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Climate change raises conflict concerns

The effects of global warming on the world’s physical landscape often lead to geopolitical changes that threaten to destabilize already vulnerable regions, like the Horn of Africa. The stresses on natural resources undermine the capacity of nations to govern themselves, and increase the chances of conflicts. When compared to other drivers of international security risks, climate change can be modelled with a relatively high degree of certainty. But between predicting and preparing, there is still a long way to go.

Caitlin E. Werrell and Francesco Femia

The current rate of climate change – higher seas, decreased ice in the Arctic, melting glaciers, extreme rainfall variability, and more frequent and intense storms – are scenarios that settled human societies have never experienced before. These dynamics will impact the foundational resources that people, nations – and the world order built on those nations – depend on for survival, security and prosperity: particularly food and water. These impacts are already contributing to increased state fragility and security problems in key regions around the world – conflict in the Middle East and Africa, tensions over fisheries in the South China Sea, and a new political and economic battleground in a melting Arctic Ocean.

Climate change, by altering the world’s physical landscape, is also changing its geopolitical landscape. If governments are unable to mitigate this, the risks of conflict and instability will increase, and become more difficult to manage. This is the case in many regions around the globe. However, the Horn of Africa is particularly vulnerable, given a combination of structural fragilities and the significant exposure to climate change risks. This raises the likelihood of conflict and instability on the peninsula.

A fragile epicentre

Over time, climate change stresses on natural resources – combined with demographic, economic and political pressures on those resources – can degrade a nation’s capacity to govern itself. This includes its ability to meet its citizens’ demands for basic resources – like food, water, energy and employment – also known as its output legitimacy. The threat to output legitimacy can contribute to state fragility, internal conflict, and even state collapse. Seen through this lens, climate change may present a serious challenge to state stability and legitimacy in the Horn of Africa – a region already grappling with numerous challenges before climate change became a factor.

These challenges have recently been confirmed by the United Nations Security Council in a January 2018 Statement by its President(link is external): “The Security Council recognises the adverse effects of climate change and ecological changes among other factors on the stability of West Africa and the Sahel region, including through drought, desertification, land degradation and food insecurity, and emphasizes the need for adequate risk assessments and risk management strategies by governments and the United Nations relating to these factors.”

According to the Fragile States Index of The Fund for Peace(link is external), the Horn of Africa includes some of the most vulnerable states in the world – Somalia, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Kenya, Sudan and South Sudan. The region also exhibits some of the clearest indications of a connection between climate change and conflict – namely, conflicts between agricultural and pastoral communities precipitated by climate-exacerbated droughts and water variabilit