Climate disasters heighten risk of conflict, says study

Anmar Frangoul | Special to
Junior D. Kannah | AFP | Getty Images

Droughts, heat waves and other "climate disasters" enhance the risk of war and conflict in parts of the world with "high ethnic diversity," according to a new study.

In a news release on Tuesday, the Germany-based Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK) said every conflict is borne of a "complex and specific mix of factors." Nevertheless, it found that violence in "ethnically fractionalized countries" was often connected to natural disasters that fuelled social tensions.

"Devastating climate-related natural disasters have a disruptive potential that seems to play out in ethnically fractionalized societies in a particularly tragic way," Carl Schleussner, from policy institute Climate Analytics and the PIK, said in a statement.

"Climate disasters are not directly triggering conflict outbreak, but may enhance the risk of a conflict breaking out which is rooted in context-specific circumstances," Schleussner, who was lead author of the study, added.

"As intuitive as this might seem, we can now show this in a scientifically sound way," he said.

The study -- which used data analysed from several decades and was published in the Proceedings of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences journal -- reported that between 1980 and 2010 around 23 percent of conflict outbreaks in countries described as "ethnically highly fractionalized" robustly coincided with "climatic calamities."

"We think that ethnic divides may serve as a predetermined conflict line when additional stressors like natural disasters kick in, making multi-ethnic countries particularly vulnerable to the effect of such disasters," Jonathan Donges, a co-author of the study, said in a statement on the PIK website.

Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research and another co-author of the study, added that the identification of both ethnic divides and natural disasters as enhancing destabilization risks was "potentially quite relevant."

"Human-made climate change will clearly boost heatwaves and regional droughts," Schellnhuber added.

"Our observations combined with what we know about increasing climate-change impacts can help security policy to focus on risk regions," he said.

The PIK went on to add that regions prone to conflict – such as North Africa, Central Africa and Central Asia – were also "exceptionally vulnerable to human made climate change" as well as being characterized by ethnic divides. "Our study adds evidence of a very special co-benefit of climate stabilization: peace," Schellnhuber said.