Climate change and conflict: the tail wagging the dog or new, cascading tensions and inequalities?

Author:Denton, Fatima



The Paris Agreement adopted at the 21st Conference of the Parties (COP 21) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, held in December 2015, heralds a new dawn in the evolution of our efforts to mitigate the adverse consequences of climate change. In many ways, it clearly indicates how climate change-related policies have shifted from the narrow prism of environmental concerns to a new world order where the transition to a low carbon development is replete with economic, social and cultural ramifications. (1)

With 196 countries all calling for a move towards a non-fossil fuel-based economy, it is clear that climate change not only threatens economic prosperity, but also the very foundations of sustainable development. The Paris Agreement magnifies the grave economic risks we face if we continue on a business-as-usual trajectory with a seemingly insatiable appetite for fossil fuels as the main driver of growth. Equally, it opens up new avenues of potential economic prosperity, enabling countries to design infrastructure for low carbon development through greater access to energy. The scale and speed required for action are limited, however, as the window of opportunity will not stay ajar. (2)

What will this new agreement mean for populations on the fringes of development? Will it exacerbate growing inequalities? Are there new opportunities to be seized? Can the new agreement usher in a more egalitarian approach to energy and water access? Will vulnerable groups profit from new investment flows or will finance and other climate change responses constitute new ground for conflict among resource-dependent communities?

Economic growth tends to create winners and losers, and depending on the scale of loss, tensions can flare up alongside parallel drivers of disempowerment, vulnerability and disenfranchisement. In Africa, where livelihoods and income are heavily dependent on raw commodities, but where resources such as water, land and forests are concomitantly pillaged, the propensity for conflict is magnified. The correlation between climate change and conflict is often conflated to dwindling natural resources, but it can be difficult to substantiate this as the main driver of conflict between social groups. In short, there is no direct relationship between climate change and conflict. (3) Climate change is often seen only as an additional stressor in regions of prolonged conflict, as witnessed in Darfur. (4) Indeed, we must further develop the learning process and examine new routes to help determine the correlation between climate change and conflict, while more empiricism is needed to triangulate natural resource management, climate change and conflict.

This article sets out three interrelated arguments. First, that climate change threatens human security, bringing multiple vulnerabilities and exacerbating existing social tensions. Second, that climate change creates new forms of disempowerment that drive resource-dependent communities to tipping points beyond their coping thresholds, producing new forms of conflict. Third, that climate change has unearthed the urgency for responses that are "fit for purpose", able to cope with the magnitude, speed and pace of change. Meanwhile, climate change has eroded the rights of traditional institutions once perceived as primary managers of environmental assets...

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