Since ancient times, hunger has led to conflict. But now, a recent study confirms the connection between climate change and armed violence around the world — plus how governments can avoid it.
The research comes out of Uppsala University in Sweden and the Peace Research Institute in Norway, and is part of an ongoing movement to understand how climate change affects security. In 2015, the US Department of Defense released a report suggesting that severe weather events may tip states “toward systemic breakdown,” but the Uppsala study drives the point home with refined statistical evidence.
Looking at 25 years of data collected from Africa and Asia between 1989 and 2014, the study found that droughts worsened by climate change don’t bring new violence into communities, but they can exacerbate and drag out conflict for marginalized groups who depend on farming for survival.
“[This] is the most advanced, detailed and complex, textured analysis,” said Ellen Messer, an anthropologist and food policy expert affiliated with Tufts, Brandeis, and Boston University. “Knowing that drought can affect agriculture, food security, livelihoods — social and political instability — the world still doesn’t respond appropriately.”
One example is the ongoing rebellion in Ethiopia, where hundreds of antigovernment protesters have died in recent years. The conflict stems back to 2014, when the Ethiopian government announced its “Master Plan” to develop farmland used by Oromo people, an agrarian minority group with little political power. Now, hungry from withering crops and drought, Oromo people continue to fight back. As their political marginalization continued to go unaddressed, hunger may have become the last straw.
“[Ethiopia] fits the pattern of high agricultural dependence, a conflict that has happened for a long time, marginalization, and then last year’s drought,” said Nina von Uxkell, an assistant professor at Uppsala University and a lead member of the study. “It leads to an increasing level of protest and unrest.”
One takeaway: Governments that want to avoid or resolve armed conflict should patch up other parts of their society — “conditioning factors” such as political exclusion or economic turmoil — before climate change becomes the tipping point. It’s all about softening other issues so that people can cope.
“It really depends on how well the leadership can cater to the needs of all the population,” Messer said. “Those who might have an opportunity to nudge governments to be more inclusive should be constantly and ever more vigilant.”