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On Climate and Conflict: Getting Past Assumptions

A growing line of research reveals that climate change does not indirectly initiate new conflict but exacerbates existing conflicts or social tensions instead.

Colonial Era Europeans once thought the West African Sahel was a degraded ecology. After seeing the lush tropical forests of the southern West African coast, they assumed that human mismanagement—overgrazing, over production of the soil, and overpopulation—caused ecological collapse. They based this conclusion on their racist assumptions about Africans. In reality, the Sahel was once home to the greatest empires of West Africa—the Ghana, Mali, and Songhay empires. It was colonial Europeans’ violent arrival that shifted the zone of economic opportunity from the Sahel to the southern coast, which ultimately destabilized the interior before the Europeans made it to the edge of the desert.

However, the narrative that the Sahel is a degraded ecology persisted well into the 20th century. Even though the premise has been debunked through rigorous climatological, ecological, and anthropological research, the narrative has shaped how the international community has at times engaged the region, including in the early 2000s when aid organizations claimed a famine was devastating Niger. People on the ground contested the existence of a famine, arguing that the narrative rested on assumptions from the Colonial Era, and that the unnecessary food aid depressed local grain markets and caused greater poverty.

Being aware of our assumptions is vital as we grapple with understanding the complexity of human-ecological systems, such as climate change and whether it causes conflict. As the UN Climate Change Secretariat stresses, over-simplification around the complicated and context-specific relationship between climate change and conflict “may lead to inappropriate or ineffective action.” Basing solutions to climate change and conflict on assumptions runs the risk of repeating the mistakes and unintended effects of unnecessary aid to West Africa. To help disentangle assumptions from evidence, Dexis recently completed a literature review of peer-reviewed research investigating the causal links between climate change and conflict.

Climate Change’s Effects

Certain impacts are inevitable given the catalytic and delayed effects of current and near-term warming. We can expect to see heightened vulnerability of human populations that are particularly dependent on coastal ecosystems, ice, and seasonal rivers. Increased frequency, intensity, and severity of droughts, floods, and heatwaves and continued sea level rise will put pressure on food production and access. Severely diminished freshwater availability will affect agriculture, hydropower, and human settlements, while heavy precipitation and flooding, tropical cyclones, drought, and sea level rise will contribute to mid- to long-term displacement of populations, especially more vulnerable groups, which in turn put pression on economic, social, and governmental resources.

The question then becomes whether and how these effects will lead to conflict.

Direct vs. Indirect Causality

Those researching this question fall into two camps: those proposing that climate change directly causes conflict and those proposing that it indirectly causes conflict. The first camp investigating the direct causal links argues that climate change acts through (1) physiological and/or psychological pathways or (2) resource pathways. They propose that increasing temperature increases the likelihood of conflict or that reduced resources lead to increased competition within and across groups. However, research in the direct causal camp relies on strictly quantitative analysis that ignores known drivers of conflict and cannot account for the mitigating effects of international agreements or humanitarian assistance. Critics have shown how findings are heavily influenced by the statistical models of the analyses.

There is scientific consensus that, instead, climate change acts on conflict through indirect mechanisms. This camp of research proposing indirect causality argues that climate change acts on conflict through (1) economic, (2) social, and (3) institutional pathways. Such identified pathways include: (1) how rain fall influences agricultural, livestock production, and maritime resources lead to greater competition within formal and informal markets; (2) how climate shocks, natural disasters, and reduced economic resources force migration, causing strain between new and larger populations; how rainfall patterns impact rebel and terrorist activities and militaries countermeasures; and (3) how dwindling transboundary water resources strain international agreements and cause tension between states.

There are several strengths to the indirect causality research. They do not assume that pathways are static. They highlight that pathways are highly contextual to the research context and may vary over time as human systems change. Most importantly, the body of evidence has shown that climate change does not spark new conflict but increases the duration and intensity of existing conflict. Research confirms that climate change is a threat multiplier, exacerbating existing historical, social, and geopolitical tensions and clashes.

Charting the Way Forward

There are a few methodological shortcomings to the indirect causality literature that help to chart a way forward. For one, there is an analytical focus on former British colonies—East Africa, the Middle East and North Africa, and Southeast Asia. More research is required in more diverse geographic locations, including urban centers, that experience more than just reduced rainfall.

Related, critics have suggested that there are likely other types of pathways that should be investigated. Perhaps the most significant shortcoming is the lack of a theoretical framework, which would facilitate comparative analysis. What is needed is a framework that can be applied to a wide variety of climatological, ecological, and anthropological settings.

The right framework can aid development actors in disentangling this very complex problem set and provide direction for informed action. It would allow us to compare studies across geographies and scales—leading to synthesis and contributing to high level programmatic and policy recommendations.

Dexis is in the midst of developing such a theoretical framework to guide future research, including the ability to aggregate and synthesize other teams’ research and inform program and policy direction. Our team is internally reviewing and applying new research efforts to test our framework and beginning to think through how it can be applied to our clients’ needs. To engage with our ongoing work in this area, please contact info@dexisonline.com.


Dr. Porter Bourie is Dexis’ Senior Technical Advisor and experienced monitoring and evaluation (M&E) professional, supporting Dexis’ Department of State work. Dr. Bourie earned his PhD in cultural anthropology having researched how local knowledge of climate change influenced the success of USAID water management projects in Burkina Faso. He has been engaged in climate change-related work since his time as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Togo (2004-2006).