to achieving ambitious climate change mitigation and adaptation targets. However, research and development often do not receive appropriate public support. Developing countries can leapfrog high-carbon industrialisation phases by adopting, deploying and improving existing innovations and technologies. For this, it is essential to minimise financial, administrative and political barriers.


The availability of freshwater resources in sufficient quantity and quality is essential for the preservation of human health and sound ecosystems. The use of water resources is also vital, however, for economic development: whether for agriculture, industrial production or for electricity generation. The world's freshwater resources are distributed very unevenly in terms of geography and seasons. In addition, water shortage is becoming more prevalent in several regions due to population growth, economic development, urbanisation and increasing environmental pollution. Thus, water resources can hold potential for conflicts between parties who have different interests and needs.

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The environment in Asia is already under tremendous pressure as a result of the unsustainable use of land, forests, water and even air in many regions. Climate change will only exacerbate these challenges. Rising sea levels will likely endanger densely populated areas, changes in the monsoon patterns can strongly impact agriculture, melting glaciers will increase long-term water scarcity, and extreme weather events such as heavy rainfall and cyclones can pose further hazards.

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Central America & Caribbean

Natural disasters and water scarcity are key challenges for most of Central America and the Caribbean. These challenges will become even more pronounced as the climate changes. Weak resource and disaster risk management and land disputes pose additional security challenges for large parts of the region. Several countries of Central America and the Caribbean have limited adaptive capacities as they face political instability caused by high social inequality, crime, corruption, and intra-state conflicts.

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As one of the most developed and most densely populated regions in the world, Europe makes heavy use of its resources, resulting in difficult trade-offs and negative consequences for the environment and ecosystems. Land is used for settlements, agriculture and dense infrastructure, creating problems of soil degradation. Water resources are stressed due to unsustainable agricultural practices. Despite nature protection policies, Europe continues to lose biodiversity at an alarming pace. Some of these trends are exacerbated by climate change, which is expected, for instance, to lead to shifts in water availability.

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Global Issues

Resource scarcities, environmental pollution and climate change are not limited by national borders, but often have a transboundary or even global impact. These issues interact with political stability, governance structures and economic performance, and can trigger or worsen disputes and violent conflicts. Exacerbating some of these trends, climate change is likely to lead to the degradation of freshwater resources, declines in food production, increases in storm and flood disasters and environmentally induced migration. All these developments pose potential for conflict.

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Middle East & North Africa

The geopolitical position of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), its fossil fuel resources, high population growth and the political changes spurred by the Arab Spring all make the region one of the most dynamic in the world. Nevertheless, it is also one of the most arid and environmentally stressed. Dwindling water resources, limited arable and grazing land, high pollution from household and industrial waste, remnants of conflicts and increasing desertification are key environmental challenges.

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North America

Climate change has various impacts on the three North American countries of Canada, Mexico and the US. Canada and the US have well-developed adaptive capacities and foster the strengthening of capacities in other regions as well. With high per capita emissions, these two countries also bear a greater responsibility for a changing climate. Mexico has a sound national strategy for climate change adaptation, yet fewer capacities than Canada and the US. The poorer and rural populations of Mexico are especially vulnerable to climate change, due to an increased sensitivity and a lower adaptive capacity.

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Oceania & Pacific

In Oceania, population growth and economic development trends put a strain on oceanic and island ecosystems. Freshwater scarcity, overexploitation of fisheries, loss of land biodiversity, forests and trees, invasive species, soil degradation, increasing levels of settlement, poor management of solid and hazardous waste and disproportionate use of coastal areas are some of the problems. Climate change exacerbates most of these trends, while also raising questions about the future sovereignty of some island states.

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South America

South America has diverse and unique ecosystems and is very rich in biodiversity. Weak natural resource management, land disputes and extreme weather events bring about significant challenges for the region. While South America accounts for relatively few CO2 emissions, the changing climate will alter its ecosystems and greater climate variability will lead to more hurricanes, landslides, and droughts.

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Sub-Saharan Africa

In many African states, environmental security issues rank high on the political agenda. Throughout the continent, countries suffer from water scarcity, food insecurity and energy poverty. These chronic and worsening resource scarcities have severe livelihood implications and are exacerbated by political conflicts over access to and control over these resources. Climate change may seriously threaten political and economic stability in Africa. It may also put a severe strain on the capacities of states and societies to co-ordinate activities, to communicate and to organize.

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